Monona Area Business Spotlight: Center Street Bar N' Grill

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Thomas Wiemerslage and Lisa Draka opened Center Street Bar N’ Grill at 103 E. Center St., in downtown Monona, in February 2021. (Photo by Audrey Posten)

By Audrey Posten, Times-Register


Lisa Draka and Thomas Wiemerslage opened Center Street Bar N’ Grill in downtown Monona in February 2021. They’ve since worked to brand the establishment not as the tavern down the street, but a bona fide restaurant with a tasty and locally-sourced menu.


“We’ve got really good food, and we want to make this a destination type place,” said Draka.


Opening Center Street was a long-time dream for Draka. She started in the restaurant business at 15, working her way up from dishwasher to prep, cook, bartender, waitress and assistant manager.


“It’s always been something I’ve wanted to do,” she said. “I started saving money here and there. Someone said ‘Hey, MJ’s is for sale,’ so we looked into it and bought it.”


Wiemerslage is a Mar-Mac graduate, and spent 27 years in the telecom radio frequencing industry after seven years in U.S. Army special forces. Although he doesn’t have Draka’s restaurant background, he has experience eating good food from around the country.


“Most of the plans and ideas came from Lisa’s experience,” he quipped. “I’m more on the electronic side, and I do dishes, cook and wait.”


Wiemerslage smokes Center Street’s meats, all of which are processed and seasoned in house. Seventy-five to 80 percent of that meat comes from Iowa.


“There’s a lot of work behind it, but it’s well worth it,” he said.


With Monona’s location in the heart of farm country, the two felt it was important to not only source food locally but offer a variety of meats on the Center Street Bar N’ Grill menu.


“You get a little bit of everything,” Draka said.


The freshly made burgers are popular, with the Bourbon Street Blue Burger the best seller. The Beer Cheese Burger and Mushroom and Swiss are good choices too.


Other sandwich options include the French Dip, Philly, Reuben and Turkey Mango, a holdover from the previous MJ’s Bar and Grill. The haddock fish sandwich is popular, as are the fish tacos, topped with cilantro lime ranch, mango salsa and feta cheese.


Draka and Wiemerslage also made a point to add pork to the menu. Items like pulled pork, a pork tenderloin and pork ribs. Then, there’s “The Three Pigs.”


“It’s pork tenderloin, bacon and in-house smoked pulled pork with coleslaw on top and barbecue sauce,” detailed Draka.


Noted Wiemerslage, “It’s a tribute to Iowa.”


For those seeking a lighter meal, Center Street offers multiple salads: chicken bacon ranch, cranberry apple pecan, salmon avocado and Santa Fe chicken.


And don’t forget cheesecake and pie for dessert.


The menu also has a multitude of gluten free items, including cheese curds, onion rings, mushrooms and wings. Even the fish sandwich and pork tenderloin are made with gluten free breading.


Having these options sets Center Street apart, according to Draka.


“We have quite a few people who come in because of a gluten free website we’re on,” she said.


Moving forward, the owners said a new chef plans to incorporate pastas into the menu and even serve breakfast on the weekends.


Wiemerslage said it’s important to keep evolving.


“There’s a lot of trial and error because some things work and some don’t. You see what people are eating and what they don’t eat. And you communicate with the customers,” he added.


That evolution also means tapping into technology. Center Street Bar N’ Grill puts all its menus on Google and Facebook, and utilizes social media to share specials and other updates. The POS system is cloud based and Draka continually combs through product purchases to create charts.


Wiemerslage plans to launch a website, utilizing footage from a recent Google visit.


“We just paid Google to come in and do a virtual tour so you can see the inside, that there’s high tops and tables and it’s not just a really dark, dank bar,” he explained.


They feel it will be helpful, said Draka, “Because there are still a lot of people who don’t know we have food.”


Wiemerslage and Draka admitted opening a bar/restaurant during the COVID-19 pandemic was risky. It’s impacted the amount of customers and how those customers eat—as far as eat in versus carry out. Accompanying worker shortages and price increases have also been tricky to navigate.


The two hope Monona residents, as well as people in surrounding communities, give Center Street Bar N’ Grill a try.


“We want people to know they don’t have to drive to Prairie when they can have just as good a food here,” Draka said.


“Switch it up a little bit. It’s a good atmosphere,” added Wiemerslage. “Support your local businesses. The tax revenue from this place supports the town.”


This business spotlight is supported by Monona Chamber and Economic Development, Inc.

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