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
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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.