We at The Daily Cardinal know that if there’s one thing to take away from Madison’s bar scene, it’s that it’s never short on memorable nights (and days) out. Here are our picks for the most scrumptious drinks, most eccentric personalities and best one-of-a-kind hot spots.
The Plaza Tavern: Least judgmental bar with the most judgmental patrons
Allow me to wax poetic about “the Plaz” for a second, please. This establishment is all about the basics: woodsy Wisconsin murals above the vinyl booths, trusty bar regulars playing pool every night, familiar utilitarian long islands served at lightning speed no matter how packed the place gets on Thursdays. The Plaza is the dependable old dad of the Madison bar scene: cheap, cash-only, drunk by 10 p.m., a hoot and a half. It has elicited a bit of a “hipster” or “humanities student” reputation as of late, but it would be doing the place a disservice to pigeonhole it. That being said, here are a few pickles (pickles … hmmm … is here a good place to plug the famous Plazaburgers?) you may find yourself in after Tim the bouncer has thoroughly checked your ID:
Possible draft pick into a random local senior bowling league.
Serving as a tie-breaker in a yay or nay conversation re: dreadlocks.
Introduction to someone you’ve seen through Instagram creepin’ because your friend from Art History’s roommate from freshman year might have been published in the same magazine as them.
Witnessing an entire room of people pretend not to know every damn word to “Pony” by Ginuwine for about five seconds before letting it fly.
Paul’s Club: Bar whose atmosphere makes you feel most like a grown-ass adult
Sometimes we have to pretend to be “real” adults out of necessity. Job interviews, meeting one’s significant other’s parents, you know the drill—as soon as said event is done, you’re back on the couch catching up on “Arthur” and washing bites of build-your-own pizza Lunchables down with a few Rolling Rocks. But let’s be real with ourselves—no one can live in this fleeting paradise forever.
When you’re ready to put your fancy pants on, there’s no place better than the ever-sophisticated Paul’s Club. It’s got everything to make you feel like you earn at least $40,000 a year—dim lighting, a jukebox full of various Adult Contemporary hits, and several sets of super comfy leather couches.
Don’t worry about feeling overwhelmed, though—their $2 pints of PBR and the enormous fake tree in the middle of the room make sure things aren’t kept too real.
—Haley Henschel and Paul Sorenson*
(*not actually THE Paul, as far as we know)
Blue Velvet Lounge: Bar with the best answer to the question, “Yeah?”
This place has EVERYTHING—wall-to-wall mirrors, ethereal, smoky-blue lights, a floor, pleather booths covered in strips of duct tape, and a bartender whose spirit animal is definitely Pitbull with hair. Their Miley Cyrus shots, choice selection of craft brews and $5 martinis all day Tuesday will transport you to a fantasy world that will have you saying, “Damn, these bathrooms are nice.”
All that, and an upstairs dance floor that’s packed with people shaking it to Salsa music at Badger Latin Night every Thursday.
City Bar: Most ~mystical~ bar in all the land
facilis descensus Averno: “The path to hell is easy.” The path to City Bar is easy, too, although beyond the red lights running along the ceiling beams, there’s nothing particularly hellish about the place.
The underground bar’s beer selection is varied and constantly rotating, including a “Beer of the Month” sold at a perennially marked down price, irrespective of time and they boast a good range of spirits (self-infused vodka, decent selection of scotches and bourbons with a few choice rye whiskeys). Specials are different everyday; though don’t miss Tuesday game nights, where the darts are free!
The Church Key: Best bar to go to if you hate lines and love cheap beer, like any sane human being
Do you ever wish for a bar you could go to at any time, whether it was 2 p.m. on a Tuesday or primetime on a Saturday night, and not have to wait in an obnoxious line to get in?
Well, fellow line-haters, the Church Key, located conveniently on University Avenue, is the place for you. Be sure to check out the upstairs loft, which has room for dancing to an eclectic mix that varies from those 90s hits you forgot existed to the newest Nicki Minaj/Sir Mix-a-Lot combo. Don’t miss out on drinking as many $3 Bud Light pitchers as possible on Thursday nights.
Unless you happen to go the one night when a new bouncer is training (don’t worry buddy, we forgive you), guzzling down your beverage of choice inside Church Key is never more than a few minutes away.
Ivory Room Piano Bar: Bar with the sassiest entertainment
The only piano bar in downtown Madison, the Ivory Room is not the kind of place you go to find a quiet evening of fulfilling conversation.
However, if you’re in the mood for old-timey tunes, piano renditions of Jason Derulo’s “Talk Dirty,” and singing at the top of your lungs because no one can hear you anyway, you must visit the Ivory Room.
While it’s hard to be a regular unless you have an affinity for hearing “Piano Man” every night, Ivory Room is sure to delight on the occasional visit. Plus, you can take your parents here! Besides the random raunchy tune directed at a bachelorette perched atop the pianos, the Ivory Room should be classy enough for a night on the town with most moms and dads.
At five dollars on Fridays and Saturdays, the cover charge can seem steep relative to other bars’ lack thereof, but you can bypass the fee by buying a drink at the adjacent Buck and Badger or Capital Tap Haus and presenting your receipt to the bouncer.
Disclaimer: They don’t let you play the piano.
Diego’s Mexican Bistro: Best bar in the guise of a restaurant
Now that the Plaza upped its price for long islands a whole 50 cents (still love you tho), Diego’s may have the best drink deal in Madison—99-cent margaritas on Tuesdays. To quote the great Bill Shakespeare: Though their price be but small, the amount of tequila they pour in those babies is fierce. The only thing I would change? Screw the plastic cups, attach a hose to one of those margarita machines and charge me by the hour to slurp down that delicious neon-green libation.
Not in the mood for a margarita (you monster)? Snag a free shot if you sing karaoke on Saturdays, or purchase a very reasonably priced beer from their wide selection of imports any day of the week. As for Diego’s cuisine, any place that lets you make a meal out of guacamole gets a gold star in my book.
Amy’s Cafe: Best bar that happens to be purple
I like purple. Purple is a good color. I find it reassuring that there’s a place that understands so thoroughly that, yeah, purple is good, which is why they keep the colored lights on every night, to cloak the space in a kind of purple haze.
It also, reassuringly, serves quality everything, from microbrews to cocktails. It also sports one of the most interesting drink specials in Madison: the Drink ’n’ Draw. Come in every Tuesday and draw a picture that meshes with that week’s theme and you’ll be rewarded with a pint of PBR—though the bartender calls it FreeBR.
Brasserie V: Bar with the best, semi-overwhelming beer list
“Eat good food, drink better veer.” Brasserie V, located over on Monroe Street is your new secret place to bring anyone and everyone you want to impress, maybe including yourself when you deserve a treat.
Whether that treat may be one of the best burgers voted in Madison or picking from one of constantly changing beers on tap (of which there are over 200 at a given time), you will walk away satisfied. With its warm lights, dark wood, and wrap-around bar (always seating a regular or two), you’ll feel like a local as soon as you sit down. So make the trek, order a beer or two and spoil yourself.