Thirty Local Bars We Love
From the best beer bars to the swankiest joints for a craft cocktail, here are our favorite places to grab a drink
It’s cold outside. Winter’s not far off. But fear not—fall is the perfect time to continue Wisconsin’s rich tradition of populating its taverns and sharing a drink with those closest to you. Discovering a new place to socialize with family and friends over a local brew, craft cocktail or bubbly soda is the perfect distraction from the increasing chill. And if you’re particular about the kind of place you go for a beverage, don’t worry. There’s a bar in Madison for every conceivable situation, location and preference. Cheers!
554 W. Main St., 256-6928
Looking for the best spot to catch the game, just far enough from the stadium and crowds but still situated downtown? With seventeen huge screens and expansive outdoor seating, Echo Tap is your answer. Plus, ex–head football coach Bret Bielema reportedly stopped by the Echo Tap on occasion for a drink during his time in Madison, so you can be sure it’s Badger sports approved. We can only wonder if Gary Andersen will make it a tradition.
1501 Monroe St., 819-8228
The Wise stands out for a couple of reasons. Not only is it the classiest destination for sports viewing, but also this HotelRED bar is as close in proximity to Camp Randall as you’re gonna get. With big glass windows facing the stadium, you can comfortably watch the pre-game entertainment of the rambunctious students descending upon Bucky’s abode. And if you’re not going to the game, swivel your chair around and watch the action on television, all while sipping a finely fashioned cocktail.
State Street Brats
603 State St., 255-5544
The legendary reputation attached to watching a Badger game at State Street Brats might seem exaggerated, but it’s truly well deserved. Badger fans young and old congregate at this Madison mainstay for an environment comparable to being at the event itself. The crowd at Brats is always enthusiastically engaged in the game, and the food and drink are classic stadium fare. Just make sure to get there early if you’re planning on scoring a table.
AFTER A SHOW
1980 Atwood Ave., 204-7644
After catching a performance at the Barrymore, hang around to enjoy the Atwood neighborhood and head on over to Alchemy Café, where you can usually catch live music any day of the week. The Alchemy is kid-friendly—and friendly in general—but appeals to grown-up palates with a solid bar stocked with local craft beer and cocktails. The food menu is delicious and unique, with dishes ranging from salads and sandwiches to steak and seafood. Don’t miss the daily specials, either.
117 E. Main St., 294-9371
Maduro is a verifiable one-of-a-kind in Madison and a great spot to lounge on date night or with a small group after a play at the Bartell or a concert at Overture. Maduro takes itself seriously (but not too seriously), which is a good thing when you’re the only true cigar bar left in town. With massive leather couches, dim lighting and seasoned DJs playing pleasant mixes, Maduro provides patrons with a comfortingly nostalgic atmosphere.
211 King St., no phone
If you’ve just left a crowded, rousing show at the Majestic and need a cozy, laidback place to unwind within walking distance, Natt Spil is your go-to. Hands down the most eclectic interior of any downtown bar, the little tavern tastefully mixes its quirky-cool décor with grade-A drink options, from creative cocktails to potent martinis, plus local beers on tap. Rotating DJs set a chill backdrop, and did we mention the delicious wood-fired pizzas and dim sum available late into the night?
7 W. Main St., 255-2015
Where most Irish pubs come off as kitschy and disingenuous, Brocach strikes a tasteful balance of Madison meets the Emerald Isle. Many nights of the week feature live Irish music during happy hour, with the Currach performing on Fridays. Drink specials include price reductions on Guinness, Murphy’s and Powers Whiskey, plus $3 off all Irish and Scotch whiskeys usually priced $7 to $12.
105 W. Main St., 255-4770
Always drawing a large, amiable crowd, and consistently popular happy hour at Genna’s is a good measure of just how worthwhile this place is. With forty percent off all rail drinks and select tap beers, along with tasty hors d’oeuvres, it’s pretty hard to beat the deals at Genna’s. The old-school jukebox is the icing on the cake, holding a killer catalogue of tunes certain to please all music tastes.
1 S. Pinckney St., 251-2700
While Graze is perhaps better known as a foodie haven than a place to grab drinks, the restaurant’s happy hour offerings deserve mad props. The two-for-one draft beer, tap wine and rail drinks from four to six are reason enough to go. Additionally, there’s a weekday late-night happy hour from nine to eleven, so you can bask in the glow of the Capitol through the enormous ceiling-high windows while you sip your cocktail on the cheap.
1923 Monroe St., 255-8500
Brasserie V is the premier location in Madison for Belgian beers and those who love them. Good luck finding many of the brews served here anywhere else in town—or the state, for that matter. With such an impressive foreign beer selection, this is one place where an absence of liquor and spirit options (wine and beer only) is a good thing. The food at Brasserie V is also notable, reminiscent of what you might find in a European gastropub.
The Coopers Tavern
20 W. Mifflin St., 256-1600
The beer selection at Coopers—both draught and bottled—has been masterfully selected, representing the best local, domestic and international areas where brewing is renowned. If you’re having trouble choosing, the staff is knowledgeable and always willing to recommend something based on what you like. And if you’re a soccer fan, Coopers should be high on your list of places to grab a brew and watch the game. It’s often the only spot in town showing games from leagues overseas.
The Mason Lounge
416 S. Park St., 255-7777
With no TVs, low-volume music, a plethora of board games and an eclectic repertoire of tap beers, Mason Lounge is the perfect place for meaningful interaction with friends. Even the biggest beer snob in your group will have a hard time claiming they’ve previously encountered every one of the brews available. And that’s saying something, considering the beer list is relatively modest in size.
FOR WHISKEY OR TEQUILLA
744 Williamson St. #2, 280-9378
Tequila aficionados, unite. A true Madison tequila mecca, Eldorado Grill is stocked full of great tequilas, ranging the full gamut of type and price. And yes, that also means a number of terrific margaritas and tequila-based cocktails. If you’re the one driving, you can still feel in the atmosphere by picking from a number of appropriately themed non-alcoholic drinks, like a glass-bottle Mexican Coke or grapefruit Jarritos.
The Malt House
2609 E. Washington Ave., 204-6258
With more than seventy premium options available, the Malt House is a whiskey fortress. It’s the perfect place to share a drink with friends, as jukeboxes, TVs and food items are nonexistent. You are invited to bring your own eats, which is great when you know exactly what you want to chow down on while enjoying a spectacular whiskey.
Old Sugar Distillery
931 E. Main St., 260-0812
All of the drinks served at the Old Sugar Distillery are mixed with liquor and liqueurs made in-house. The Queen Jennie Whiskey, made with Wisconsin sorghum, stands as one of the best whiskeys around. The name comes from the tales of Prohibition-era entrepreneur Jennie Justo, who managed to run some of Madison’s most popular watering holes despite the best efforts of law enforcement.
227 State St., 663-7374
The view from the rooftop at Fresco would be enough of an excuse to frequent the spot. Add on the bar/restaurant’s penchant for delicious food and drink and it’s a done deal. Seasonal drinks are packed with fresh, local ingredients, and Fresco also whips up cocktails to complement exhibits at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, which is located just below the restaurant.
121 S. Pinckney St., 259-9799
Watching the mixologists at Merchant concoct your cocktail is nearly as enjoyable as sipping the creations themselves. Merchant does a lot of things right (beautiful interior, late night-entertainment, food), and the people hired to put your drink together are right up there. The whiskey sour is delicious and made with a healthy dose of egg whites, a recipe that harkens back to the original form of the drink.
111 S. Hamilton St., 395-3295
Nothing but the best spirits are used in a Nostrano cocktail. The drinks are highly creative and positively delectable. One of the best options is the Old Fashioned made with Rowan’s Creek Bourbon, on the rocks. Not just any rocks, but a large ball of ice. a sure sign that Nostrano-made cocktails are serious business. Oh, and by the way, have you tried the food?
601 Junction Rd., 664-9565
When it comes to wine, Eno Vino is big on both quality and quantity. If you’re feeling indecisive, go for a flight to experience an assortment, or ask your server for a suggestion. It’s also a great place to experiment with more unique wines you might not find elsewhere. Eno Vino was voted the gold medal winner in Madison Magazine’s 2013 Best of Madison Wine Bar category, so you know it’s good.
1 S. Pinckney St., 251-050
Most things at L’Etoile are designed and chosen with the utmost care, and the wine selection is no exception. Sommelier (and Madison Magazine wine columnist) Michael Kwas is a true expert and has created a wine and meal pairing that sets the dishes at L’Etoile apart. His favorite: the J.J. Pruüm Gold Cap Auslese from the Wehlener Sonnenuhr Vineyard.
617 Williamson St., 441-1600
Wine pairs well with most seafood, so it comes as little surprise that Sardine has some of the best red and whites of any local restaurant. With a taste that exceeds the price, the house wine is a bargain, plus gives you a little more to spend on the tasty food offerings. There is also a commendable array of rosé wines to choose from if you’re looking for something a little lighter.
703 E. Johnson St., 257-5993
Affectionately referred to as the ’Bou by its loyal patrons, the Caribou serves as the perfect neighborhood watering hole on the near-east side. The atmosphere is relaxed and the service comfortable upbeat; the tight-knit clientele isn’t a turnoff to newcomers, who are made to feel right at home. Best of all, the food and drink are tasty and easy on the wallet. The burger alone has a cult-like following.
The Paradise Lounge
119 W. Main St., 256-2263
Positioned among more refined dining and drinking establishments on or near the Capitol Square, the Paradise Lounge’s worn exterior might seem out of place—but don’t let it fool you. The ’Dise is the ultimate downtown neighborhood bar, and any night out there is sure to be one to remember. Go there for some cheap bar eats, the large variety of bar games or simply for people-watching, as the crowd is easily the most interesting of anywhere downtown.
2116 Atwood Ave., 249-1660
At this Schenk-Atwood neighborhood tavern, Mr. Roberts himself, or Bob, as he’s referred to by regulars, sits at the end of the bar greeting patrons, and a pre–smoking ban air purifier still hangs above him. The specials are peculiar yet fantastic, like six Rhinelander, Budweiser or Coors seven-ounce beers for six bucks. While quite small, Mr. Roberts is still big enough to have a stage that features live local bands on any given night. Plus, if you’re a sports fan looking to watch a game in a relaxed atmosphere, Mr. Roberts is the way to go.
FOR LIVE MUSIC
High Noon Saloon
701 E. Washington Ave., 268-1122
Often it can be difficult to find a venue that offers not only quality music acts, but quality drink service as well. The High Noon Saloon manages to buck that trend. Bartender Steve Renfro is one of the best in town, with a Best of Madison win to his name, and the musical lineup is consistently full of fresh new artists from a range of genres.
116 W. Mifflin St./111 State St., 467-2404
Interaction between performer and audience is the norm at this downtown piano bar, where classic crowd favorites often prompt off-key sing-alongs, especially on the weekends when dueling players take the stage. The atmosphere at Ivory Room is very joie de vivre, one that’s best experienced with a beverage in hand, be it one of the specialty martinis, a glass of wine or the non-alcoholic cocktails, like the delicious ginger melon twist.
The Cardinal Bar
418 E. Wilson St., 257-2473
The Cardinal is a longtime staple of Madison’s music scene, having served as a disco hotspot in the 1970s. Today, the Cardinal consistently provides a bevy of great music, including salsa and a wealth of eclectic DJs. You won’t want to miss Tuesday night jazz featuring Madison’s own Ben Sidran, an accomplished recording artist who has collaborated with the likes of Diana Ross, Eric Clapton and Steve Miller Band. Also try the food from Cortadito Express, located in the bar’s old cloakroom.
2201 Atwood Ave., 249-4333
The name says it all. Rest assured, you’ll be made to feel at home the moment you take a seat. All customers are treated like regulars and jovial banter flows freely. On top of that, the bar food is some of the best in town, and tons of pizza options are served late. Be sure to check out the sports memorabilia collection above the bar, complete with seats from County Stadium signed by Wisconsin luminaries like Hank Aaron and Robin Yount.
204 State St., 257-5250
Famous for the enormous tree that sits smack-dab in the middle of the bar, Paul’s Club recently expanded significantly after a move two doors down from its original location. Thankfully, the seating arrangement in Paul’s Club remains so that more than one group can comfortably share a table, often leading to lively conversation with strangers. And the service is quite possibly the friendliest collection of bartenders downtown.
Weary Traveler Freehouse
1201 Williamson St., 442-6207
While it’s easy to feel out of place on Willy Street if you aren’t sporting a beard or plaid button-down, the Weary lends a more inclusive vibe. The atmosphere always remains amiable, with friendly service and a tavern-style layout reminiscent of a welcoming neighborhood pub. Grab one of the board games from the shelf near the entrance to the kitchen while you wait for your food or nurse a local brew with friends.
Sam Garigliano is an editorial intern at Madison Magazine.