Wisconsin Capitol Pride is this weekend. The fun-filled fest promises dances, parties, drag queens, go-go dancers, celebrities - even a boat cruise and a patio filled with foam (see sidebar).
But gay revelry in Madison doesn't just happen on a couple of days in August. It goes on year-round at Madison's gay establishments. Recently, friends and I set out to assess the scene at five of them.
On our Isthmus Ambition Tour we found vibrant venues brimming with diverse crowds and a strong sense of community. We also found glitter, feather boas and giant throbbing rainbow hangovers. So whether you've been a hundred times already, are newly in town for Pride, or are simply bar-curious, it is time to get thee to a Madison gay club.
924 Williamson Street
Although it bills itself as a gay nightclub, Plan B seems to be the place where everyone goes to dance. If you've ever driven down Willy Street at night, you've probably seen the long lines snaking down the block. Arrive early if you want to avoid the wait.
The large black windows in front are modern and sleek, with an invitingly urban look. As you enter, you see some earthy bramble accents hanging from the high ceiling, mod couches to the left and a convenient coat check to the right. Some bistro tables nearby are purported to be the site of a serious ongoing euchre tournament.
An enormous bar occupies the center of the main room, and its surface glows bright with changing colors. I find it Space-Age-y and pleasantly druggy. If the bar lighting doesn't make you self-conscious, the bronzed, mostly naked bartenders will. Plan B is one place where you will be reminded that "Wisconsin skinny" really means chunky. Less svelte patrons really should be able to sign up for a gym membership right at the door.
There is an attractive pool-table area with a large white deer head, as well as a little drink station with TVs playing music videos behind it. But despite these attractions, it is hard to resist hitting the dance floor - past the DJ doused in Aquanet and gold glitter.
What with the green lasers, strobes and smoke-machine haze, the dancing scene at Plan B is what one might expect from a Sesame Street cast wrap party: friendly, playful and very diverse. On a ledge off to the side, exhibitionists form a makeout club, but the vibe is decidedly nonthreatening. Everyone here is out to have a great time.
On a recent night, a woman offered me the chance to learn Michael Jackson dance moves. After I failed miserably she wandered off, but it wasn't long before a few other people, equally friendly, wanted to dance. That made me wonder if Plan B's futuristic look was more than cosmetic. It seems possible to dance here and catch a glimpse of life beyond our current era's regressive boundaries.
The bartending is efficient, and there's plenty to ogle if you have to wait for a drink. It all feels like an epic house party, one where nearly everyone is good-looking and you don't have to clean up afterwards. Plan B is in heartwarming contrast to the usual pickup dance club, and it does Madison proud.
77 Sirloin Strip
Tucked in a trailer park on a hill overlooking the Beltline, the Mediterranean Hookah Lounge & Cafe defines Adventure Away From Downtown. It is a David Lynch movie meets Mediterranean restaurant meets...gay-friendly bar? True, and it works in a way that Susan Sontag might have snottily described as naÃve camp. But queer aesthetics aside, this place is a blast. It has good food, belly dancers, hookahs, pool tables, darts, video gambling machines and karaoke - all at the same time.
I remember when the establishment was called Hannah's, and in the original bar, not a lot has changed. When we visited, there were people singing and drinking beer in a carpeted room that feels like a trailer. While the clientele is mixed, it seemed to be disproportionately male couples. The pool tables add to the townie-bar flavor of this section, but across the hall - in the newer side - things have upscaled dramatically.
A nice little bar offers Mediterranean specials like the liquor arak, and two large rooms feature comfortable leather sectionals. These are placed around low tables, forming conversation pits where groups can enjoy a hookah. There are brick fireplaces, crystal chandeliers, brass sconces, mismatched carpets, floral drapes and Chinese-buffet-style lacquered chairs. It feels a little L.A. via La Farge, or like Natt Spil south. My friends and I loved it.
They were finishing dinner at a nearby table. In the far corner, a big, jolly party of Pakistanis were having a grand time smoking and conversing.
One of our group helped stop a patron from falling into a bathroom stall, and as that hilarious story made its way around, we chose a tobacco flavor for our water pipe. We conservatively tried apple, but the menu gets as weird as you like, offering rose, watermelon and even mint chocolate chip. We settled in to talk about the forthcoming Liberace movie starring Michael Douglas. Michael Douglas?!
The hookah arrived hot and ready with individually wrapped, medical-looking plastic applicators. Smokers can have a sterile experience should they feel so inclined. The applicators prompted enough jokes to get us merrily through the actual smoking experience, which produces a clean buzz.
In addition to feeling like we had discovered a gem, we thought the service at the Hookah Lounge was superb.
5 Applegate Court
Club 5 is a compound surrounded by parking lots that occupies the site of a former Bombay Bicycle Club. The squat building still sports the greenhouse-like former dining area from when it was a restaurant. From the outside it isn't much to look at.
A rowdy little gaggle of teens going through the rigmarole of getting carded and wrist-banded slowed our entrance. Before we even made it through the entryway, a tall man in nothing but a 10-gallon cowboy hat and jockstrap crossed our path to the bathrooms. Game on.
Inside, the bar and dance floor butt up against each other, and the truly cavernous space reveals a number of other bars within the complex that are almost distinct. We headed first to the quieter former greenhouse area, where a friendly bartender served us stiff vodka drinks near the pool table.
We were excited to find a crane claw machine in the corner. To our immense amusement, this was no G-rated glass cube, complete with Buzz and Woody. No, this was a different toy story entirely, filled with inflatable butt-plugs, nipple clamps, lube tube key rings and P-wand prostate massagers. We lost a few dollars trying to win a plushy penis.
Continuing to explore, we made our way to the Barracks, billed as the "Men's Bar of Club 5." It has a strong industrial feel to it, dark and metallic, with a few tough-looking men watching porn on TV screens. We noted the Mad Max-like décor and checked out the patio outside. It is large, and at a few picnic tables people were having subdued conversations.
Further around the back of the main bar there's a little conversation area with mod lights on the wall and low couches. We settled into these and discovered that the TV screen above us was a virtual chat room. You can text Club 5 from your cell phone and post to this screen, and to other screens all over the complex. Brilliantly entertaining. We texted vigorously.
Later, back on the dance floor, go-go dancers in little black undies gyrated to the Top 40 club music. Occasionally, someone would saunter up to one of the dancers and either towel sweat off him or stuff money in his crotch. And then, before we left, the naked cowboy returned and entertained us with a dance. Bring a lasso.
117 W. Main Street
A sign at the entrance says, "Never pay a cover at the glamorous Shamrock Bar." It is tongue-in-cheek, because of all the things the Shamrock may be, glamorous isn't necessarily one of them. Instead, it is a warm and inviting neighborhood bar boasting good food and cheap drinks. It is also the center of the little gay-friendly universe on West Main Street that includes Genna's and the Tornado.
The bar itself is red brick and Irish green with faux green marble tables and dark wood wainscoting on the walls. It feels more Sconnie than Irish and could be mistaken for an up-north Packer bar if it weren't for the pride flags and the fact that every other TV is turned to the Food Network. That is a detail I consider a huge plus.
In addition to evening fare, the bar serves lunch and a weekend brunch that features menu items like the Big Daddy, a monster plate of food for $7. The mimosas arrive in enormous hurricane glasses filled with vodka, champagne and triple sec - with a pour of tequila on top for good measure. Gird your loins. You will get drunk here.
Everyone seems to know each other at the Shamrock, and on the night we went, meeting one person led to another and yet another and so on. It is an unpretentious place filled with some politicos and a few ladies who either enjoy the company of gay men or just like to filter their bar scene through a softer, LGBT lens.
We met the extremely popular bartender Toni, who promptly made me a Menage-à-Trois cocktail. It involved three types of Malibu rum with cranberry juice. The drink was a little sweet for my taste, but certainly in keeping with the lively mood of the bar.
The Shamrock isn't a dance club by any stretch of the imagination, but everyone loves DJ Saul, who spins the beats on the weekends. The bar has a great early crowd and an even better late crowd, with steady traffic in between. It is an easy place to love, and perfect for stopping through at least once on a night out.
114 King Street
Woof's took over the space where the King Club used to be. Organizers kept the black windows, added sporty signage, and recently chained a couple of cute, thigh-high carved wooden bears to a pipe outside. The otherwise unadorned exterior is matched inside by a cold and modern space. A supremely cool wall of TVs hangs between the main room and a small sitting area.
Woof's suffers from the same shoebox feel that made the King Club awkward - there isn't a lot to break up the eye if the place happens to be slow. It can be a bit of a buzz kill to walk through an empty room to find the bartender in the back. Luckily, we ducked into Woof's after the ACT Ride and found the place packed. There was a round table full of catered food in the middle of the room, and groups of people were happily eating and conversing.
Woof's has organized a number of events during Pride weekend, one of which is a (sold out) boat ride on Friday night gamily dubbed the Spit & Seamen. That seemed to be the topic of conversation for a while, and if you missed getting tickets you can meet the "sailors" at 11 p.m., when they return to the bar. On Saturday, Woof's hosts a Pride block party on King Street.
Woof's is known for its special events, and it has monthly themed parties as well as involvement in sport teams for volleyball, rugby, biking, etc. As the only gay sports bar in town, it fills a much-needed niche.
During our visit there seemed to be in attendance a number of bears - a subculture term for masculine, muscular, often hairy gay men. And the bears outside? They might just become the icons of King Street.
Pride Weekend Highlights
Visit wisconsincapitolpride.org and venue websites for details.
Thursday, Aug. 18
Pride weekend starts with a commitment ceremony
Declare love or renew vows at the Wisconsin State Capitol, 5-6 pm.
Pride Strip-off Party
With Ricky Sinz and Chicago's Fierce Casting, Club 5, 9 pm.
Friday, Aug. 19
Femme Fatale Friday
Drag show with DJ Tony, hosted by Davina DeVille, Plan B, 8 pm.
Spit & Seamen
After party, Woof's, 11 pm.
Pride Kickoff Show
With RuPaul's Drag Race contestants Manilla Luzon and Sahara Davenport, Club 5, 10 pm.
Saturday, Aug. 20
Wisconsin Capitol Pride Picnic
Club 5, noon-4 pm.
King Street Pride Block Party
Madison Capitol Pride Party
Plan B, 10 pm.
Club 5 Dolls Pride Show & Foam Party
With RuPaul's Drag Race contestant Carmen Carrera, Club 5, 10 pm. Foam party follows.
Sunday, Aug. 21
Big Gay Brunch
Participating restaurants, 9 am-1 pm.
Wisconsin Capitol Pride Parade
Library Mall, 1 pm.
Wisconsin Capitol Pride Rally & Celebration
Capitol at State Street, 2 pm.