A downtown favorite is sorely missed
Apparently I’ve lived too long. I’ve outlasted another bar, and at my age that’s trouble. Like true love, a good bar calls for a lifelong relationship. But Restaurant Magnus, after a thirteen-year run on East Wilson Street, has died and left me befuddled like some widowed geezer. Me, date again?
The always comfortable Harmony covers my east-side needs. But I’m in search of a new downtown hangout. Will it be Johnny Delmonico’s? Capitol Chophouse? Sardine? Genna’s? The soon-to-be-open Tempest Oyster Bar? Or Natt Spil? I don’t know, I just don’t know.
What I do know is this: As a freelance writer I need a Magnus-like place to meet sources. I spend most of the day in sweatpants, torn T-shirts and bunny slippers staring at a computer screen and working the phone in my daughter’s old bedroom (my office!).
Every so often I put on grown-up clothes, grab my man purse, kiss the dog good-bye and head downtown to chat, gossip and interview. Bars, of course, have a venerable connection to reporting. Jimmy Breslin hung out at Farrell’s in Brooklyn, while Mike Royko held court in Chicago’s Billy Goat Tavern and Herb Caen drank at the Washington Square Bar and Grill in San Francisco.
As WisPolitics.com founder Jeff Mayers sagely observes, “Reporters can learn a lot just by hanging out.” As rotten as the pay is, the great benefit of reporting, Mayers says, is “the license to [drink] with interesting people who can give you a scoop.”
Madison has had its favorite journo joints over the years—the Shamrock, the Senate, the Cardinal, the Argus, the Salad Bar and the Fess Hotel. The Fess was special. Located in a decrepit hotel lovingly restored as a fine-dining destination, the bar was distinguished by its raffish characters and their occasional naughty behavior.
The Fess ruled the downtown scene from 1975 to 1994. Early on I was a stringer for the old Milwaukee Journal and did legwork for a couple of steely investigative reporters named Daniel P. Hanley Jr. and Alex Dobish. They helped blow the lid off a big Capitol scandal of the ’70s that now seems entirely pissant—lawmakers using their office phones to make personal long-distance calls. (Ethical standards were quite high back then.)
To celebrate a scoop, Hanley and Dobish took me to an expense-account repast at the Fess. These guys were old-school and started lunch with martinis followed by a bottle of wine and maybe an after-lunch digestif. I suspect not much investigating got done that afternoon.
I have only the fondest memories of the Fess, even if its effusive co-owner, Peter Wright, had a habit of greeting one’s wife or girlfriend with a big hug and a surreptitious lick to her ear. Wright, who died much too young, was a charming lothario. How many women fell into Peter’s arms with an oh-what-the-heck curiosity? (Raise your hands, ladies.) Magnus never reached the Fess level of mischief. But co-owners Finn and Christopher Berge and Laura Jones captured its élan.
“Magnus was a grown-up’s place,” says Chris Berge. “I called the design ‘bordello style’—lots of little nooks and crannies with live adult entertainment that was non-pornographic.”
A grown-up’s place for sure, Magnus aced my checklist for barroom seriousness: knowledgeable bartenders, fresh oysters, good wine by the glass, live jazz, no TVs and bar food that didn’t necessitate a Med Flight intervention.
The room was cozy enough that I could talk confidentially with someone yet look across the two-sided bar to see retired UW–Madison
chancellor John Wiley or the veteran city employee who gave me the best explanation I’ve heard on why Mayor Dave had so much trouble hiring a new planning chief.
One night after the symphony, I stopped in and was gobsmacked as the stranger next to me casually started chatting about dark matter and the South Pole neutrino telescope. It was UW–Madison physicist Albrecht Karle.
Ray Oldenburg, an urban sociologist, wrote a classic book about spots like Magnus called The Great Good Place. These are the taverns, corner stores and coffee shops where people leave the constraints of home and work to gather informally, chat, relax, meet neighbors, befriend strangers and more or less create the abiding bonds of a healthy community.
As Oldenburg once told The New York Times, “The best times of our lives are in the company of other people.” Magnus, I miss you. I’m open to suggestions on where I should go next.
Marc Eisen is former editor of Isthmus and a Madison-based freelance writer.
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