Mason's serves up boozy beer and brats
Even the chicken wings are thoughtfully prepared. Take a peek at more photos from Mason's...
Benjamin Carter Grimes
Beer or booze? Your tipple of choice often determines the kind of night you're about to embark upon or will color the type of evening you're capping off, so generally you pick one and stick with it. But then there are times when you find yourself wishing for an in-between option, one that isn't of the "drop-a-shot-glass-and-chug" variety. Well, the folks running the bar program at Mason's Restaurant and Barre in the Cowles Center for Performing Arts have brokered such a marriage, a sort of opposites-attract of malted and distilled spirits.
Though bar manager Jennifer Geisheker and owner Lucas Miller wisely resisted the urge to assign their boozy beers some gimmicky portmanteau (Boorze? Or beerooze?), these concoctions are an inspired move, capitalizing on the massive popularity of craft beer as well as our ever-evolving craft cocktail scene. Miller did point out that Mason's cocktails were all designed to be mixed quickly. "You won't see us breaking out an eye dropper every time you order a drink," he says. The list of boozy beers includes the Bluegrass, which is Deschutes Black Butte porter spiked with bourbon, cherry bitters, and a drizzle of local maple syrup. It's equal parts smoky, husky, and resinous, but takes some getting used to — a porter on ice sipped through a straw. Then there's the Border Beer, your basic spring break in a glass, made with Dos Equis, a shot of mezcal (think of it as tequila's quirkier, earthier cousin), and a bit of lime juice served in a chile-salt-rimmed glass. And for drinkable dessert, there's the Black Raspberry, a creamy-headed Guinness with a dose of Chambord.
The boozy beers are definitely worth a try, but that's just one small part of what Mason's does. Its stadium-adjacent, smack-in-the-middle-of-downtown location and the fact that it's on the ground floor of a building full of ballet studios (that's what the "barre" part of the name refers to) means Mason's had to figure out a way to cater to everyone who might walk through its doors, which basically means operating around the clock. "I like to say 'yes,'" says Miller, who spent the past two decades opening restaurants, nightclubs, and hotels all over the map from Chicago to Mexico. "But when I say 'yes' to something, I make it my business to follow through," he says. So when customers came in for coffee and started asking about breakfast, he figured out a way to add breakfast. And when they wanted to get food to go, he created a takeaway area. "I want people to come here for a lunch meeting and then come back for happy hour when the workday is over," Miller says.
Whether you're looking for a sit-down cafe with pastries, full weekend brunch with punchy, peppery bloody Marys, on-the-run simple sandwiches, sidewalk patio drinks (12 beers on tap and a long list of specialty cocktails in addition to those boozy beers), or a pre-show dinner with Grandma and kids in the tucked-away dining room, there's certainly space in this old Masonic building to allow different crowds to have different experiences. But Miller says the concept, branding, and look of Mason's really came together through the process of rehabbing the bar, which may look familiar if you frequented the 400 Bar. Miller had the foresight to snag the old redwood-topped bar when the iconic club closed at the end of last year and gave it new life as the impressive centerpiece of Mason's main room. "We had to strip off about 80 years of booze and cigarettes, but underneath the plywood we found this sunburst design and these big M's on either side, and that's where our logo and name came from," he says. "Once we peeled all that back and really stood in the space, the other pieces just started to fall into place."
A focus on having strong foundations and preserving these little bits of local history also helped shape their "all comfort, no fluff" philosophy, a mission that extends to Mason's menu. It's heavy on the appetizers and burger and brat-type fare, but everything is thoughtfully prepared, responsibly sourced (they use Hereford beef and turkey from Wild Acres), and designed to make you happy. I can't say any of the dishes I tried went into bold new territory, but there are many little touches that set Mason's apart from their competitors, especially if you're looking for a classy place to pre-game that isn't crazy expensive. They make their own potato chips, tortilla chips, and tater tots (which were not quite cooked in the middle and reminded me more of a big, cylindrical latke with thick shreds of potato and some vegetables sneaked in the mix); do their own beer-boiled corned beef (gold star to our attentive server for alerting a gluten-intolerant diner to that detail) for an admirable Reuben sandwich that comes on rich pumpernickel; offer daily-changing entrees such as roasted half chicken with buttery baby red potatoes and summer squash that was well seasoned and could easily feed two for $14; and some solid lighter options like the crispy grilled flatbread topped simply with some high-quality super-fresh mozzarella, basil, and fruity aged balsamic vinegar.
Mason's head chef, Andrew Ernst, started out at Bryant-Lake Bowl and Red Stag Supper Club, training that's served him well in this environment. You can see little relics from his time at Kim Bartmann's restaurants from the crispy fried fish, beet, and arugula salad and breadcrumb-topped mature mac-and-cheese, but it seems he is putting the grill at the core of Mason's kitchen. Hereford beef burgers on lofty, lovely buns from New French bakery are finished with things such as spicy pickled peppers, crispy fried onions, and their own kinda-sorta Asian barbecue sauce that's a little gingery and a little citrusy. Big meaty Italian sausages and brats get matched with glossy pretzel rolls or poppy seed buns. You can opt to dress them up with mustard, cheese, pulled pork (yes, a Cuban dog), or housemade Coney sauce that's somewhere between no-bean chili and a thinned-out Sloppy Joe filling.
It's not ground-shaking, but Mason's is serving a huge array of customers at all times of day and seeming to do so with great success. During all visits we were comfortable, taken care of, and never had to shove past anyone to get to the bar, even during the pre-game hour. Just like the building that houses it, Mason's strength comes from its solid foundation. It's the little piggy that built his house with bricks ... and then became delicious pork osso buco.
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