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Some college towns make it easy to plan a night on the town by having only one decent place to go to. Thankfully, Madison is very much not like some college towns. There are so many good venues dotted across the isthmus that plotting the course of a night out can be daunting, especially for someone new to the city.
The bars and clubs know they've got competition, and they throw out all manner of promotions to lure in new clientele. Drink specials, theme nights, late food offerings, DJs, bands - you name it and somewhere in Madison, they've got it. The competition can be cutthroat.
In the interest of making the decision process just a little bit easier, both for those new to town and those looking to branch out from their usual haunts, let's toss some nightspots into the ring together and see who emerges triumphant.
Get ready to rumble!
Wet your whistle
Finding the right watering hole often boils down to one of two characteristics: price and quality. Madison boasts an impressive number of places to get liquored up. You can hardly throw a Halloween-riot-inspired rock without hitting a bar in this town.
There are the campus haunts, of course, but if you're looking to avoid the crush or the overzealous brosef losing his half-digested hot wings and Miller Light all over your shoes, it's important to be familiar with options other than just what your perpetually inebriated friends suggest.
If you're operating on a limited budget, it's just as important to find a decent place that also offers cheap drink specials. Both Genna's (105 W. Main St.) and the Orpheum Theatre Lobby (216 State St.) took top honors in this year's Isthmus Favorites reader poll, and the accolades are well deserved. Both feature fine specials and selection throughout the week. The Orpheum wins in terms of proximity to campus and the fact that it also offers food, but Genna's boasts a more cozy, traditional bar setting.
Honorable mention goes to the Vintage (529 University Ave.), which offers dollar taps on Mondays, and ever-popular dive bar the Paradise Lounge (119 E. Main St.), where you can guzzle Long Island Iced Teas for just $2.75 on a lazy Sunday while enjoying the topnotch jukebox.
If you favor a quality selection over getting drunk quickly, it's time to wander a little further afield. Up on the Capitol Square, the Old Fashioned (23 N. Pinckney St.) stocks an impressive array of Wisconsin craft beers (well over 100 at last count, some of which are part of the 30 varieties kept on tap). It's a good thing, then, that the Old Fashioned is a ways away from our next contestant; otherwise a serious row might break out. The Malt House may be way down at 2609 E. Washington Ave., but it's well worth the trip for serious brew hounds. You can enjoy your suds in a building that's been serving beer almost nonstop since 1858, and the owners put great care into their incredible selection.
Get your dance on
Sometimes, more than anything, you just want to dance. Cut a rug. Trip the light fantastic. Sure, the availability of drinks and amenities like good-looking patrons (and staff) are a plus, but what you're really looking for are good DJs and a proper dance floor. Venues like this come and go in Madison about as often as Favre retires - the most recent casualty being downtown's Cardinal Bar, though there looks to be a grand reopening in the near future.
Fortunately, dancing is enjoying a renaissance. The most recent addition to the club scene is the near east side's gay-friendly Plan B (924 Williamson St.), which took up residence in, and did some serious remodeling of, the old Star Photo building. It's an inviting space, well designed and spacious, and so far sporting a friendly atmosphere and extremely danceable tunes. Also fine for dancing is the stalwart, south-of-the-Beltline gay bar Club 5 (5 Applegate Court).
If you're in the mood for something a bit more gritty and dark, though, the Inferno (1718 Commercial Ave.) is probably the place to be. A home away from home for the industrial, electronic and fetish scenes, this bunker-like club plays host to a wide range of DJs, live bands and even burlesque acts that hail from as close as down the block and as far away as across the pond. Its Leather & Lace night remains one of the most successful long-running monthly events in town, providing a relatively user-friendly introduction to the kink community.
Then again, maybe you're a more traditional dancer - one with actual steps, even. Vying for your particular rhythmic attentions are various spots with specific nights dedicated to everything from salsa (Frida Mexican Grill, 117 State St.) to swing (the Brink Lounge, 701 E. Washington Ave.).
It's important to combine good drink with good food, especially if you'd like to be able to function properly the next morning. In Madison, your evenings out don't have to be filled with nothing but pretzels and pickled eggs. Many bars offer all sorts of grub for your booze-soaked belly. The Weary Traveler (1201 Williamson St.) is a convivial neighborhood spot that serves delicious meals well past most of polite society's bedtime. It has a leg up over many of the other late-night establishments by also being fairly vegetarian- and vegan-friendly.
For fast, accessible, cheap and tasty, one of the most popular choices is Ian's Pizza (115 State St., 319 N. Frances St.), wisely serving a wide variety of delicious, greasy pies until just past bar time. If, however, you're looking for something a little more kosher, you can't beat a freshly baked late-night doughnut from Greenbush Bakery (1305 Regent St.), which keeps its doors open until 2:30 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.
The newest contender in the late-night category can be found in Schenk's Corners on the near east side. Alchemy Cafe (1980 Atwood Ave.) serves food until 1 a.m., and it's fabulous. Check out the amazing fish fry on a Friday night, or just tuck into any one of its regular menu items.
The kids are all right
Not old enough to drink legally just yet? Put down that illicitly obtained red plastic cup and back away from the house party, kid. You've got better options.
There always seems to be a minor battle between venues that want to offer all-ages or 18+ nights and a city that's very skittish about allowing minors to come anywhere near a liquor-serving establishment. Club owners have also run into problems with underage patrons acting irresponsibly and ruining the fun for everyone, so tip number one is to be thankful for those places that do cater to your age group and be respectful.
Then consider some possibilities. The Majestic Theatre (115 King St.) plays hosts to all manner of local and touring DJ parties and live bands. Electro-clash auteur Peaches recently performed, and the raucous rock of the Gossip is coming on Oct. 17. Bonus? All of the shows are all-ages.
The UW campus still has something to offer the underage crowd even after the demolition of Union South saw the loss of Club 770. During warmer months, the Memorial Union Terrace (800 Langdon St.) brings in a wide range of acts, and when things get chilly, Memorial Union's Rathskeller brings the heat indoors. The shows are all free, and the student bookers schedule a range of really great acts.
Live music nightly
There is no excuse not to catch a live band on any given night in town. Madison is brimming with talent and music of almost every genre under the sun. Whether you're hoping to catch your favorite touring act or check out what the locals have to offer, you'll have no shortage of options.
That can be the problem. Sometimes too much choice is overwhelming, but don't let it get you down. Think about what type of tunes and what sort of environment you're in the mood for and narrow things down.
Want to sit at the bar and have a drink but not have to commit to paying a cover charge? The Frequency (121 W. Main St.) has worked out a clever system to cater to the noncommittal crowd. The main bar area is separated from the room with the stage so that you can wander in for a tipple and only get harangued to pay up if you choose to venture into the back. And it's entirely possible to listen in and make up your mind while sitting up front. The acoustics at the Frequency are remarkably good for the intimate space, and there's something happening every night of the week, whether your tunes of choice are indie rock, electronic, alt-country or hip-hop. Some standouts include local comedian Alan Talaga's regular (free) happy hour variety gig, "The Dan Potacke Show," as well as Clyde Stubblefield's Funky Mondays.
Elsewhere, there's jazz at Restaurant Magnus (120 E. Wilson St.), rootsy tunes at the Harmony Bar (2201 Atwood Ave.) and Middleton's Club Tavern (1915 Branch St.), hard rock at the Annex (1206 Regent St.) and country and more at Fitchburg's the Bean (5264 Verona Rd.).
For bigger shows in more spacious surroundings that don't lose the intimacy, the Majestic, the High Noon Saloon (701 E. Washington) and the Barrymore Theatre (2090 Atwood Ave.) are all safe bets. Their calendars are impressive, the sound is usually high quality, and the bathrooms are clean. What more could you ask for?
Of course, one really shouldn't consider Madison's venues to be arch-rivals. Each brings its own flavor to the scene, and all do their part to add to the city's thriving creative culture. It comes down to what your pocketbook can handle and what you're in the mood for on any given evening. Needless to say, this overview only scratches the surface of what's available - consult Isthmus and