We talk live music, food, beer, German gin and more with the Union Park Tavern owners Ben DeSmidt & Angie Cook for this exclusive Q&A.
Q. How long have you owned & operated Union Park Tavern?
A. We have owned and operated Union Park Tavern since February 2017.
Q. What made you want to own a bar?
A. Angie grew up in the business and wanted to find a place where she could put all of her experience in the industry to use. We looked around for a number of years before we found a place that felt right, and once we found it we jumped at the opportunity.
Q. Union Park Tavern does it all, but can you tell us about your #1 voted Friday Fish fry?
A. We knew when we took over the business that we wanted to keep the Pete’s Place fish fry just like it was. We use the same recipes and many of the same staff still work every Friday night and during the week getting things prepped. Pete and Brenda, the former owners, always ran a very clean kitchen and great operation, so we didn’t have to make any big changes. We’ve also made some additions, such as cheesecake, soup and a deep-fried ear of corn on the cob that a customer suggested to us.
What else is on the menu?
A. We’ve added a full dinner menu on Saturday nights that includes Broasted Chicken, Burgers, Steaks, Pork Schnitzel, a Crispy Chicken Sandwich on a Biscuit or Belgian Waffle, and Salads. We plan to open the kitchen seven days a week, hopefully staring sometime in August, and serve this menu all the time. We also plan to start serving Breakfast on Saturday morning as well.
Q. Who comes up with the menu ideas?
A. Ben usually comes up with the menu items, such as adding the Pork Schnitzel or developing our Biscuit or Potato Pancake recipes, but Angie also makes additions like the Crispy Chicken Sandwich, which is a big hit. We also do special dinners by reservation and for private events, frequently with a German theme, such as Kasseler, Sauerbraten, or Rouladen. Our separate dining room seats about 45.
Q. You also serve one of the best breakfasts in the area. What’s the secret?
A. I think Breakfast depends on high quality ingredients, such as good thick-cut bacon. Our biscuits are always made fresh from scratch, just like our gravy and pancakes. We don’t use anything out of the box. We use real Buttermilk, Whole Milk, and Butter, and for other specialty items like our Farmer’s Potatoes we use Bacon Grease for the cooking. Another big difference is that we grate our hashbrowns from potatoes we cook here. It’s very time consuming, but we don’t buy them pre-made and raw, as most places do.
Q. What are some of your specialty drinks?
A. During the COVID we have been offering cocktail setups to go with premade drinks that you add the liquor to at home, such as Brandy Old-Fashioneds, Moscow Mules, and our terrific Bloody Mary, which is a recipe Angie has developed over the years. They have been very popular. We also have an incredible selection of tap beer, including many German beers and crafts.
Q. You have very lively weeknights with lots of entertainment, tell our readers what you have going on?
A. Pre-COVID, we had music every night but Mondays, and we were really expanding the type of music through our open mics and Sundays with Jess the SKA Kid’s show. Since we’ve reopened, we’ve been taking things very slowly. Thankfully, because it’s summer, we’ve been able to have all our bands play outside in the Biergarten, where there’s plenty of space for a small crowd. Weather this year has been great. We’ve spaced out tables and chairs for social distancing, just as we’ve done indoors. We also require out bartenders and servers to wear masks.
Q. During the weekends you always have live music, Union Park Tavern is turning into a must play venue for local musicians, tell use some of the acts that have played & who’s on your wishlist?
A. We love all live music and book everything. We love Blues, Bluegrass, Rock and solo artists that play our open mics. Wednesday night is Kenosha’s longest running open mic hosted by Mark Paffrath. He’s been running that virtually throughout COVID. We also can’t forget Cy Costabile’s long-running Piano Jams on Sunday afternoons. Before COVID, we were also expanding to offer music from other genres, such as Punk, SKA, and what I would call more conceptual musicians. We hope to continue and draw in more musicians from the region, but it can be difficult, for instance, to get Madison, Chicago-based, or musicians from farther afield, because of travel and cost. But we’re always working on it.
Q. What makes Union Park Tavern different from any other bar/restaurant?
A. We don’t think there’s many other bars with as large a mix of people of different ages and backgrounds as we have here. We think that music has a lot to do with that, because music is such a great way to bring people together and level the social playing field. When a room is filled with people locked into a great show, it feels like there’s a solid unit there, not separate individuals.
Q. You have probably the best beer garden in town, how are you utilizing that?
A. Right now, we’re having bands outside, not inside–at least not yet. We’ve been lucky with the weather so far. We’ve spaced out tables and put chairs on the lawn so that people can use the table for food and the seats for watching the show. We also have a serving window outside in the garage, which we use for events like our Oktoberfest celebration.
Q. Whats in store for your annual German Fest weekend?
A. We’re not sure what things will look like at the end of September, but we hope that we can go ahead with our normal celebration. We will again be co-hosting the event with MGV Harmonia Kenosha German Men’s Choir, who cook all the food. You may remember their cooking for many year’s at the Kemper Octoberfest. The choir will likely sing a few songs as well. For music, we will also have the Choir’s house band, the Hungry Five, play some music, and we will also be having Mike and Vicki Luteran performing and hopefully another band inside later in the night. It’s quite a celebration!
Q. What is an average day like for you at Union Park Tavern?
A. It starts early and ends late, for sure, but we’re really lucky to have such a great staff to work with us, especially through the really difficult last few months. We’re also very fortunate to have such loyal customers, who supported us when we were only able to offer curbside carryout service. And those customers were very generous with their tips for the servers who I know really appreciated the extra support throughout this difficult time.
Q. How many beers do you serve?
A. Our lineup changes pretty regularly, but we normally have 50 to choose from. On tap we favor German brews–how can you mess with 500 or more years of tradition there–but we always have one or two IPAs and something unusual. We’ve partnered with Hacker-Pschorr by devoting one tap line for new and unusual brews they recommend. Most recently we had a Belgian strawberry beer produced by the brewery well know for its “Delerium” beers. We love IPAs and other craft brews, but there’s a lot to taste in pilsners, too, if they’re well made.
Q. Union Park Tavern has a bit of German Heritage to it, where does that come from?
A. I’m a member of MGV Harmonia, Kenosha’s German-American male choir, that recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, and I’ve always been a huge fan of German food. I’ve learned a lot about cooking and throwing big parties from the club members. They make incredible potato salad, sauerkraut, and they’ve shown me how to make other specialties like Rouladen and Potato Pancakes, which we serve as specials at UPT. Of course, they’ve also taught me a lot about Jägermeister and a German gin they call rocket fuel, which we serve at the bar.
Q. What’s next for Union Park Tavern?
A. We’ve been slowly offering more and more food, and, hopefully, by the end of August our kitchen will be open everyday. We offer sandwiches and soups during the week now and Friday Fish Fry, Saturday dinner and Sunday Brunch. We hope to add Saturday Brunch as well.
Q&A by concept by Donny Stancato
Photos by Donny Stancato & the Union Park Tavern Facebook page.