Apr 28, 2016

A commoner drinks (and dines) at Mickey’s Tavern, Madison, Wis.

While I was working in Madison, Wis., last fall, I was fortunate to discover quite a few great old-fashioned neighborhood taverns and dives.  But in the case of Mickey’s Tavern in particular, I sought it out based on a recommendation from my future wife.  As fate would have it, Punky knew one of the bartenders who worked there, and from all accounts she felt Mickey’s would be my kind of place.  As usual, she was right.

Mickey’s Tavern conveniently -- and appropriately -- anchors one end of Madison’s trendy Willy Street neighborhood where Williamson turns into Winnebago as the street crosses the tiny Yahara River.  

Walking across the mighty Yahara ... 
In fact, if you have time, I recommend you park on the side street on the corner that dead ends and enjoy the scenery of the Yahara River Parkway before (or after) you check out the tavern.  But, as usual, I digress.  

If Williamson Street serves as the neighborhood’s backbone, Mickey’s Tavern may be its heart.  Or at least its soul.  It only takes one visit to realize Mickey’s pre-dates much of the neighborhood’s bohemian hipster vibe.  People have been coming here for a long time for the drink, the food, the atmosphere and -- if you’re there late enough -- the live music.  And to me that’s what still makes it stand out among all the other places on Willy Street that try for a similar look and feel but lack the authenticity of Mickey’s.  

The building was reportedly a hotel in a former life, and it’s still a popular gathering place for locals.  Aside from the main room, there is a lively beer garden, a back room with couches for more leisurely socializing, a well-used pool room and plenty of other spots where you can stand and cram you and your drink in and people watch.

Still, my preference, especially at a place with such character (and characters) as Mickey’s is to sit at the bar.  This one snakes through the front room and curls back toward what must be a very cramped kitchen, leaving a small opening for traffic to move in and out.  

The bar has a solid selection of draft beers and a decent drink menu where you’ll find cocktails both classic and affordable.  And it didn’t take me long to find out the bartenders here know their craft.  On different occasions I tried their Pimm’s Cup and the Dark and Stormy; both were outstanding.  

My beer choices ranged from the always-low-priced PBR tallboys to featured craft selections on tap like the Left Hand Milk Stout and the Six Point Beast Mode Porter.  

I was inspired to get into Beast Mode.
Any beer that reminds me of my good friend and Beast of Virden Ken Noble has to be worth drinking.  I’m fairly certain they named it after him.

The neon dog intrigued me.
While I always arrived too early to meet Punky’s bartender friend, the ones I met on my visits always made me feel welcome.  They don't mind striking up a conversation with you, and they also allow you to drink quietly and ponder the eclectic decorations positioned throughout the bar, if you prefer.  Or, just sit back and listen to the expertly stocked jukebox (Johnny Cash seems to be a very popular happy hour choice).

In addition to the excellent bar service, Mickey’s also does tavern food exceptionally well -- burgers, sandwiches, pizza and plenty of appetizers to tempt your taste buds.  They all look good, so on my first visit I had the bartender choose between the World’s Greatest Sandwich and the Mickey Burger.  
Mickey Burger and Sexy Fries ... a decadently delicious combination.
The Mickey Burger won.  And to complement it, I upgraded to Mickey’s famous Sexy Fries.  The burger won me over with a nice thick patty, and equally thick slab of tomato, onion rings overflowing and chipotle aioli running down the fingers with every juicy bite.  The crispy hand-cut fries were smothered with enough earthy tasting truffle oil and Parmesan cheese that my mouth watered with every bite.  Sexy is definitely an apt description.

I felt a little bad that I always had to leave Mickey’s before Punky’s friend arrived for his work shift.  Mickey’s sure seems like the kind of place that would get its second wind later at night.  But I left Madison and Mickey’s with plenty of reasons to return -- and bring Punky with me to share the experience.   

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