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Saturday, February 28, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 14.0° F  Light Snow
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Living it up
A man about town picks his favorite nightspots
The Klinic
The Klinic
Credit:Mark Sibley

Each year around this time, Isthmus readers pool their collective wisdom by voting in our Madison's Favorites poll. The nightlife rankings fascinate everyone, from eager newcomers to jaded old-timers.

But one good list deserves another list. Here, then, are my own Madison nightlife superlatives. Eager newcomers: Enjoy your new city! Jaded old-timers: Buy the newcomers a drink!

Most tolerable State Street bar

For better or worse, Madison nightlife centers on the six blocks of State Street between the state Capitol and the University of Wisconsin. But although nightspots line the thoroughfare, don't look for much in the way of live music. No, this street is all about serious drinking, so choose a favorite based on how you best like to tie one on.

Do you prefer whooping it up with frat boys? Try the Kollege Klub at 529 N. Lake St. (a classic State Street bar despite the fact that it's actually on Lake). Whooping it up with frat boys, plus dining on very fine bratwurst? Try State Street Brats (603 State St.). Whooping it up with reasonably well-dressed graduate students? Paul's Club (212 State St.) for you.

But for my money, the best State Street schmoozing goes on at Hawk's (425 State St.), with wood paneling and pictures of jazz greats on the walls. The volume approaches conversational, even on busy weekend nights.

Best place to light your fire

Depending on whom you talk to, Madison's two-year-old smoking ban is either the death of free enterprise or the greatest thing to happen to Madison nightlife since $2 rail drinks.

But although many local bar-goers are happily breathing easier (and spending less on dry cleaning), smokers do still have options. On the north side, superb electronica redoubt the Inferno (1718 Commercial Ave.) allows smoking by virtue of its town of Burke locale. Out in Middleton, Club Tavern (1915 Branch St.) has long been a haven for roots-music fans and nicotine fiends.

And right downtown, Maduro (117 E. Main St.) asked a penetrating question in the wake of the ban: What's a cigar bar without cigars? Answer: Not much. Cigar and pipe smoking are allowed there by special dispensation of the city council, making it the best place in town to smoke and drink at the same time.

Best loud club

Madison rock is not dead, and there's no shortage of places to hear great local and national acts, plus hip-hop, alt-country and other genres that your mom would recommend you wear earplugs to enjoy. Among the best venues: the Annex (1206 Regent St.), which recently changed hands and began incorporating more local sounds; the Klinic (520 S. Park St.), the classically funky south-side bar; and the King Club (114 King St.), the downtown music room that books a brave mix of rock 'n' roll, jazz, rap and funk, plus DJs.

But most of all, Madison live-music lovers flock to the High Noon Saloon (701 E. Washington Ave.), the gorgeously appointed near-east-side club that books everything you like, thanks to owner Cathy Dethmers' unimpeachable taste.

Best quiet club

Not every live-music night needs to be like an early Stones gig, though. Sometimes you want to sit in a chair, sip something cold and enjoy sophisticated sounds. The year-old Brink Lounge (701 E. Washington Ave.), downstairs from the High Noon Saloon , is a fine place to do that, with its jazz and blues offerings. The jazz is also cool at Restaurant Magnus (120 E. Wilson St.).

For me, the best (generally) quiet club is the reliably eclectic Mother Fool's (1101 Williamson St.), the classic coffee spot that was smoke-free when smoke-free wasn't cool.

Best room for the big show

For hearing noted national artists, two great venues are former movie theaters: the east side's Barrymore (2090 Atwood Ave.) and downtown's Orpheum (216 State St.). If you squint before the show, you can almost imagine the newsreel is about to start.

I'm a sucker for the spectacles staged by mega touring acts like Sugarland and Slipknot, though, and that's why I'm happiest to see a show in the Alliant Energy Center Coliseum (1919 Alliant Energy Way), the rib-roofed gem that's celebrating its 40th birthday this year.

Best bar where you'd half expect to see Irene Dunne in a ball gown

For all of Madison's many virtues - sophisticated cuisine, a vibrant arts scene - we lack certain big-city amenities, like an ethos that prevents people from wearing sports jerseys to the opera. Still, there are pockets of sophistication, including Opus Lounge (116 King St.), the well-appointed cocktail joint, and the Concourse Hotel Bar (1 W. Dayton St.), where a full slate of jazz and martinis is the legacy of late manager Cal Worrell.

And thanks to the retro furnishings and the chic jazz music, the Olive Lounge at the Monona Terrace Hilton (9 E. Wilson St.) is the perfect place to imagine that it's the 1930s all over again in Madison, minus the streetcars.

Best floor for cutting rugs

Madison is not known for its dance palaces, but lovers of booty-shaking have Frida Mexican Grill (117 State St.), the restaurant that becomes a nightclub late in the evening, complete with miasmatic lights and fog machine. On the near east side, the storied Cardinal Bar (418 E. Wilson St.) is a safe bet for dancing to all sorts of sounds, whether salsa, reggaeton or Kylie Minogue's 1987 cover of "Loco-motion." And south of the Beltline, Club 5 (5 Applegate Ct.) is where gay folks of all stripes get down.

But hey, this is Wisconsin. Sometimes you don't want to dance in your underwear, or in a sea of foam. Sometimes you want to bounce up and down as some old guy plays an accordion. Which brings us to the Essen Haus (514 E. Wilson St.), Madison's only full-time polka nightclub, and my dance palace of choice. It's the state dance; learn it.

Best venue for late-night reading, plus furtive, wordlss flirting

Not everyone wants to drink or listen to music during a night out. It's a university town, after all, where young scholars need to read on a Saturday night, but in a putatively social environment.

In, for example, Starbucks at 3515 University Ave., which is now open 24 hours. And right on campus, Memorial Union (800 Langdon St.) sets some kind of standard for multipurpose buildings. On a given weekend night, there might be, all at once, two live-music shows, a film, a play and a Rathskeller full of inebriates, but darned if you still can't find a quiet corner to work on your statistics homework.

Or just down the pike from Starbucks, readers can strain their eyes most effectively of all at Borders West (3750 University Ave.), which is a surprisingly hopping place late on Friday and Saturday nights. There are lattes from the coffee bar, laptop computers on every table, and more sexual tension than you can shake an unpurchased copy of Marie Claire at.

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