By Katie TerBeest —
Back in 1995 when John Harrington and his wife, Lori Ahl, took ownership of The Monarch Public House, located on the Wisconsin Great River Road in Fountain City, Harrington saw a vision of possibilities.
Right on Highway 35, across the river from Winona, Minnesota, The Monarch has been an attraction in the heart of Fountain City since 1894. It is the oldest continuously serving operation in the state of Wisconsin, never swaying from its original name.
While Harrington and Ahl have done renovations, including the addition of a kitchen in the former grocery store next door (now called Preservation Hall), they saw the splendor in the historic building and wanted to highlight the organic charm, shaping it into a “turn of the century pub,” Harrington explained. The ornate, hand-tooled oak back-bar, as well as the tables and chairs, have been a part of The Monarch since it opened in 1894. In fact, the building has almost all its original furnishings, including the 15-foot pressed-tin ceilings and sturdy wooden floors. The furnishings add to Harrington and Ahl’s goal of shifting from a formerly rowdy pub scene to a family-friendly, comfortable “Public House.” “Think about it, how would you want to be treated at home?” Harrington asked. “That’s how we treat people here!” During the warmer months, the outdoor patio and beer garden open, becoming the most sought-after seats of the house, overlooking the mighty Mississippi River.
Harrington refers to his wife as a “chef engineer” in the kitchen, developing many of the unique sauces used on The Monarch’s popular stone-baked, handmade pizzas. Shopping for fresh veggies, meats and specialty menu items is done daily, and in a unique twist … nothing is deep-fried! As a healthier alternative, no grease is used, but instead everything on the menu is cooked using hot air ovens. Many of the traditional Irish recipes date back to the 1800s, originating from Harrington’s great-grandmother, including The Monarch’s popular Irish Potato Soup, a comfort soup that blends potato chunks with garlic and green onions in a cream sauce, served with Shanty Irish Crust Bread baked fresh by Ahl.
Harrington has childhood memories of this “24-hour soup,” which he explained was originally prepared by his great-grandmother earlier in the day, then left on the stovetop so the men of the family could scoop up a mug of it when they returned home from a long day of work. Any leftover soup was integrated with a new batch to be enjoyed by the family all over again.
Handmade Irish comfort food is The Monarch’s specialty, but the menu boasts a wide variety of options for any appetite, from signature sandwiches and burgers to salads and many “munchables.” The food pairs wonderfully with any of the Fountain Brew craft beers, which are only available in-house at The Monarch. The flagship of the Fountain Brew beers, crafted from the same recipe originally brewed from 1856 to 1965 at Fountain City Brewery, springs from the pages of local history. After the brewery was closed in 1965 and eventually demolished, this local beer disappeared until 1997, when, with the help of retired assistant brewmaster Wilbert Schmitt and the brewing records he had saved, the original Fountain Brew recipe was relaunched.
Beyond food and drink, Harrington and Ahl have a passion for commemorating the community’s history and their Irish traditions. This includes a customary Irish weeklong St. Patrick’s Day celebration, complete with a large family dinner including corned beef and cabbage, traditional Irish music, and dancers from the Minnesota Conservatory for the Arts. But don’t expect any cliché green beer; family, fellowship and camaraderie are at the center point of the festivities at The Monarch. Harrington explained, “As they say, ‘If you fainted, it would take you 15 minutes to hit the ground!’” Ahl continued, “It’s an actual Irish celebration, a very religious event.” She paused and laughed, “We do have a group from La Crosse that comes to ‘practice’ for St. Patrick’s Day, though!”
“We love the beauty of the area, the new friends we make daily, and getting to play with this historic building … everyday! Visions have a way of coming true,” Harrington reflected.
For more information about The Monarch Public House, visit www.monarchtavern.com.
Irish Potato Soup
- 3 tbsp. flour
- 3 tbsp. butter
- 2 cups whole milk
- 2 tsp. salt
- 1 tsp. black pepper
- 1 tbsp. minced garlic, in oil
- 6 baked potatoes, skin on, chopped bite size
- 2 green onions
Melt butter in large sauce pan.
Add flour and mix until blended.
Slowly add milk and stir over medium-high heat until thickened.
Add salt, pepper, garlic, potatoes and green onions, then heat through.
Serve with bread.