A sneak peek at The Harvey House ahead of its July opening

The restaurant in a former train car and baggage handler's building is likely to become the pinnacle of Madison dining, our editor says.
cocktail on the top of a counter
Photo by Shaina Robbins Papach
An Old-Fashioned cocktail on The Harvey House's main bar.

Shaina Robbins Papach probably thinks the only word I can say is “wow” after my recent visit to her nearly built-out restaurant, The Harvey House, set to open July 20. But “wow” was the only thing that came to mind as she guided me through the former train car and baggage handler’s building on West Washington Avenue that she and husband Joe Papach have transformed in breathtaking fashion.

I knew The Harvey House’s debut would be a big deal — the culinary power couple brings incredible talent to town — but seeing the details finally come together after years of thoughtful planning had me at a loss for words.

Shaina Robbins Papach and Joe Papach by their new restaurant near Madison’s former train station.

Shaina Robbins Papach and Joe Papach pictured in 2019. (Photo by Nikki Hansen)

When I arrive, Shaina swings the door open and ushers me into the restaurant under a naked trellis archway. Potted plants lining the sidewalk will be tended to by Shaina’s mother, who’s claimed the entryway garden project yet to be finished. Just inside, Shaina points to gallery lights on an otherwise empty wall. They’ll soon shine down on historical photos of the building and train car when they were part of a functioning train depot, as well as a photo of her grandfather, Harvey, for whom the restaurant is named after. He shares the namesake with Fred Harvey, a man who started a chain of restaurants in the 1800s along train lines before train dining cars became commonplace. I turn the corner to take in the historic 5,000-square-foot space. The renovation preserves the charm of the original structure with elegant, mid-century modern design that exudes a New York City poshness. A wall of floor-to-ceiling windows and doors expose the train car on its tracks that will soon be a special event space. Strings of fiery lights cover the ceiling of the entryway seating area. Beyond the doorway on the original cream brick wall that divides the main floor reveals more seating space, bookended by Joe’s open kitchen and the main bar. Joe and his team are already hard at work in the basement prep kitchen that they excavated and built out.

With some plywood still peaking through shelves and glass globes for lighting installations sitting atop tables on their socketed ends, the space is just weeks away from completion. An angled staircase (one of many design hurdles the Papachs faced along the way) leads up to another sizable seating area with its own bar. The hutch upstairs that Shaina found on 1stdibs.com is from France. Running her hand across the back of a wooden chair, she mentions that the set was refinished at Country Antiques on Atwood Avenue by a man who does his work by touch because he’s blind. The pastoral art behind both of the bars was done by a friend, Jessica Niello. As Shaina and I take a seat at brown leather bar stools, she brings over a branded postcard and matchbook created by a New York design firm.

If it feels like every detail is perfectly thought out at The Harvey House, that’s because they have been. Even the brandy Old-Fashioneds tasted like the exact halfway point between a mature, pinky-up interpretation and the saccharine version you’d be served at a Wisconsin hole in the wall. As I scan the soon-to-be menu Shaina holds open for me featuring familiar dishes, I think back to the first time I met Joe and Shaina for an interview at a coffee shop in August 2019. Their vision for a sophisticated but approachable supper club has been clear since the start. The two raise four children together, but it’s obvious in the work they’ve already put into the restaurant — it’s a fifth child.

Nearly every other “return to normal” feeling I’ve experienced up to this point has been gradual and sadly anticlimactic. But this sneak peek resulted in the kind of magical moment I’ve been hoping for. The artistic, experiential, transportive parts of Madison’s food scene that haven’t been able to fit inside a takeout box are back, and I’m convinced Harvey House will become the pinnacle of Madison dining. National press is already coming in, Shaina says a little nervously, but this strikes me as unsurprising. This will no doubt become the restaurant Madisonians most want to show off, and “the restaurant in a train car” that people will travel to town for specifically.

What an incredible new addition to this city’s food scene as we enter what feels like a new era of local dining.

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