To a certain segment of the population, there's nothing more alluring than a vintage sign for Pabst Blue Ribbon hanging outside a converted farmhouse or an old hotel. The house-turned-tavern is as old as the concept of the public house itself - Madison's first pioneer residents, Rosaline and Eben Peck, were tavern- and innkeepers.
Taverns were the original third place, back when customers arrived on horseback. The Wisconsin Historical Society, regarding its excavation of a pre-statehood tavern/inn/farm in Racine County, asserts that bars of the era provided "food and lodging for travelers; a meeting place for political and business groups; and in general a place for neighbors and families to obtain mail, exchange gossip and discuss local events." (Pool and darts apparently came later.)
These functions still exist, with the possible exception of fetching your mail. Although that could be making a comeback, since even mom-and-pop taverns are gaining Wi-Fi access. Settle in with a burger and fries and check your email at the bar. Don't spill that Leinie's.
Real taverns are almost always one-of-a-kind affairs. Their menus may resemble each other, but there's some unique touch about each one. Behind their often windowless faades, bars seem mysterious, but for the most part there are plenty of friendly faces and zero pretension once you cross the threshold.
Madison has no shortage of old-fashioned taverns. Not all of them serve food; others have sizable menus and daily specials. The real appeal is in the strength of a few food items: the crunch of a french fry, the juice of a burger, the sweet-salty mix of a proper onion ring.
I had one starting criterion for choosing the spots discussed below: They had to be virgin territories, places I'd never eaten before. This obviously knocked out the Harmony and the Plaza, both food-servin' bars of the highest order that I would recommend in a heartbeat.
While you would have to be very inventive to describe any of this as health food, I will point out that none of these burgers goes the monster 1/2-lb. route. Comfort yourself with delusions of portion control, sticking with the more manageable 1/3-lb. burgers.
The Village Bar holds a spot of prominence on the near west side, where Speedway Road turns into Mineral Point, across the street from the Glenway Golf Course.
The pale yellow building was obviously once a house, but it's been a tavern for almost three-quarters of a century. Like a lot of Madison bars, the decor runs to Badger and Packer memorabilia - not that there's anything wrong with that. Oh, and another little detail: The Village Bar entered Madison celebrity lore one day back in 2005 when Jerry Seinfeld, in town for a sold-out stand at the Overture Center, popped in for a burger. Otherwise, the Village Bar is hardly celebrity territory. It's a pleasant place for neighbors to stop by for a quick supper, the unofficial clubhouse for the golf course, and a spot to catch the big game.
There's nothing dark or dingy about the Village. Big windows overlook the golf course; light oak tables with glass tabletops that reveal vintage games and gambling punch cards. A girl's state high school basketball tourney bracket is posted on the wall, and the tourney is playing on screens above the bar. In a spot of honor over the door is a sign from the legendary University Avenue watering hole Bob and Gene's, whose owners took over the V.B. after the UW razed B & G's. Got that? Conversations sail across the room: "Is the course open yet?" "It should be!"
The menu board is what you really want to look at. The choices are pure Wisconsin tavern - the classiest item on the menu is a sirloin sandwich at $4.75. Other Dairy State favorites include a liverwurst sandwich ($2.75), summer sausage ($4), a brat ($3.50) and a cheese plate ($4.50).
The bar's burgers are often mentioned in "best burgers in town" roundups, and I wouldn't argue. Order one, unless you have a thing for liver sausage.
The burger is served on a fresh, soft bun (you can upgrade to more of a Kaiser roll for a small charge), and there's a choice of Swiss, American, brick and pepper jack for cheese. My pepper jack burger comes medium rare and it's the kind that actually seems to melt away in the mouth. The fries are very, very crispy and come in a tiny paper boat ($1.65/ $2.50). A cup of the soup of the day, a cheesy chicken tortilla, was very cheesy, with a little jalapeño kick.
The Village Bar is a cheerful cozy place. And you can't beat the prices.
I was most excited about stopping at Tony Frank's, for it's the tavern that inspired this story in the first place. The place has been at the corner of Seminole Highway and the off-ramp from the Beltline ever since I can remember; Madison columnist Doug Moe thinks that it may be the oldest operating bar under the same family ownership in Madison. Lore has it that it was secretly open during Prohibition. My grandparents used to live around the corner. And I have never been inside. I know, it's embarrassing.
Tony Frank's has recently completed remodeling, gracing the place with a sunny, clean look without sacrificing the homey, traditional tavern feel. Of all the places I visited, this felt the most like a house - the original rooms are still discernable, with a division between the bar room and the dining area. With the remodeling has come the television screens of the 21st century, for the proper viewing of sport - on this day, again, basketball.
Like a lot of stand-up taverns, the emphasis is on the basics. Sauerkraut plays an important supporting role. The time-honored Bavarian smoked brat ($4.75) is also reconfigured into a brat Rueben ($6.25). Less conventionally, a hamburger can also be ordered as a German cheeseburger, mit kraut ($5.75).
Tony Frank's also crops up in lists of "the best burgers in Madison," and this home-cooked, beefy, medium-rare 1/3-lb. patty delivered, with a soft, fresh bun ($4.75). Or upgrade to a burger with blue cheese or sonoma jack ($5.75). When it comes to cheeseburgers, I don't have a problem with good old American being the default topping. It sets off ground beef just fine.
Also on the sandwich menu, more of a diner fave: grilled ham and cheese, which, when sliced thin, is delectable ($5.95). Pop for the fries ($2.25) or give in to the enticing aroma of the onion rings ($3.50). And if you had any last lingering doubts as to whether or not you were in Wisconsin: Friday is beer-battered cod day (lunch special $6.25).
Although the signs outside say Michelob, you can also pick up Capital Amber and Guinness on tap.
It would be easy to go right past the Main Depot and never give it a second glance. The exterior is beige stucco, and there are no windows, so it's hard to see what you're getting into.
But fear not: The Main Depot is a friendly, boisterous - loud! - tavern with an antique pressed-tin ceiling, a beautiful wood bar with a mirror behind it, done up properly in Badger red-and-white and set off with green-and-gold accents, like a signed 04 jersey. You bet. It's back by the pool table, which is lit by a Leinenkugel canoe lamp. The bar has one of those classic Bud Clydesdale lamps hanging over it, too. A constant stream of greetings - "Nice to see ya!" "You here again?" "Good deal!" - ricochet off the walls, and of course the TV screens are tuned to the NCAA tourney.
Across the street from the Badger Bus depot, the Main Depot is close to the Kohl Center and just a few short blocks from the Capitol Square, but it feels like you've been transported to the true Wisconsin from Madison's alternative to reality. The menu offers a few more choices than usual, like a teriyaki salmon sandwich ($5.25), cod ($4), shrimp and fries ($4), and wings ($4.25), and appetizers extend to fried cheese curds, onion rings, and mushrooms ($3). The 1/3-lb. burger comes on a fresh sesame seed bun, with lettuce and tomato, your choice of fried or raw onion, and a nice dill spear nestled alongside it ($3.75, $4 for cheese). Considering you can pay more than twice that for indifferent burgers just a little closer to the center of power, it's definitely worth the stroll down Main Street to get back to what a real burger basket is all about. With Capital Brewery Island Wheat and Spotted Cow on tap, it's a good after-work stop, too.
Mickey's, the venerable Willy Street tavern, was never a house, but was built as a hotel in 1902. Mickey's is not one of those Badger-Packer-obsessed spots with an altar to Brett Favre in the corner. There's a vintage/thrift-store vibe at Mickey's, an after-the-softball-game, let's play-a-game-of-pool atmosphere, and if you don't want to sit at the bar, there are couches in a back room where you can crash and relax. There's also a dining room even further back in the warren of rooms that is Mickey's.
Mickey's was not a bar that sold food - not even burgers and fries - before Madison's smoking ban took effect. Yeah, this was a smoky bar.
Now the window that looks over Willy Street has a sign in big block letters: GOOD FOOD. Owner Jane Capito, who's also the brainchild behind Lazy Jane's Cafe, has introduced a limited and somewhat nontraditional take on tavern fare. Most of the sandwiches come in at $7 - a Mickey Burger is a substantial 1/3-lb. patty topped with spicy giardiniera, garlic aioli and tomato. This is a good burger, and the spicy fixin's stay with you for the rest of the evening.
There's also a tangy pulled pork sandwich, "the world's greatest egg sandwich," grilled chicken, grilled cheese ($4.50), and the turkey Rueben.
You can order regular fries, but remember, you're not at a regular bar. Pop for the "Sexy Fries," a truly memorable plate of deep-fried handmade chips with a white truffle oil dressing and sprinkled with Parmesan cheese ($3/$4.75). Leaving aside for a minute why something that's already fried needs an olive oil dressing, let me just say that the sexy fries are superb. The truffle oil gives an extra, earthy undertone to the chips' flavor. Grab a draft beer and order up a plate - and do not look back.