By Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor Published Oct 11, 2011 at 9:02 AM Photography: David Bernacchi

"Great beer deserves great food" is the slogan of the Rumpus Room, the new Bartolotta Restaurant Group venture that opens tonight in the Water Street space previously occupied by Eagan's.

The second half of that statement has described Bartolotta eateries since the first opened in 1993. But the restaurants brothers Joe and Paul Bartolotta own are known for their wine lists and cocktails. Beer has not been in the spotlight – until now.

The Rumpus Room is a traditional English gastropub with 25 beers on tap and 150 more domestic, craft and rare brews behind the bar. The range of choices runs from Pabst Blue Ribbon tall boy cans ($3.50) and a tasty Edmund Fitzgerald porter from Cleveland's Great Lakes Brewing ($5) to a deliciously rich Nogne O Imperial Brown Ale on tap from Norway ($12) and an $8 draught Hefe-weiss produced by Germany's Weihenstephan, the world's oldest working brewery. Weihenstephan received its license to brew beer in 1040.

If you want to drop some large bills on a beer, you can order a 750ml bottle of Sam Adams Utopias for $265. Its alcohol by volume is 27 percent.

Beer flights that feature four small glasses are divided into Wisconsin brews ($7), California products ($8) and suds from around the world ($12). The Rumpus Room also offers engine beers, which are drawn with a hand pump rather than the conventional tapping paraphernalia. They are typically less carbonated and less filling.

Folks who prefer grapes to hops will not be ignored at the new pub and restaurant. Fifty bottles of wine are priced under $50, and four different wine flights ($18) include a dessert offering that consists of Caposaldo Moscato D'Asti, Barton and Guestier Sauternes, Graham's 10 Tawny Port and Justin Vineyards late harvest Cabernet Sauvignon.

An emphasis on dessert wines is designed to draw customers into the Rumpus Room after performances at the nearby Marcus Center and Milwaukee Rep Baker Theater Complex. "Eagan's was empty after 7:30," Joe Bartolotta recently said, referring to that restaurant's heavy pre-show trade. He wants to avoid that pattern.

For those with a hankering for the hard stuff, the new venture stocks 90 different bourbons, 75 Scotches, 50 whiskies, 50 rums and 25 ryes.

The Rumpus Room is also barrel aging cocktails. That means the entire drink gets to swish around in a barrel for a while.

Two whisky flights – from Midwestern distillers for $12, and Canadian, Irish, Indian and Japanese producers for $14 – are offered.

But enough about the booze. This is a Bartolotta establishment and the beer, spirits and wine are not going to be accompanied by simple hot wings and tater tots. Andrew Ruiz, who has been the chef de cuisine at Bacchus, is moving over to run the Rumpus Room kitchen as executive chef.

Bar snacks include home-made spiced corn nuts ($2), house pickled veggies ($3) and oysters on the half shell ($2.50 each). Ten different cheeses and six cured meats are offered at $3 a piece, and a charcuterie section of the menu lists country pork pate ($5), pork rillettes ($5), duck rillettes with with cherry preserves ($7) and duck liver mousse ($6).

Pork belly confit with white beans and gremolata, chopped chicken liver with caramelized onions, hard boiled egg and challah, and grits with smoked ham, poached egg and pickled onions (all $8) are among the appetizers served. Several soups and salads are on the menu, and a selection of sandwiches includes a muffalatta ($9), Usinger's spiral Italian sausage with marinated peppers and mustard dressing ($8), and a pork belly, lettuce, tomato and aioli on sourdough toast ($9). Fries or small side salad accompany the sammies.

The most expensive entree on the menu is a bone-in ribeye with steak fries escarole and brown butter Hollandaise, priced at $32. Beer-battered fish and chips is $17, veal meatloaf with house-made barbecue sauce and mashed root vegetable is $18, and "Bangers 'n' Kraut," consisting of Usinger's pork kielbasa, apple-bacon sauerkraut and Yukon potatoes, goes for $16.

A daily pasta special is being offered, and other entrees include sea bass, sea scallops, pork schnitzel and fried chicken.

The Rumpus Room is open only for dinner for a few weeks. Lunch will be added Nov. 8.

Co-owner Joe Bartolotta is very frank about the reasoning behind the new eatery. "This is a different venture for our company," he said. "Primarily, we don't get a large percentage younger people coming into our restaurants.

"Our customers are 45 to 75. My market is aging, growing older. They are moving to Arizona and Florida.

"They are falling off the back end of my business model. We are hoping the Rumpus Room brings in younger people and pollinates our other restaurants."

Bartolotta thinks the new venture has enough high-end finishes to make the group's traditional customers comfortable. But he is definitely seeking a different vibe and notes his company has five other restaurants for anyone in the older demographic who is put off by a rumpus.

"I've put my heart and soul into this," the co-owner continued. The personal investment begins with the restaurant's name, which is a tribute to his father, T.J. Bartolotta, who owned a tavern called the Rumpus Room on 29th and North in the late 1950s and early '60s. As a young child, Joe occasionally visited his dad's saloon, where opera recordings sometimes served as background music.

"Bacchus almost became the Rumpus Room, as well as several other locations that did not come to fruition," Joe revealed.

In the past, the Bartolotta Group hired outsiders to design the decor of a new restaurant, but Joe put the Rumpus Room together himself. Seeking a steampunk look, he went trolling for classy funkiness.

The co-owner found 16 matching Victorian chandeliers and 14 sconces at a Chicago salvage business. They had previously hung in a church.

"I bought them on the spot," he said. "The fixtures have little cherubs looking over our customers."

The configuration of the former Eagan's space, which now seats 150, has changed little, but the mood, tone and appearance certainly has. Dark wood paneling, the elimination of mirrors and the removal of windows into the kitchen have transformed light and open airiness into an English pub clubbiness.

The Bartolotta Group's foray into a new demographic has included seriously engaging for the first time those influential in social media. Joe Bartolotta concedes he has entered a whole new world.

"This has been a real learning experience," he declared.

Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor

Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.

During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.

Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.