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Old standbys, new hangouts: These local haunts reflect Madison's past, present and future
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Credit:Sharon Vanorny

Madison's identity is indebted to a colorful history. It's hard to imagine how the city might look and feel without its proud culture of protest and progressivism. Locals question and resist almost everything, from war to neighborhood zoning. Though this passion has given Madison its "surrounded by reality" reputation, it also makes the city great. From the antiwar marches of the 1960s to the handwritten punk fanzines of the 1980s to the fiery #wiunion tweets of today, Madison remains Madison.

Even revolutionaries need a night out on the town once in a while. By remembering the past and imagining the future, Madison arrives at its present sense of self. Here are some nightlife haunts that reveal where the city's been and where it's headed next.


Old Standby
Barrymore Theatre
2090 Atwood Ave.

A brightly colored Barrymore ticket can elicit a Pavlovian response. Its look hasn't changed in years, and neither has that of the venue itself. Once upon a time, the Barrymore screened smutty gems such as Seven Into Snowy, but for the past 25 years, it's functioned as a comparatively tame performance venue. The stage has hosted dozens of influential performers, from comedian Emo Phillips in the late '80s to punk legend Henry Rollins two years ago. Just perusing the theater's website, which lists each show that happened there between 1987 and 2010, can bring on a flood of memories.

To keep things fresh, manager Steve Sperling has tailored the venue's programming to the city's changing tastes. Film, comedy and political discussions - sometimes at the same event - have proven popular in recent years.

"A lot more comedy, a lot of independent film," he says of his booking choices. "Both of those things have been growing."

This fall's lineup includes Democracy Now! journalist Amy Goodman (Sept. 20), The Daily Show's John Oliver (Sept. 21), Twin Cities rapper Brother Ali (Oct. 4) and an annual screening of Warren Miller's ski-and-snowboard film Flow State (Oct. 25).

New Hangout
Majestic Theatre
115 King St.

If the Barrymore is a beloved hippie uncle, the Majestic is a cool young whippersnapper. Notorious for bartime fights, the former movie palace had a rough decade before Matt Gerding and Scott Leslie came on board. By 2007 - the year Gerding and Leslie purchased the building - the Majestic was due for a change.

They've built a live-music empire over the past couple of years, expanding their operation to book shows at venues across the city. Their slate of fall shows includes Lil' B (Sept. 24), the Hold Steady (Sept. 28 at this year's final Live on King Street block party), Freelance Whales (Oct. 6 at Redamte Coffee House), Hey Rosetta! (Oct. 24 at the Frequency) and Stolen Silver (Nov. 15 at the Rigby).


Old Standby
Inferno Nightclub
1718 Commercial Ave.

Local dance clubs aren't known for their longevity. (Remember Mass Appeal? Scatz?). The Inferno celebrates its Sweet 16 this December, putting it in the running for the title of "The Methuselah of Madison dance clubs." (The beloved, decades-old Cardinal Bar, 418 E. Wilson St., currently holds this title.)

The Inferno is known for its dark, heavy electronica and monthly Leather & Lace dance party, but pigeonholing it as a goth club doesn't do it justice. It also hosts rock and hip-hop concerts, comedy shows, burlesque performances and myriad other happenings. Show up wearing khakis and a twin set or nothing but strips of electrical tape. Flail wildly, practice tai chi or polka the night away. Nobody cares, and you're welcome.

New Hangouts
Center for Conscious Living
849 E. Washington Ave.

Like the Inferno, the Center for Conscious Living encourages guests to dance however the beat moves them. The main difference? People here are more likely to sip Celestial Seasonings tea than Kill Switch, the Inferno's insidiously tasty purple cocktail.

Gene Ferrara opened the Center in 2009. It offers an unconventional, pan-religious church service on Sunday mornings. The rest of the week, it's a community living room filled with drum circles, hula-hooping, Zumba classes, Kirtan sessions and, increasingly, concerts. Music knows no boundaries here. Ferrara is open to folk, funk and everything in between. "Uplifting" music and events that "enliven and support health" are the focus, Ferrara says.

On a recent Friday night, the center teemed with activity. A drum circle entered hour three at 9:30 p.m. Some dancers ran in place frenetically, while others swayed slowly. Tuneless shouts of ecstasy rose from the group of three dozen or so. Everyone was barefoot. When a 4-year-old started shaking a homemade percussion instrument - a water bottle filled with corn kernels - the collective beat assumed a faster groove.

Upcoming events include a performance by the Australian singer-songwriter Washuntara (Sept. 14), DJ Mondo Bizarro spinning "a sly mix of disco, funk, house and world jams" (Sept. 28, Oct. 26), and the guitar-and-cello duo Montana Skies (Dec. 1).

Redamte Coffee House
449 State St.

Redamte is another new venue focused on good vibes and good works. The outreach arm of a local church, this brightly lit coffee shop puts its commitment to social justice into action by using sustainable and local ingredients. Three full-time staff and dozens of volunteers transformed the former pizza joint with details such as a take-one-leave-one bookshelf and a pile of board games. A cake decorator even adorned the white walls with a freehand woodland design.

At night, Redamte pushes aside the tables for Los Sabrosos' salsa lessons, TED Talk Tuesdays (an open discussion about the popular lecture series) and concerts booked by the Majestic's Tom Klein.


Old Standby
Five Nightclub & Showbar
5 Applegate Court

Formerly known as Club 5, the 14-year-old dance club on Madison's south side was rechristened as Five after a makeover earlier this year. Some changes - like a refurbished dance floor - are simply cosmetic. Others are symbolic. Gone is the back-room leather bar where porn played on six screens. Rainbow flags were taken down. The thick black paint that coated the windows was stripped to let light in. These changes reflect the new management's belief that the LGBT community is going mainstream and no longer needs the refuge it once did.

While the club has lost some of its hideout feel, it has retained a multiple-bars-in-one vibe. There's the happy-hour bar, the dance club, the outdoor patio, the sports bar and the lounge. There's also a diverse schedule of drag shows, karaoke, touring acts, burlesque and country line-dancing. Co-owner Dave Eick says the monthly Luna Bonita Latin night feels like a "big wedding dance" for ages 21 to 75. Together, these offerings fulfill the vision of Eick and his partner Matt Couper: that Five would be a place for everybody.

New Hangout
Plan B
924 Williamson St.

Plan B is new in more ways than one. Opened in 2009, it's one of the only clubs in town that wasn't cobbled together from the previous tenant's remnants. It may not come with a cool historical label such as "former grocery store" (Inferno) or "former hotel" (Cardinal), but it sure is sleek and handsome.

Co-owner Corey Gresen shrugs off a recent criticism by local blogger and Isthmus contributor Emily Mills: that an abundance of straights on the dance floor make Plan B a not-so-gay establishment. Gresen and business partner Rico Sabatini designed the club to serve the LGBT community and welcome straight folks as well. The event schedule also reflects this philosophy with karaoke hosted by Davina DeVille, "how-to-hustle" lessons with disco-funk band VO5, and a weekly 18-and-up dance party with DJ Brook. On Oct. 13 and 14, Plan B will host a "Chertravaganza" featuring Cher impersonator Chad Michaels of RuPaul's Drag Race.


Old Standby
Wild Hog in the Woods at the Wil-Mar Neighborhood Center
953 Jenifer St.

Since 1978, this near-east-side spot has given touring folkies a place to perform and locals a place to play together. Its Woody Guthrie night, an annual celebration of the famous folksinger's birthday, takes place each July.

Volunteers sustain the Hog completely during the lean times and the thick-cut ones.

"I'm utterly amazed when we pull ourselves out of a tailspin," says Kim Genich, one of the coordinators. "Things [will look] really grim...then all of a sudden, attendance starts picking up, and we get a new influx of people."

Genich says sing-alongs have proven especially popular in recent years. The next one takes place Oct. 5.

People "should always feel free to bring instruments along," he says. "We don't discourage anyone who wants to play along."

This fall's touring acts include the father-and-daughter Elm Duo (Sept. 21) and Celtic-fusion artists Four Shillings Short (Oct. 26).

New Hangout
The Project Lodge
817 E. Johnson St.

This all-ages performance venue and art gallery knows a few things about shoestring operations and the kindness of volunteers. About to become homeless, it needs community support more than ever. The venue seems to be at a tipping point: It will either die soon or become a piece of living history.

The Project Lodge opened less than five years ago and quickly made a name for itself with fresh programming and a friendly atmosphere. It has weathered financial hardship with the help of countless volunteer hours - and adoration from the locals who gave it a boost during a Kickstarter fundraising campaign earlier this year.

In the meantime, Good Style Shop, a vintage clothing store and occasional concert host, will move into the East Johnson Street storefront - and work toward becoming an old standby.

Light up the night
We can't mention every local haunt in one little article, but Madison has plenty of places designed to enliven your evenings. Here's a list of 40 other spots that encourage mingling with perks such as drinks, concerts, DJs and dancing.

East side
Alchemy Café
Brink Lounge
Crystal Corner Bar
Dragonfly Lounge
Harmony Bar
High Noon Saloon
Jolly Bob's
Knuckle Down Saloon
Malt House
Mickey's Tavern
Mr. Robert's

Downtown and UW campus area
Brocach Irish Pub
Come Back In
The Great Dane
Essen Haus
The Fountain
The Frequency
Ivory Room
Natt Spil
Regent Street Retreat
The Rigby
Up North Pub
UW Memorial Union
UW Union South

North side
Lazy Oaf Lounge
Locker Room Sports Bar
Murphy's Tavern

South side
Badger Bowl
Mason Lounge

West side
Froth House
The Great Dane - Hilldale

Bourbon Street Grill (Monona)
Bristled Boar Saloon and Grill (Middleton)
Claddagh Irish Pub (Middleton)
Club Tavern (Middleton)

For a comprehensive list of local venues and events, visit

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