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Thursday, December 25, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 39.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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Good music, good walnut burger
East-side nightclub the Harmony Bar serves up the vittles
This is a bar that has settled into itself in the most natural way possible.
This is a bar that has settled into itself in the most natural way possible.

Harmony Bar & Grill
2201 Atwood Ave., 249-4333.
Grill open 11 am-11:45 pm Mon.-Fri., 11-8:45 Sat.-Sun. Everything is under $9. Small parking lot in rear. Wheelchair accessible. No credit cards. ATM. Local checks with ID.

It's often been named Madison's best neighborhood bar. Or bar with the best bar food. Or best music bar. Actually, the Harmony Bar is all of that and more. Keith Daniels and Mary Jo Ragozzino opened the Atwood Avenue bar and grill in 1990, and since then it has evolved into a Madison institution, a place where locals take out-of-town visitors to show them the real Madison, while enjoying a great burger, dynamite chili and outstanding pizza. And while Madison's smoking ban has taken down some other neighborhood bars, the Harmony never missed a beat, as weekend patrons sucked in the smoke-free air and tapped to a finger-picking guitar solo by blues man Paul Filipowicz or a hot harmonica solo by Cadillac Pete.

It's hard to categorize the patrons at the Harmony. No pigeonhole is adequate. East-side neighbors, of course, but also working stiffs, retired folks, professors, philosophers, peasants, poets and kings. It's a bar where a single woman can relax and feel safe, and where a Madison-Kipp worker can get a cold one before going home to face the husband and kids. Mostly, it's a place where anybody can strike up a conversation with anybody else, as long as you don't talk about the Bears or the Vikings.

The decor is even more eclectic than the crowd. This is a bar that has settled into itself in the most natural way possible. Just sitting on a stool and looking up above the back bar, you'll notice a Badger basketball and football, a collection of Mardi Gras beads, a Packer helmet, plastic parrots (from a Jimmy Buffett night celebration), and three actual seats rescued from Milwaukee County Stadium. A pool table flanks the bar, and a second room has seating for about 60 people and a music stage. Looking around, you might suspect that not a great deal has been spent on furnishings in recent years.

The Harmony is actually two bars, one during the week and quite a different one on weekends, when the pizza stops and the music starts.

Pizza is available only Monday through Friday, and then only after 5 p.m. But this is truly great pizza, each pie made to order, in house, with homemade dough and sauce and all the usual toppings, including Canadian bacon, sun-dried tomatoes and pesto. The thin crust is not as thin as, say, the Greenbush Bar's crust, but it's crispy and crunchy and oh-so-good. And the Harmony does not drown its pizzas in cheese, a sin too often committed elsewhere. Pizzas take about 20 minutes, so plan accordingly.

The burgers are great, six ounces of ground chuck on a substantial bun. The most famous is the Bleu Cheese Burger, dripping with a piquant blue cheese dressing and irresistible with onion, lettuce, and tomato. There is also a Walnut Burger made with ground walnuts and various cheeses, spices and herbs. In fact, the Harmony caters very well to those of the vegetarian persuasion. Among their menu choices are portobello mushroom sandwiches, cheese quesadillas and a sesame noodle salad.

Sandwiches include barbecued pork, tuna steak and bratwurst. I enjoyed a Reuben recently, beautifully grilled with lean corned beef, zesty sauerkraut and dark rye. There also are traditional bar snacks: onion rings, cheese curds and the bar's homemade hot potato chips, with blue cheese dip. If these items don't get you to order a second beer, nothing will.

For more formal dining, the Harmony offers a number of platters, including a marinated chicken or tuna plate, foccacia, and a tuna caesar salad. Incidentally, the tuna served here is the Audubon-approved yellowfin, not the overfished and threatened bluefin. We are, after all, on the east side.

The chili? Simply some of the best in town (along with Dotty Dumpling's, of course). This is five-alarm chili, well stocked with ground chuck, infused with cumin, and certainly not for the faint of heart. I absolutely love it.

Along with championship pizza and chili, you're going to want a good beer, and I bet you can already guess that we won't be stuck with Bud Light or Miller Lite. No, sir, the taps here include Lake Louie, Spotted Cow, Capital Island Wheat, Sprecher and Edmund Fitzgerald from Great Lakes Brewing.

On Friday and Saturday nights, this bar/restaurant turns into a music club, with heavy emphasis on blues, bluegrass, R&B and rockabilly. Both local and national bands are featured.

The Harmony is the perfect bar and grill in the perfect neighborhood. Look at the menu board. Order at the bar. Find a seat. No smoking, please.

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