Critiques, Cravings and Conundrums From the Madison Food and Dining Scene
Mar 6, 2010
03:47 PMSmall Dishes
A Real Phoenix
Like the mythical bird, the Cardinal Bar seems to be able to rise anew from its ashes. Its story begins in 1908 with the building of what was to be the last and largest of Madison’s railroad hotels—across the street from the Milwaukee & St. Paul depot and a block away from the Chicago and Northwestern depot (now MG&E). The Cardinal Hotel, located at the corner of Wilson and Franklin Streets originally boasted three stories, but a fourth and fifth floor were added the following year. On the ground floor was a small café and bar that catered to the hotel’s transient guests—traveling salesmen, farmers, legislators and newly arrived immigrants. With the decline of the railroads, so did the fortunes of the Cardinal Hotel. By the 1970s, it had become a rooming house for low income people, many of whom were chronically mentally ill.
“I realized that if the bar became a straight place without character, it could very well become just another pick-up joint. That’s when I made the conscious decision to make the Cardinal a political bar, about the middle of 1975.”
The Cardinal became the venue of choice for fundraisers for both liberal politicians and various causes alike. But it was also a popular place to meet, listen to music, dance and have a good time. Long before mojitos became trendy, Ricardo was known for his rendition, lovingly crafted using the recipe of the famous Bodeguita del Medio in Havana. He had always wanted to serve food at the Cardinal and in 1978 begin to offer Sunday brunch. Then all-you can-eat-for-$1.95 spaghetti Saturdays followed. Unfortunately, the experiment wasn’t successful. Customers enjoyed the food—Ricardo says the tortilla Española and Enilda’s flan were to die for— but the outdated facility was no longer suitable for running a restaurant.
One cold January night in 1981, one of the hotel residents fell asleep, leaving his hotplate on and fire broke out. No one was hurt but the dilapidated building was devastated and left uninhabitable. Most of the damage in the bar area was due to smoke and water and Ricardo was able to reopen his business in July. The hotel remained closed for good.
Eventually a developer purchased the building with the intent of converting its 60 rooms into apartments. The entire structure underwent an eight-month-long renovation and refurbishment. When the Cardinal reopened on May 1, 1986, the original bar retained all its historic character and charm but a new space (the old hotel lobby) was added making it more suitable as a dance club. It had been at least sixty years since the Cardinal had looked so good.
With his fervor for politics, it was no doubt inevitable that Ricardo would run for office himself. In 1989, he was elected to the Madison Common Council and served as an alderman representing his downtown district until 1995. Today, many don’t know that he was the first openly gay Latino elected official in the nation.
In 1999, the owners of the building decided to turn the rental units into condominiums, allowing Ricardo the opportunity of actually purchasing rather than leasing the space he occupied. But by 2004, other interests were ever frequently drawing Ricardo away from his beloved Cardinal and he decided it was time to sell.
Unfortunately, with the new owners came a rapid decline in the Cardinal’s reputation and this past July it closed. Many wrote this as the final chapter of a Madison institution but it was not to be. In October, Ricardo Gonzalez reopened the Cardinal Bar after a thorough sprucing up. He notes that the place has probably never looked better—except for maybe the original mosaic floor which is not in as good shape as it was in 1974.
“In a certain way I feel that coming back now allows me to take care of unfinished business, that is, the improvement of the dance floor and the acoustics in that room, as well as developing the plans for future food service. This has been an elusive idea for many years, but I’m convinced that some type of food service is essential to the long-term survival of the Cardinal, so I plan to develop this within the next year or two.”
Immediately, Ricardo is focused on bringing the Cardinal back as the best dance bar in Madison, where you not only will find great music but perfectly made drinks, friendly service and incomparable atmosphere.
If history does indeed repeat itself, he will succeed.
Ricardo’s Recipe for Floridita Daiquiri
2 parts Cruzan aged white rum
2 parts pure grapefruit juice (preferably red)
1 part fresh lime juice
½ part powdered sugar or syrup
½ part Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur
Shake and strain into chilled martini glass; garnish with lime twist.
Special thanks to Timothy Hughes, Timothy Hughes Photography, for allowing me to use his photograph of Ricardo Gonzalez.
The Cardinal Bar Softball Team, 1977