By Craig Marx, Editor
This new Dining & Nightlife section will be a monthly addition to the Antigo Times, featuring one restaurant or tavern per monthly feature and briefly exploring that venue’s history, ownership, and current clientele and offerings.
Josh and Nikki Merkey, along with Jason McNabb, own the Taphouse tavern at 613 Edison Street in Antigo, Wis., a center of nightlife and entertainment that has been a part of the city’s culture for generations.
The Taphouse was originally known as Nick’s Tap, and is colloquially called so today by the older generations of bar-goers that still find refreshment at the Edison Street building. Opening its doors as Nick’s in 1948, Nikki’s great-grandfather, Nick Lauby, owned the newly-built tavern after having owned a previous venue named The Pretzel, located across the street.
“There are stories of Nick owning The Pretzel where supposedly Dillinger and Capone stopped in. Those are the stories that are in the family,” Josh, 35, said. “The bar either burnt down or was destroyed and that’s when Nick’s was built, and this place sort of carried on the tradition of that place called The Pretzel.”
Nick’s daughter, Diane, married Ernie Welnetz and eventually took over the bar before passing on the legacy to their son Steve. After Steve left the business with his daughter Nikki, his son-in-law Josh, and their business partner Jason McNabb, the Taphouse remains in the original family some 68 years later.
The owners wanted a slight change from the old days of Nick’s Tap, including a focus on expanded beer and liquor selections and a better variety of food and entertainment. Officially changing its name to the Taphouse in April of 2015, the name has stuck with the generation of the establishment’s 20- or 30-something clientele. The demographic, however, is really 21 years old all the way to patrons in their seventies or above.
“We just kind of wanted a fresh start. I think it was just time to start over,” Josh said about the name change. “This building has operated as a tavern for so long, whether as the Taphouse or as Nick’s Tap, it really doesn’t matter. It’s still the same kind of building, so you have people that know that we are here and know we are pretty much always open. We are open pretty much 365 days a year, and there are people that know that if they are ever caught in between times of places they need to be, they can go down to the Taphouse. I think people have grown accustomed to relying on that. They know that fact and they can depend on that.”
Taking upon a name such as the Taphouse implies a better selection of tap beer, which the owners have taken upon themselves to improve. The bar features five staple domestics and five constantly rotating craft beers on tap at any given time. The Taphouse was also awarded the Antigo Times’ “Best Tap Beer Selection Award” in 2015 and a third place finish in 2016 just a few months ago.
“We do see that there is more of a demand now with all the microbrews popping up and especially being in Wisconsin where we are known for our beer. We just wanted to have more of way being able to cycle through some of these specialty beers. We always try to keep a few taps rotating with different things and we also have quite a few different bottled beers. It’s nice to be able to say ‘Here, try something new,’ whereas in years past that wasn’t something that was really done, particularly in small towns. A mix of stuff from around the state is what we are trying to do,” Josh explained.
Since changing both ownership and name, the Taphouse has been improved both aesthetically and culturally. Additions in both food and entertainment have helped not only keep former Nick’s customers at the establishment but have also aided in generating new patrons and business.
“We’ve definitely tried to add a bit more food. We have pork sandwiches now, wings, and a couple of specialty pizzas. We’ve tried to add a few more options without becoming a restaurant. We really want to be known as a bar where you can get some good, quick food. We’ve always done the homemade pizzas but we have expanded on that a little bit,” Josh said.
The bar has expanded both its entertainment scope and bar sports and activities, including sponsorships and promotions. Owner Jason McNabb, an accomplished musician and producer, helped put together the band Whiskey Nights, a group that recently played at the Taphouse and will take the main stage at the Hodag Country Festival this summer.
“We’ve had a lot more bands come through here and we’ve been trying to do maybe a band a month or every month and half,” Josh said. “If you’re really in the mood for a live band, odds are within a few weeks we’ll have one coming through here. We also offer bands all year round. If someone says, ‘Hey, there’s a band playing at the Taphouse. Let’s check it out,’ then that is worth getting people to come out when it is 30 degrees.”
Trying new avenues is one of the only ways to expand one’s business in a town the size of Antigo. New pursuits, such as showing UFC fights that are usually pay-per-view only, is one means that Josh has employed to stay ahead of the times.
“We’re offering UFC fights now – that’s something I don’t think a lot of places in town have really done before. It’s just stuff like that we are seeing as to what works or not. If you are not trying new things, things get stale and you’ll get the point where it’s all been done before,” Josh added.
Antigo is noted for its enthusiastic participation in Tavern League sports and bar activities, and the Taphouse sponsors at least one team in each of the major categories, including Wednesday night co-ed volleyball, men’s slow pitch softball, Jack and Jill softball, and the ubiquitous autumn pool and dart leagues.
The Taphouse is carrying on a tradition of fun and family established by Nick’s Tap that has reached a new era of Antigo’s nightlife.
“[The Taphouse] is a place where everybody is welcome, so long as you are behaving yourself. We’ve always got music going and sports on TV – Brewers, Bucks, any NFL game, and Badgers. In a community like Antigo, the biggest thing we offer is probably fair prices. We are keeping things clean and safe. Our goal is a fun environment – come here and listen to music, watch sports, and hang out with your friends,” Josh said in closing.
We hope you’ve enjoyed getting to know the Taphouse in our first edition of this new section. Look next month for our new Dining & Nightlife profile, where we will talk with Sue Stanton, owner of Fifth Avenue Restaurant, about her downtown lounge and its history.
For restaurant or tavern owners interested in being interviewed for the Dining & Nightlife feature, please contact Craig at the Antigo Times at (715) 623-5081 or firstname.lastname@example.org.