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Thursday, February 26, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 7.0° F  Fair
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Hot hangouts, cool retreats: Embrace or escape summer's swelter at these Madison haunts
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Local folk-pop band PHOX frolic on the East Side Club's sprawling lawn.
Credit:Sharon Vanorny

The sun doesn't set until almost 9 p.m. right now, which means nightlife takes place in the light and the dark. For some, this means more time to work on a tan while sipping a cocktail at a rooftop cafe. For others, this means 100-degree days are just around the bend, along with the urge to crawl into in a cool, shady cave. For most of us, it's a bit of both.

Here are more than 40 local spots to soak up sun and fun or kick back and chill out. It's not a complete list, by any means: See for a more extensive rundown of local bars and clubs.


King Street
100 block of King Street

Okay, maybe we're biased because we're headquartered here, but this is one of the best blocks in town for summer nightlife. It's where the Majestic Theatre hosts its free outdoor concert series, Live on King Street, which this summer includes Smith Westerns (July 19), Eric Hutchinson (July 26), Keller Williams (Aug. 16) and Rev. Horton Heat (Aug. 23). The new Alterra has colorful patio tables, superb iced mochas and delicious beer from O'So Brewing Company. And just a few feet away are Merchant and Graze, which offer indoor and outdoor seating, excellent wine and cocktails, and fancy meals made from topnotch local foods. Local musicians perform at Merchant several nights a week, and dance-friendly spots such as Plan B are a short walk.

Bar Bistro 608
430 N. Midvale Blvd.

Summer 2013 truly begins on May 31, when Sundance Cinemas' rooftop restaurant opens for the season. This date-friendly spot is famous for its mojitos, and its view of the city is both romantic and relaxing. Plus, you can take your food and drinks into the movie theater if you can't finish them outside due to an engrossing conversation or sultry staring contest.

Bourbon Street Grille
6308 Metropolitan Lane, Monona

Tired of sitting on the UW Memorial Union Terrace, watching buff windsurfers and hearty sailors? Bourbon Street Grille's patio overlooks a Yahara River channel where people favor small motorboats, cheap beer and borderline-napalm tans. It's not trashy so much as a reminder of how egalitarian waterfront life can be in the Madison area. The weeknight entertainment calendar includes performances by Blues by Five (June 6) and State Street Jazz Collective (June 12).

Dexter's Pub
301 North St.

With more than 20 craft brews on tap, Dexter's Pub is a good place to cool off with a pint, a ball game and a round of darts. But if you want to feel hot sand between your toes during a game of volleyball, this is also the place for you. The league runs Monday through Thursday, and you can watch the matches from outdoor picnic tables.

East Side Club
3735 Monona Dr., Monona

The East Side Club's tiki bar is a nice, mellow foil to the Capital-area terraces: It sits below street level, on Lake Monona, near a lawn dotted with Adirondack chairs. National touring acts, including singer Kelly Hogan, started stopping by in 2012, and this summer will feature a June 27 performance by Cayucas. Unlike last year, this season probably won't feature food carts in the parking lot, but manager Nancy Schmelzer says the tiki bar will likely add pulled-pork sandwiches and pizza to its menu.

227 State St.

If this were a story about restaurants, many places like Fresco would make the list for pairing local, seasonal fare with summery cocktails. But for this discussion, the rooftop cafe earns a mention for its scenery: A sleek glass wall, MMoCA's sprawling sculpture garden and views of the Capitol make it a relaxing stop after a trip to the museum or before a show at Overture Center. Bonus: On Friday nights in June, the museum shows avant-garde films in the sculpture garden. This year's selections include the insect-themed thriller The Hellstrom Chronicle (June 7) and videos by Whitney Biennial alum Miranda July (June 14).

High Noon Saloon
701 E. Washington Ave.

One of Madison's finest rock clubs has an acoustic music series on its patio every Thursday through the end of September. Bookings include boisterous DJ $amroc (July 4) and songwriter Nick Brown (July 18).

The Malt House
2609 E. Washington Ave.

A Zagat blogger recently named the Malt House one of the 10 hottest places to drink whiskey in the United States, and Draft magazine named it one of America's 100 best beer bars. But the mounting prestige hasn't made the east-side joint feel like anything other than a homey neighborhood establishment. Beside the traffic of East Wash, in the shadow of the Red Letter News porn store, the busy patio manages to feel as friendly as the little tavern inside. Both inside and out, the bar welcomes a regular rotation of acoustic acts, from the Kissers to western-swing act Safety Last.

The Mason Lounge
416 S. Park St.

The crowd here use their hands to toss back jars full of blueberry sours, not layer bricks upon mortar. If you're not a fan of the sour, try an IPA, IBA, APA or stout. All of these choices taste great on the patio as jazz (Tuesday nights with the Five Points Jazz Collective) or bluegrass (second Wednesdays with Milkhouse Radio) wafts into the night air.

Mickey's Tavern
1524 Williamson St.

The Willy Street institution has decided to move some tunes onto its popular patio. On the second and fourth Thursdays of each month, look for happy-hour sets from jazz vocalist Michelle DuVall, usually backed up by guitarist Doug Brown and bass player Nick Moran. The patio is also where Biff Blumfumgagnge of the Gomers will play silent movies with live accompaniment. One of his movie nights is scheduled for Aug. 29, and more are likely in the works. Indoors, a monthly Tuesday night residency will feature Anna Vogelzang in June and Jim Schwall in July.

Monona Terrace
1 John Nolen Dr.

Dance, picnic or simply admire the lake from Monona Terrace's rooftop. This summer's live-music lineup includes disco divas VO5 (Aug. 23) and merengue masters Grupo Candela (Aug. 30).

UW Memorial Union Terrace
800 Langdon St.

The Terrace stage hosts veteran local acts that bring in crowds and touring acts that risk scaring off said crowds. This year, the latter group includes the searing synth-based production and apocalyptic verses of hip-hop artist El-P (July 20) and the gracefully eclectic electronic music of Maxmillion Dunbar (Aug. 9). Drop by in the early evenings for Madison performers like acoustic blues act Boo Bradley (July 25). The Terrace has adopted a sci-fi theme for its Monday-night movie series, which means everything from the heady Close Encounters of the Third Kind (July 22) to the hysterically garish Mars Attacks! (June 17).

529 University Ave.; 674 S. Whitney Way

Want to sport a pompadour and white V-neck T-shirt this summer? You'll look right at home amid the retro trappings of Vintage Spirits & Grill on University Avenue. In addition to serving tasty cocktails, Vintage usually has several of its own beers on tap, produced at its Whitney Way brewery. Both locations have outdoor patios that are excellent for people-watching.

Whole Foods Market
3313 University Ave.

At least a few people must have coupled up while sniffing cantaloupes in Whole Foods' produce section, but the shop's patio is one of the near west side's hottest date spots in the summertime. At Wednesday-night Burgers & Bluegrass events, visitors can bask in the aromas of sizzling meats while sampling microbrews and tunes from local bands such as Spartime Bluegrass (June 12) and Off the Porch (June 5 and 19). The cookout runs from 4 to 8 p.m., the music is free, and proceeds benefit groups like the Dane County Humane Society and FairShare CSA Coalition. For some after-dark nightlife, head over to the nearby Hilldale Shopping Center for one of the Great Dane's DJ nights or a round of shochu cocktails at Sushi Muramoto's chic lounge.

Warner Park
1625 Northport Dr.

Warner Park helps keep Madison's residential north side lively. A series of free Monday concerts will feature such local acts as Primitive Culture (July 8) and Madisalsa (July 15). The Madison Blues Society returns on June 22 with its annual Blues Picnic featuring regional favorites like the Cash Box Kings. Other activities range from the fireworks-fundraiser race Run to the Rhythm (June 29) to Africa Fest (Aug. 17). The Madison Mallards, who make their home in Warner Park, won't bring back the Pondamonium music festival this year, but will offer fans a formidable variety of wacky game-day promotions. (WWE wrestler Mick Foley, anyone?)

The Wisco
852 Williamson St.

When Madisonians refer to their favorite bars as "dives," they're often exaggerating just a hair. Not so here, where a $2 cover may put you in front of a good metal band or a not-quite-musician farting around with guitar pedals, and where sand volleyball courts coexist with a building that seems to be decaying. Despite the quirks, there are welcoming bartenders and burgers local food critics have praised.


West Main Street
100 block of West Main Street

There are numerous ways to get sweaty at the bars on this block, such as punk shows at the Frequency and the Urban Spoken Word Poetry Slam at Genna's (third Saturday of each month). But the laid-back atmosphere and inexpensive drinks put these places in the "chill out" category. You'll find nightly drink specials at the Paradise Lounge and the Frequency, plus a plethora of cocktail possibilities at Genna's. Or play eight-ball with a pool shark who's too wobbly to stand, let alone shoot straight, at the Paradise.

East Wilson Street
500 block of East Wilson Street

At the Up North, you can enjoy music by artists like Lefty Joe & Friends (Tuesdays) and Catfish Stephenson (Thursdays) amid rustic wood paneling. The Essen Haus boosts your odds of hearing "The Beer Barrel Polka" as you drain crystal boots of German beer. If performing is your thing, try the Come Back In's popular open mic (second and fourth Mondays) or karaoke (Sundays).

Barrymore Theatre
2090 Atwood Ave.

An air-conditioned campsite? That's the vibe at the Barrymore on many nights. Whether you're watching a concert, a comedian or a movie, the venue's star-flecked ceiling will make you think you're among tents and trees for at least a moment. For an extra dose of cool, head across the street to Monty's Blue Plate Diner for a Sprecher Black Bavarian beer with a pretzel rod and a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Brink Lounge
701 E. Washington Ave.

Concerts at the High Noon are loads of fun, but you may crave a shower afterward due to sweaty mosh pits and slosh pits - those groups of people who spill beer when they dance. For a more chilled-out atmosphere, mosey downstairs to the Brink Lounge, a bar stocked with wine, suds and top-shelf spirits. Many nights feature live jazz or events such as Mad Toast Live, a podcast recording that features musicians from the worlds of rock, folk, blues and more.

Cardinal Bar
418 E. Wilson St.

The Cardinal is the kind of place where you can cool off with a cocktail or warm up with a full night of dancing. The venue has expanded its sonic offerings to include a Tuesday Jazz Jam with the New Breed, live music during Friday happy hours and Latin tunes on Saturdays. To replace some of the calories burned, venture to the coatroom, which is now Cafe Cortadito. Here you can nosh on churros before, during or after you're shaking it. Or, for something totally different, exercise your noggin during Team Trivia on Sundays.

The Comedy Club on State
202 State St.

It's cooler underground, and the basement-level Comedy Club takes that to an extreme with its rather intimidating ice-cream drinks and frightful "60-ounce punch bowl." The most promising summer visitor is Doug Benson, who will do standup on Aug. 10 and a live recording of his Doug Loves Movies podcast on Aug. 11. Another highlight is the Wednesday-night open mic, where seasoned performers balance out the crash-and-burn first-timers.

The Fountain
122 State St.

Duck into the Fountain for some shelter on a hot night, and you'll likely find it busy with jazz musicians or singer-songwriters airing new compositions. The bar and restaurant has made a dogged effort to become a busy little center for music on State Street, even launching its own big band that plays the last Sunday of every month. On Saturday nights, UW-Madison jazz professor Johannes Wallmann leads his band from behind the piano, and on Mondays, Madison guitarist Louka Patenaude and solo act William Z. Villain invite songwriters of all stripes to play short sets in the back bar. This friendly spot is also home to the delightfully old-school lounge jazz of Scott and Mike's Hammond Organ Nite Band.

Glass Nickel Pizza's basement
2916 Atwood Ave.

The home of the Cheesasurus may not sound like a hip nightlife destination, but the Atwood location's basement hosts events that range from swanky book signings to hip-hop dance parties. This underground lair has its own bar, a small stage and access to the pizza choices served upstairs. Recent visitors have included award-winning jazz saxophonist Gilad Atzmon and Crown Point frontman Jon Davidson.

The Great Dane-Downtown
123 E. Doty St.

There's a reason the Great Dane earned top honors at the 2012 Great American Beer Fest: It has something for everyone. A wide-ranging selection of beers to suit snob and layman alike? Yep. Inspired pub food, a sports bar with pool tables and a secluded beer garden? Yep, yep and yep. Now that's pretty cool.

Harmony Bar
2201 Atwood Ave.

The beer is crisp and cool, but the blues concerts make this friendly joint sizzle. Upcoming acts include the Joel Paterson Trio (June 15) and Cris Plata & Extra Hot (June 22). Once you've basked in a blast of A/C, warm up with a walnut burger. Or get the blood flowing with a game of pool and some fancy dancing on the checkerboard floor.

Johnson Public House
908 E. Johnson St.

East Johnson Street lost a few cool points when the Project Lodge departed last fall, but it's rebounded with the help of this nearby coffee shop and sometime beer bar. Coffee aficionados flock here for daily brews from Chicago's Intelligentsia and Viroqua's Kickapoo Coffee, which can be ordered as pour-overs. Oberon and Sixpoint beers flow during events such as the monthly Story Slam, where visitors compete for prizes by sharing freshly spun yarns.

Le Tigre Lounge
1328 S. Midvale Blvd.

If the Barrymore is an air-conditioned campsite, Le Tigre Lounge is a polar jungle. Here you can drink a frosty Tiger Beer from Singapore under the watchful eyes of stuffed and ceramic tigers. Or guzzle an Old Fashioned as the jukebox plays competing versions of "My Way," one by Frank Sinatra, another by Elvis. Tips for the uninitiated: Cash is a must, and you'll need to watch your language or your butt will land on the curb. And don't expect your friends to come to your rescue. They won't want to leave this kitsch kingdom until bar time.

Nam's Noodle
1336 Regent St.

The beer is good and the bubble tea is great at this cozy Asian eatery, but the private karaoke rooms are spectacular. Choose from hundreds of J-pop and K-pop gems or American classics like "The Final Countdown" and "In Da Club."

Natt Spil
211 King St.

Natt Spil has cultivated a strong following by way of affected obscurity. The cozy bar still has no sign and no real phone number, but in summer it becomes welcoming thanks to big front windows that open onto King Street. By a certain time of night, it's sure to be half-breezy, half-sweltering. After 10 p.m., expect to hear DJs like Vilas Park Sniper or Wes3 spinning hip-hop, or DJ Tolerance (a.k.a. Strictly Discs manager Evan Woodward) reaching deep into elusive electronic and world-music records.

The Plaza Tavern
319 N. Henry St.

The crowd here is quite diverse, which may explain why no one can seem to agree if this bar is a dive. What can't be explained is how this particular crowd forms. The UW certainly plays a role, as do the venerable Plazaburger and drink specials, but the real reason to cool down here seems to be the hockey. There's no ice rink, but the bubble-hockey machine is one of the most enjoyable bar games in town.

Redamte Coffee House
449 State St.

Glance at the ocean-blue accent wall at this social-justice-minded cafe, and you'll instantly feel refreshed. Order a fair-trade iced latte or a sea-salt caramel affogato, and you'll feel even cooler. Local musicians such as Max Dvorak often play on its stage, as do touring acts, with folks like Grant-Lee Phillips and Anas Mitchell performing acoustic sets here in the past few months. Redamte's documentary film screenings and salsa dancing lessons are great ways to meet others interested in traveling the world and changing it for the better.

Weary Traveler Free House
1201 Williamson St.

You won't be weary for long after stepping into this cozy bar and eatery. Plates of cured meats are made for sharing, and the barkeeps seem to set the rules of cool on the near east side. Locally brewed kombucha promotes hydration between rounds of Potosi Cave Ale, and the wine list reads like a heavily curated version of the menus at Barriques and Eno Vino. Plus, life-size chess pieces turn even the most mundane trip into a memorable story.

Woody Anne's
2236 Winnebago St.

This corner tap is a nice, shady spot for the ultimate summer pastime: shuffleboard with a side of smack talk.

[Editor's note: This article is corrected to note that Michelle DuVall performs at Mickey's Tavern on the second and fourth Thursdays of each month.]

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