Madison’s classic mud wrestling bar, the PARADISE LOUNGE (119 W. Main, 608-256-2263), is infiltrated sporadically by clots of trendy students and roots rock weirdos, but once the wrestlers and bikers stomp in the jukebox gets filibustered with Dead Kennedys and Black Sabbath songs. Expect extremely cheap and noxious drinks, fistfights over pool, sexual trysts of all kinds in the bathrooms, LOUD, LOUD, LOUD music, and greasy, locally legendary burgers till 1:30 AM. Crotchety old regulars hang out in the daytime; in football season, all the beer you can drink for the duration of the Packers game plus a buffet lunch at halftime is under ten dollars. Huber beer, a delicious bargain lager, is $1.50 a glass.
The closest thing Madison has to a goth club, INFERNO (1718 Commercial, 608-245-9583) was the site of the Mud Wrestling Organization’s disastrously messy first show–management has been wary of booking the wrestlers again. It’s far from downtown, and Madison’s wretched public transit system leaves showgoers stranded there at night. Borrow mom’s car.
CRYSTAL CORNER BAR (1302 Williamson, 608-256-2953) is a creepy bar for old hippies. Local blues bands play there incessantly, acting weirdly like rock stars. However, it’s located amid the palatable watering holes around Williamson and Atwood (the only neighborhood downtown that’s more hospitable to mud wrestlers than it is to students, yuppies, or schizophrenics), so MWO legends wind up perched on its spindly stools, between one hangout and another, more often than they’d like to admit (a mystery wrestler was once spied there snorting coke off a toilet with a 50-year-old former fashion model). There’s a swell antique phone booth, but the phone usually doesn’t work; the old woodwork is pretty, but the neon tubing all over the bar induces nausea. Tourists take note: George McGovern’s daughter froze to death, drunk, in a snowbank around the corner from this bower of dull sin.
One of the neighborhood’s more repulsive fixtures, the WILLY STREET PUB AND GRILL (852 Williamson, 608-256-8211) is still known to locals as the Wisco, as it was called an owner or two ago. It has the most depressing jukebox, the most piebald pool tables, and the most treacherous flooring in town (not to mention decor that gets worse every time they slop on another coat of paint). I think it used to be a bomb shelter. But this smelly trench is inexplicably loved by everyone in the neighborhood, from rotten-assed hippies to wide-eyed college students to line cooks to bikers to crusty old goths, and it’s got what the MWO needs for outdoor summer matches: a sand volleyball court and an owner who’ll put up with them. July nights, mud, and whiskey. Ah, ouais.
On Fetish Nights (held the second Tuesday of the month) the bra-fillers of the MWO can often be seen wearing very little at the CARDINAL BAR (418 E. Wilson, 608-251-0080), a loud gay/dance/kink/electronic music club. Other members of the MWO can be seen hiding under the tables with cameras.
KEN’S BAR AND GRILL (117 S. Butler, 608-257-1176) gets hit by mud wrestlers for the same reason as the Crystal Corner: it’s between decent bars and it, er, sells alcohol. Expensive drinks, gloomy atmosphere, live music played too loud in a too small space; some decent Irish and bluegrass bands are mixed in with the hippie crap, but so what? Another queasy, typically Madisonian mix of “folk” and people who use the word “folk” too much.
Anyone can get laid at MICKEY’S TAVERN (1524 Williamson, 608-251-9964), the Incognito Mosquito’s favorite hole in Madison and the most likely place to find D.P. Ness. The drinks aren’t terribly cheap, but the atmosphere has a volatile cheer; it looks and feels like what the Lincoln Tap Room is trying so hard to be, while trying hard to be the Lincoln Tap Room. The college crowd comes and goes, and on the weekends it’s packed with suburban morons, but on weeknights the chronic punk rockers and restaurant employees drink until they’re ready to give each other herpes or shiners. It’s fun, believe me.
The IDEAL BAR (1968 Atwood, 608-244-9702), with its laid-back, noncollege crowd, slightly overpriced drinks, and out-of-the-way feel, would be a nice but unremarkable Madison hole if it hadn’t made the mistake of hiring both Smacky the Clown (line cook) and the lovely Razorella (bartender) at once. Though long gone, Smacky still owes the bar several hundred.
UP NORTH PUB (150 S. Blair, 608-250-1730) attracts a varied crowd (yeeeees, including mud wrestlers…) with a gimmick that could only have been conceived in the capital of a rural state: it emulates a dismal backwoods bar. Fortunately, it’s not authentic. Cheap beer specials, free peanuts, and nostalgia–at least for freaks who fled to Madison from small Wisconsin towns. Homey; it can become depressing.
GENNA’S LOUNGE (105 E. Main, 608-255-4770) is another Madison bar that gets mud trade thanks to its proximity to a more hospitable spot (the Paradise), but unlike Ken’s and the Crystal Corner, Genna’s deserves the traffic, and on quiet nights it’s a destination in its own right. The drinks are overpriced by Madison standards, but the traveling Chicagoan will have no more reason to grumble than he does at home; they have an excellent jukebox and deep leather couches. Hipster city, but bearable–and free food at happy hour.
A pseudodivey, hateful place, the ANGELIC BREWING COMPANY (322 W. Johnson, 608-257-2707) used to employ (and pay starvation wages to) both Smacky the Clown and the Incognito Mosquito, whom they laid off the day the Packers won the Super Bowl. BASTARDS! Books awful hippie and frat-blues bands; brews its own beer (it’s pretty good, if you like heavy, sweet glop–the Mosquito usually threw up on the stuff) and sells it at sucker prices to idiots.
On the same block as Genna’s and the Paradise, the TORNADO CLUB STEAK HOUSE (116 S. Hamilton, 608-256-3570), more commonly referred to as the Tornado Room, banned the Incognito Mosquito for life just because it attacked a klezmer band. A nifty atmosphere, the Mosquito must admit, but who wants to pay six dollars for Jim Beam anyway?
Finally: O’CAYZ CORRALL (Valhalla, 608-YRSISTR), the best place to see rock ‘n’ roll in Madison, naturally burned down last fall. Nikki the Nutcracker, who used to help run the place under her alias “Nicole Gruter,” says they’re looking for a place to reopen. Unfortunately, Madison’s city government, much like Chicago’s, is trying to make it impossible for anybody to have any fun ever by making liquor licensing an endless pain in the ass. “The Alcohol License Review Commission–they’re God now,” she says.
Mud wrestlers tend to eat their evening meal at the bar, a brief pause in the pounding of cheap cocktails, but there’s nothing like an omelette to kill the morning hangover, and WILLALBY’S (1351 Williamson, 608-256-6088) is the most pseudohomey spot for one. It’s right between the bars and many mud wrestlers’ Willy Street apartments–and a red-eyed D.P. Ness can still occasionally be spotted behind the grill, working a shift at what used to be his regular weekend job.
A perfunctory eggery by Lake Monona, CLEVELAND’S DINER (410 E. Wilson, 608-251-4455) is run by nice people who will tolerate practically any state of undress, mud-cakedness, or incoherence. Just be polite. (Sorry, the Mosquito has no recollection whatsoever of what their food tastes like.)
ELLA’S DELI (2902 E. Washington, 608-241-5291) is pointless without its decor: it’s a deli in Wisconsin that serves almost no kosher dishes and will put American cheese on everything unless you beg them for Swiss. But if your innards are too ulcerated for anything but a morning Coke and your iron-stomached drinking buddies insist on breakfast, at least have them drag you to Ella’s instead of some strip-mall hole so you can watch the collection of mechanized toys, puppets, balloons, and miniature vehicles reel around the room while they eat. I’m sure it scares the shit out of kids, what with the barely restrained clown-violence motif, but it’s fun for nominal adults to goggle at when they’re too shattered to follow conversation. As a nighttime hangout, of course, it’s best taken on psychedelics. Styled like the sort of ice cream parlor not even grammas remember these days, Ella’s also runs an outdoor carousel, which is obviously not recommended.
On the rare occasion when a mud wrestler has the money for a nice dinner, there’s no reason to eat it indoors. JOLLY BOB’S (1210 Williamson, 608-251-3902) has the best summer dining patio in town and a great mix of fruity, Americanized Jamaican food and fruity drinks at a price that, by Chicago standards, isn’t an investment at all. Waits can be ungodly on weekends, but at least there’s a bar; on quiet weeknights the place is one of the laid-back drinking secrets of Madison. It has funny hiring standards, though: both the Incognito Mosquito and Michelle Duval, the best girl of one of the MacGroin brothers, were longtime employees (the Mosquito, in fact, was carried dead drunk out of Jolly Bob’s Memorial Day party a month before she was hired).
AMERICAN TABLE FAMILY RESTAURANT (1202 N. Sherman, 608-244-5663) is a bizarre little place to go for breakfast. It’s outside of the Antismoking-Nazi Zone of downtown Madison (aka the Redneck Berkeley), and wrestlers love the chance to suck down carbon monoxide with their ham if somebody’s sobered up enough to drive halfway to Janesville to get there. Extremely cheap, as its main clientele besides the hangover crowd is retirees. Employees look miserably mistreated; the name is dreadful irony, as half the patrons’ families are dead and the other half’s have disowned them.
The COME BACK IN (508 E. Wilson, 608-258-8619) serves popular weekend brunches that come with your choice of alcoholic beverage for a dollar fifty, so shut up and drink your Bloody. The German atmosphere is delightfully creepy.
There actually is one place in Madison with hangover food that’s better than edible. In fact, since they have meals under six bucks, cheap beer all day, and an atmosphere free of vomit-inducing, typical Madison hippie “oh, we can’t use bleach, that might kill a brother ant dude” smells, mud wrestlers’ ever brunching anywhere except DOG EAT DOG (106 King, 608-441-9364) can only be chalked up to memory damage. The Dog is fashioned after Chicago’s bazillion filthy hot dog stands, but–I’m sorry–the Mosquito has never had a hot dog in Chicago that half matched the sublimity of a Dog Eat Dog dog. The owners are fanatics and neat freaks, which leads one to wonder why they, too, once employed the Mosquito–but nobody’s perfect. Did I mention CHEAP BEER ALL DAY?
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustrations/Heather McAdams.