Allow me to let you in on the inner workings of the Bucky's 5th Quarter staff email chains for a moment. About 10 days ago, Mike asked me via the aforementioned electronic mail if I would be interested in helping preview the Wisconsin football season. I, of course, jumped at the chance to contribute. When he added that it would be focused on the vibrant restaurant and tailgating scene that Madison has to offer, I was even more excited. I love eating and drinking and doing both of those things before a football game!
Then he mentioned a Madison bar primer.
My brief feelings of joy quickly dissipated. I told Mike solemnly that I had been preparing my whole adult life for the challenge of listing Madison's bars from best to worst. I told him that I spent just about every night in college (which is why it took me so long to graduate... HI, MOM!) arguing with degenerate booze-hounds over which bars to frequent on a Monday (Red Shed, obvi). I wasn't happy about taking on this yeoman's task, but I was ready.
Without further ado here are the top 10 bars in downtown Madison, with a bonus addendum top-five bars in Madison on a football Saturday to appear in a tailgating primer next week.
The Top 10 Bars In Downtown Madison
Before we get started, I must allow you to know my own personal bias towards one particular bar on State Street. I worked at The City Bar for almost five years, and probably over-served at least 40 of you reading this! I will not be including them in these rankings due to conflict of interest, or something. Let it be known, however, that The City Bar is my favorite bar on State Street and has: an awesome trivia night on Mondays, excellent bar food, strawberry vodka (and more flavors to come, I've been told), one of the finest bartenders I've ever worked with or been served by (what's up, Kevmo?), and no waiting at the back bar... ever. If we ever happen to meet down there, first round is on my wife, because she makes more money than me.
Alright, on to the list!
First of all, I know this is a top-10 list, but if the Big Ten can have 14 teams, so can my rankings. Second of all, I also get that this is a sports blog, and trust me, bro: I love sports, but sometimes you just want to relax at a bar without Skip Bayless' stupid face contorting into shapes Picasso never made and for those times you need to head to The Mason Lounge on S. Park Street (just off W. Washington Avenue). They have a killer beer selection and comfy couches. You may be forced to interact with the people you're with, so only bring interesting friends here.
Get a One and Done, but don't drink seven in one night like a friend of mine did; drinks have names for a reason. For the campus area of UW, this qualifies as the best "cocktail bar." But that's only because Wando's won't serve my fishbowl "up" like I asked them to.
A prototypical dive bar that doesn't serve food, has a foosball table, a jukebox with more than one Buckcherry song, operates the grossest bathrooms this side of Wrigley Field and has surly bartenders that serve you Long Island Iced Teas in enormous mason jars. I've spent a lot of money here. If lines are too long elsewhere, they're always able to squeeze one more in at Red Shed.
Polka. Boots of beer (not Das Boot, you idiots; that's German for "the boat"). German food and the smell of stale beer that I imagine the third day of Oktoberfest smells like.
Everything that Essen Haus has and right next door to boot (word play!), minus the polka. So I guess your choice really depends on how "central Wisconsin" you are. I'm, like, 40 percent "central Wisconsin" and therefore prefer hearing some hip-hop whilst downing Optimators.
This bar, near the top of State Street, has a tree in the middle of it. They recently switched locations so that there is a bit more room to imbibe, and that's a great thing because Paul's is often quite crowded. A friendly bar staff and a nice jukebox add to the "drinking in the forest" feel.
If you're looking for the grown-up version of the Blue Velvet, this is the place for you. It has expertly crafted cocktails and a laid-back, upscale atmosphere. They have an extensive list of seasonal cocktails and also the option of "rolling the dice" and picking a base spirit and letting the bartender make you something. I mean, take a look at this cocktail list and tell me your mouth isn't watering. They also have very good food, so you can have that extra cocktail.
The irony isn't lost on me while ranking the diviest of dive bars ahead of the finest craft cocktail bar downtown, trust me. I've had a soft spot for Mondays and their preposterously strong drinks since I was allowed in there as a sophomore because my buddy's girlfriend was working. I'm assuming Gary is still tending bar there (I admittedly haven't been in years because blacking out for $9 is not something I'm interested in doing anymore) and there are also annoying d-bags playing darts at 12:45 a.m. and blocking the route to the bathroom. Never change, Mondays. You are college in a glass.
The busiest bar in Madison on a Tuesday night because -- why else -- free bacon and $1 cans of beer. They are also known for their fishbowls (which you can find at any Big Ten frat bro bar in Chicago, so I guess it isn't that special) and racing your friends to see who can get gut-rot the fastest is a great way to spend seven minutes here. They've got plenty of TVs for all your sports bar needs and also an underrated fish fry on Friday afternoon.
Look, I don't know many (if any!) of you personally, but if you don't like frites and garlic aioli then I don't think I saved a place for you at the table. No, those are all taken. *pulls chair in with foot*. That one, too. Their frites are "double fried" and if "double bubble specials" and Double Bacon Cheeseburgers have taught me anything, it's that you should always go with a double. Their beer list is almost unparalleled in Madison, with a great selection of Midwest beers as well as multiple pages of Belgian treats. If you hang around Camp Randall Stadium long enough after a game and wait until everyone clears the area, make the short trek up Monroe Street to Brasserie V and enjoy a late dinner.
I discovered Argus by accident one day while wandering around the Square and taking a wrong turn. My directional inadequacy (now I know how directional Michigan schools feel) aside, finding Argus was a joyous occasion. We sat outside on their patio, which feels nicely secluded even though you are on the street due to the lack of foot traffic in the area. The beer list is top quality (sensing a theme here?) and the wings are amazing. Don't tell too many people, though, or else the patio will be full the next time I try and grad a drink there.
The downtown Vintage combines multiple things I love: darts, drinking outdoors, locally-brewed beer and bartenders that will be happy to take a shot with you. Grab a beer brewed by them (Vintage Brewing Company is located on the west side of town and I suggest the Scaredy Cat Oatmeal Stout), a couple of apple pie shots and post up in the back playing darts and watching football until you can't feel feelings anymore.
As far as I can tell, this bar hasn't changed since my dad went to UW in the '70s. The Plazaburger is still the cat's meow (and no, they won't tell you how to make the Plaza sauce), the bubble hockey game still features Wisconsin vs Minnesota and the clock is still 20 minutes fast, giving "bar time" it's true definition. They will serve you a dangerous amount of alcohol for a low, low price and be super happy about it as well. Play Andrew W.K.'s "Party Hard" on the jukebox when you arrive and then allow the bartenders to help you do so. The Plaza is the best dive bar in downtown Madison and welcomes imbibers of all shapes, sizes and collar color.
So, I really struggled with this list. I wanted the top bar in Madison to be something iconic. To be something we could be proud to tell out-of-towners about. I kept coming back to one place: the downtown Great Dane. They really have it all. A great food menu if you get there for dinner; a boatload of craft beer that they brew themselves on site; pool, darts, Big Buck Hunter, shuffleboard, comfy couches, multiple TVs, multiple bars, great outdoor seating... I don't really feel the need to continue. If your friends can't agree on a spot to go to, suggest The Great Dane and watch everyone's face light up.
There were a few places that just missed the cut, or were disqualified for being "too much of a restaurant." There will be much room for discussion in the comments, where I can enumerate the reasons that The Pub was 100x better than whatever that place is called now -- Whiskey Jack's, I think -- and why you should always check to make sure your friends are actually at Jordan's Big Ten Pub before you go all the way across campus.