July 23, 2009

Ivanhoe tweaks the menu, plans for new beers

Ivanhoe owner Doug Nicholson poses with a $6,000 bottle of Middleton 1973 whiskey.

Ivanhoe Pub and Eatery owner Doug Nicholson is tweaking his offerings in the down economy.

Nicholson recently launched a new streamlined menu that trades high-priced items like steaks in favor of affordable fare such as jerk mahi tacos. He's also looking to add 12 to 16 new draught beers to capitalize on the popularity of seasonal brews.

"Seasonal beers are the fastest growing segment in industry," Nicholson said. "Microbrews and seasonals are what's working in this economy."

Michael Bein, Ivanhoe's new chef, is leading the menu changes. Bein, known as Chef Louie, brings 30 years of professional experience to the job, including stops at New York City's Tavern on the Green. He moved from Atlanta to work at Ivanhoe after meeting Nicholson through a mutual friend.

The new menu features a selection of old standards, like chicken pot pie, and nightly bistro-style specials cooked up by Bein. All of Ivanhoe's food are made fresh, including two daily soups. Even the mozzarella sticks are hand-battered cuts of cheese.

"I never thought I'd serve a mozzarella stick," Nicholson said, "but they're handmade."

Along with the new menu, which still has all of Ivanhoe's pub favorites, Bein overhauled the kitchen's process to speed up service, particularly during lunch. Slow turnaround times had limited the pub's lunch business in the past, Nicholson said.

Nicholson dropped steaks from the menu because they were too expensive for the tough times. The new menu's prices stretch from $6.50 to $11, a range Nicholson hopes people can afford.

"In this economy, people are looking for the experience," Nicholson said.

On the bar side, Nicholson is preparing to add 12 to 16 new beer tap lines in the next six months. The bar already has 10 lines, but pub standards like Guiness, Bottingtons and Smithwicks, along with Miller and Miller Lite, leave little room for seasonal beers. The new lines will allow for some flexibility on what's available, said Nicholson, who's still working out what new beers he'll offer in the coming months.

Ivanhoe also features over 30 different martinis and a wide selection of wines, including discounted $10 bottles of wine on Tuesday nights. But the pub's premier offering is its Irish whiskey collection, which Nicholson described as one of the largest, for sale, selections in the world.

Ivanhoe serves over 70 different whiskeys, including a $6,000 bottle of Middleton 1973 (Bottle 18) that goes for $200 an ounce. Nicholson is preparing to roll out a "whiskey passport" for customers interested in trying out Ivanhoes different varieties. The passport will include background and history about the whiskeys, and anyone who tries all 70 brands will receive a free shot of the Middleton 1973, which is stored in a locked case behind the bar.

Nicholson started Ivanhoe in December 2002 after co-owning a water purification business and working in the corporate world before that. He'd worked as a bar tender for a long time and imagined owning his own place would be fun.

He landed Ivanhoe through "persistence." The building at 231 Main St. had sat vacant for 17 years. Nicholson convinced the owner Peter Theos, who still lives upstairs, to lease him the ground floor to reopen the bar.

The bar and restaurant took off almost immediately, and Nicholson has become a community leader.

Along with running Ivanhoe, he operates a catering business, the bar at the Masonic Center and an ATM company. He's also chairman of the Racine County Convention and Visitors Bureau and helped form the popular Downtown events Party on the Pavement, Mardi-Crawl and the St. Patrick's Day Parade.

Nicholson, who is married to wife Sarah, said the hard work comes easy because he loves doing it.

"If you can get up and enjoy going to work, you've got it made," he said.

If you're looking for an affordable route to that $200 shot stop by Ivanhoe on Tuesdays between 4 and 9 p.m. Nicholson works the bar and offers a featured half-price whiskey pick from the pub's collection.

About Ivanhoe

Address: 231 Main St., Racine
Opened: 2002
Owner: Doug Nicholson
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily
Games: Pool, parts, Golden Tee, TVs, jukebox
Drinks: Drink menu
Upcoming events: Night Golf, Friday, Aug. 15 - $30 fee includes beer, golf and a ride out and back to Raymond Heights Golf Course.