Madison has a reputation as a college town, and for good reason: It’s home to UW’s flagship campus and over 40,000 students. State Street, which stretches from campus all the way to the state capitol, is lined with college bars, head shops, and casual eateries, aimed squarely at the college crowd.
But increasingly, Madison is a hub for young professionals, attracted by the plentiful jobs in health care, tech, and (as always) politics. (Plus, there are a ton of cheap one-bedrooms in Madison.) You won’t see as many of them on State Street. So where do they go on a Friday night? Read on to find out:
- Merchant and Lucille
Located just off the square on the same stretch of King Street, these two bars share owners, staff, and a dedication to high-end cocktails. Lucille is the newer and rowdier of the two, with three levels and a daiquiri-centric drinks menu. (The pizza is also terrific.) Merchant has a larger cocktail menu and a more bistro-inspired atmosphere and bill of fare… at least until 9PM on weekends. Then the tables are cleared out for a raucous dance party.
- Natt Spil
There’s no sign at Natt Spil, and that’s by design: This bar was started as a service industry joint, a place for waiters, cooks, and bartenders in downtown Madison to go after their shifts. (Natt Spil roughly translates to after bar in Norwegian.) And though the place has opened up and broadened its appeal, the bar still has an appealingly secret feel — it’s dark and clubby, with no listed phone number, no credit card reader, and a list of drinks aimed squarely at bartender favorites, like mezcal. Don’t sleep on the food, which is an odd-but-appealing mixture of pizza and Chinese dim sum classics.
If you’re in downtown Madison, Genna’s hits all the bases. Just want a beer after work? Their outdoor patio is a great place to hang out and enjoy a view of the Capitol. Want to dance the night away? The upstairs bar hosts raucous DJ sets every weekend. Just want a decent drink with friends? Downstairs has a warm, friendly, and quirky atmosphere. Plus, the drinks are cheap… and strong.
- The Robin Room
The Robin Room is one of Madison’s newest bars, and it’s also one of the best. This cocktail haven on East Johnson is one of the best places in town to get classic pre-Prohibition drinks, or an inventive house cocktail like the Fool’s Paradise (bourbon, sherry, saffron, pineapple, and mint). The bar is small and narrow, and decorated in a style that brings to mind both a university library and a warm alpine lodge. It’s easy to spend hours there… if you get a seat, that is. The Robin Room fills up fast.
Located on Willy Street, in what is rumored to have once been a house of ill repute, Gib’s began as an overflow bar for the mega-popular Grampa’s Pizzeria, which is just next door. But what could have been just a simple bottles and cans operation turned into a delightful two-story cocktail emporium. The bottom floor has an accessible menu with plenty of beer taps, but upstairs is where the bar really shines, with an adventurous, constantly changing list of complex and delicious cocktails — not to mention strange snacks like black tea pickles and sea urchin ice cream. No table service here: Just order at the bar and then sit at any one of the house’s quirky antique furniture pieces. (Or maybe walk over to Grampa’s for a pie.)