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If you grew up in a small town, or even a small city, it's likely you've heard or uttered this phrase at one point: "There's nothing to do." The natural reaction for many such dissatisfied souls is to move to the big city, seek out brighter lights and a greater diversity of entertainment options. But Madison has managed to cultivate a wide range of nightlife without throwing up a handful of skyscrapers along the way.
The highest-profile establishments tend to be located downtown, but range a bit further afield and you'll find a whole slew of gems - everything from the neighborhood watering hole to the shiny new nightclub. More than a few of these places offer unexpected treats. Whether it's delicious food, a spacious dance floor or just an overall friendly vibe, digging a little deeper can result in finding a new place where you feel comfortable spending your nights.
Potential hot spot
Many isthmus-dwellers consider the city's far west side to be a desert of chain restaurants and prefab village squares. But there is some local flavor. For instance, in the former Houlihan's location on John Q Hammons Drive, not far from the somewhat bland outdoor shopping experience of Greenway Station, is the new restaurant, bar and dance club Out.
Billing itself as an all-inclusive LGBT business, Out features an impressive lunch, dinner and late-night menu heavily centered on fresh, local ingredients - a welcome addition to the sea of chain restaurants and office parks in that area. There's a nice bar, and the dining room creates a border around the central dance floor, which also features a small stage that Out has already been putting to use for various drag shows and other performances.
It's not yet a bustling hot spot, but the potential is there. DJs lay down a wide variety of dance music during the evenings, but if shaking a leg isn't your thing, sitting down for a meal during regular hours tends to be a quiet, low-key affair. The wait staff is extremely friendly, and it's likely the chef will even come out to check on you and ask about the food. On a recent weekday, I sat down for dinner with a few friends and tried the red coconut curry with a few bites of shared bread pudding for dessert. Normally I'm not a fan of the latter, but it blew me away. The whole meal was delicious.
My dining companions had already become regulars at Out, and gushed about the food and the people running the place during the entire meal. They did mention, however, that the dance nights had so far been only lightly attended - which is a shame, said one, because the DJs play some of the best, less mainstream music in town and the atmosphere is entirely welcoming.
Sticking a gay-friendly establishment out in the wilds of the far west side is a gamble, but even if you don't live in the neighborhood, it's worth the drive.
The bar as living room
For a more well-worn affair, look no further than a charming, old brick building on the corner of Williamson and Thornton streets. Mickey's Tavern has managed to hit on the perfect combination of an accessible location, a sense of familiarity with both staff and patrons and good drinks.
A year or so ago, Mickey's upped the ante even more by adding a very good brunch and dinner menu, giving people a place to go for both a strong Bloody Mary and a breakfast burrito.
If you live in the area, chances are you'll recognize at least one other soul when you walk through the front door. But Mickey's has taken the art of being a dark, quiet place to drink to the next level. It's more like someone's house than a bar, with several rooms furnished with cozy couches and chairs, a pool table and an almost hidden back patio.
The big room is often transformed into a performance space, hosting bands that range from rock to dub to blues. The first Saturday of every month, a crew of DJs calling themselves Ka-Boom!Box set up shop, usually inviting "celebrity" guests to join them. One recent addition was John Herndon of the band Tortoise.
While Mickey's is hardly Madison's best-kept secret, it does manage to maintain a distinctly low-key style and approachability. It's a remarkably decent place to catch a live show, even if it's likely to be a bit crowded, and an even better place to get drinks with friends while still feeling like you're just hanging out in your own living room.
Doing it all
Far on the west side, nestled among Costco and corporate offices and hotels, Scatz is attempting to carve out its own niche. The sports bar and nightclub opened last November and features an interesting combination of elements. There are full lunch and dinner menus that go a bit beyond the usual pub fare. There's also a six-table pool hall, enough flat-screen TVs to keep even the most ADD-addled mind entertained, and an impressively ample stage area.
It's an ambitious undertaking, and sometimes Scatz seems to suffer from multiple-personality disorder.
On a recent Thursday evening, I sat down and watched two karaoke DJs as they gamely tried to warm up a small crowd by playing thumping club beats from about five years ago. The first woman to try her hand at singing gave a decent recital of Pat Benatar's "Heartbreaker." The second woman to hit the stage gave a less pleasant, throaty rendition of "Closer to Fine," but points to her for choosing that song. I hadn't expected to hear the Indigo Girls, even in karaoke form, at Scatz.
The clientele is an interesting mix of young, urban-looking professionals (mostly availing themselves of the pool tables or a quiet drink) and middle-aged suburbanites looking to whoop it up for the night. The walls along the entranceway are lined with posters for upcoming gigs - mostly cover bands, mostly of funk or '80s metal.
Vanilla Ice himself recently graced the Scatz stage as part of his tour, capitalizing on the ironic fascination with him. That sort of event may just become Scatz's bread and butter. The live music setup is relatively professional, so a mix of circus sideshows like Ice, really good touring or local acts and cover bands could prove to be decent draws.