Everyone knows that downtown Madison offers an eclectic array of bars for the thrifty college student. But there seems to be a distinct physical boundary that a lot of students don’t like to cross when it’s time to go out for the night—that invisible line that divides State Street from the Capitol Square. For whatever reason, many consider this not-so-distant portion of downtown an uneasy, or perhaps unworthy, venture. It’s as if people think crossing this threshold will thrust them into some mysterious, Narnia-esque otherworld. To these cautious people, I say: who wouldn’t want to go on that adventure?
So, for the sophisticated and wallet-wary student, there are plenty of options on Cap Square for a fun night out.
A rule I’ve favored heavily over the years is to never drink on an empty stomach. (And believe me when I say that olive in your martini isn’t going to do the trick.) To start the night off, then, why not head to The Old Fashioned?
The atmosphere in The Old Fashioned is something culled straight from Cheers. It feels like everybody knows your name and they’re always glad you came, even if it’s your first time inside the place.
The Old Fashioned is perhaps most known for its self-titled drink, made any way you choose. It’s a terrific way to start off the night if your intention is to create big gaps in your recollection of the evening. I swear, two drinks and you’ll be singing along with that Billy Joel song playing inside your head.
For those who like a slower start and a fuller stomach, try the Old Fashioned House Brew, a creamy bock that’s unexpectedly heavy and is sure to coat your throat with its velvety texture.
The six-year-old tavern features a full menu of exclusively Wisconsin foods, like classic bratwursts and cheese plates, alongside a huge array of soups and sandwiches. Of course you’re going to order an appetizer, so if you like your cheese curds gooey, they have you covered. (For those wanting crispier curds, I highly recommend The Blue Moon.)
One cautionary note: my eyes grow to three times the size of my stomach when I look at the menu—and smell patrons’ food at the table next to mine—so be careful, or you’ll have a box full of leftovers to carry around for the rest of the night. (Which is frowned upon in a lot of bars, by the way.) Still, the low-priced fare makes it hard to order only one thing, so be nice and share with those around you.
Pro tip: The No. 40, a grilled-cheese sandwich with roasted red peppers and hickory-smoked bacon on Texas toast, is not only delicious, but also works wonders as a preventative hangover cure.
Now that you’ve fine-dined, paid your check, and tipped your server, walk two blocks to Madison’s authentic Irish Pub.
For those of you looking for a different Irish experience than the one Monday’s offers (with functioning lights and everything!), hunker down at Brocach—which is Gaelic for “badger den,” appropriately enough. There’s an old world-meets-plush den look about the place that makes for an interesting sensory experience.
Guinness snobs will appreciate the bartender’s ability to pour the dark, smooth goodness properly and whisky-philes will salivate at the idea of half-priced, top shelf scotch from 10 p.m. to midnight. At Brocach, they don’t have the cheapest drinks around, but what they lack in low prices they make up for in quality and strength. In other words, they do not skimp on alcohol. Ever.
But fear not! It’s not all thick beer and strong whiskey. The bar is stocked with a bigger variety of liquor than most downtown watering holes and you’ll find plenty of other beers on tap besides the traditional Irish stout. Plus, if you make it there around 8 or 9 p.m. on a given night, you’ll be “serenaded” with live bluegrass players or a traditional Irish band.
Pro tip: a Stoli Doli Martini is the result of incredibly sweet pineapple pieces slowly infusing themselves with vodka over 3 or 4 days. Luckily, it only takes about 10 seconds for the bartender to pour it.
Since you’ve had the traditional Irish drinking experience, balance yourself carefully as you walk to the cozy piano bar just off the Square.
Ready to wind down for the night but not quite ready to call it quits on the drinking…or the fun? Step just off Cap Square briefly for a skip over to the Ivory Room on the tip of West Mifflin.
Downtown Madison’s best little piano bar is what I consider the classier older sibling of The Karaoke Kid. (It’s what the Kid would be like if instead of short skirts and off-key renditions of Neil Diamond, there were black cocktail dresses and raspy versions of…well, Neil Diamond, probably.)
Space is not the Ivory Room’s strong suit, so be prepared to rub elbows on your way to the bar and hold your drinks carefully as you scout for a place to sit—or a wall to lean against, for that matter. Once you’ve found a spot, sit back and enjoy some live music. Depending on the night, you’ll hear renditions of anything from the aforementioned “Sweet Caroline” crooner to the Growing Pains theme song, played by some of Madison’s finest pianists. And regardless of the tune being plinked away on the keys, more than a few people will be dancing. You might be one of them.
The dimly lit room is perfect for winding down the night. The black leather chairs, starlit ceiling, and red velvet accents class up even the most twang-y country tunes the players occasionally belt out. Basically, it’s the type of environment that may even make you sip your drink, this time.
Pro tip: I foolishly ordered a vodka and sweet tea on my prior visit before noticing something called a Little Black Corvette on the drink list. On the Ivory Room’s website, the drink is described as “Red Electra Black Cherry Muscat topped with champagne.” I think my tongue would describe this as “a mouthful of sweet, sweet delight.” I’d recommend this without even tasting it first.
And look at that, you’ve had a wonderful, fun-filled evening on the town and you didn’t even go to a Power Hour! Hopefully you’ve returned from Cap Square with a new insight into Madison’s nightlife and all the fun that can be had if you venture into uncharted territories.
Hey, it really is like you went to Narnia…
You can find all the places mentioned in this article around Capital Square, mere feet away from State Street!
The Old Fashioned is located at 23 North Pinckney St.
Brocach is located at 7 W. Main St.
The Ivory Room is located at 116 W. Mifflin St.
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