Mar 19, 2020

A brief dive into the Caribou Tavern, Madison, Wis.

Madison, Wis. is well known for being a tavern town.  Every neighborhood has not just one, but several dive bars the locals consider their second home – a place where they can unwind, grab a bite to eat and hang out with their bar family for a while. 

I’ve visited quite a few local dives during my work trips to Madison, but there was something about the Caribou Tavern that intrigued me greatly, yet kept me from visiting.  Maybe it was the disadvantage of only driving past it at night.  Maybe it wasn’t as convenient to travel to as other dive bars I’d discovered. 

Finally, on my last business trip to Madison, I stopped in for a couple of drinks, and I’m glad I did.  My takeaway:  For several reasons, the Caribou Tavern may just be the best example of your prototypical Wisconsin dive bar I’ve found in Madison.   

Reason #1:  Check out the entrance.  Everything about it just screams dive bar.  The worn-down building, shared with a laundromat.  The neon sign struggling to stay on.  The Old Style sign, a symbol of good, cheap beers loved by old-school drinkers throughout the Midwest.  The guy hanging outside watching the world go by. 

A great dive bar must look slightly sketchy on the outside and give few to no clues about what it looks like on the inside, although by now you should have a pretty good idea.  Which brings us to …

Reason #2:  The interior and the view from the bar.  Nothing fancy or new here.  Just a well-used and well-stocked bar, classic hanging bar lights over the bar itself, a low-hanging drop ceiling straight out of the 1970s, and a few faithful regulars engaging in small talk and otherwise enjoying the game on the a few strategically placed TVs that look as if they could fall off the wall at any moment.

I give extra points for the snacks in full view behind the bar, especially the chips wall at the far end of the bar.  The mantle displaying all the beers on hand is another must-have. 

Reason #3:  The bar’s selection.  I walked into the Caribou Tavern intrigued by the possibility of ordering an Old Style, but once I found out they had Hamm’s, I was sold.  Most really good dive bars have a surprisingly diverse selection, and the Caribou is no different. Sure, most of its patrons may be “shot and beer” drinkers, but take a closer look at their vodka selection.  They can make anything here.  Just make sure the bartender has time to make it.

More bonus points given for the markers the Caribou Tavern uses to save the seats for its patrons who smoke.  A little sign in front of your drink is all you need, and everyone in the bar will respect your place. 

Reason #4:  The bar’s specials.  Hamm’s cans for $2 each, and a bucket of five for $10?  With prices like these, as my friend and notorious gadabout Terry Hupp would say, “You can’t afford not to drink!”  And if macrobrews are your thing, $2.50 for a 16-ounce Bud Light is pretty darn reasonable, too.  

And if you look closely on the dated wood paneled wall, you’ll see a menu board that brings us to …

Reason #5:  A lot of taverns in Madison are only as good as their grill.  In full disclosure, I did not eat at the Caribou Tavern, but several people were while I was there, and everything I saw looked predictably comforting and tasty.

And the Caribou Tavern has everything you’d want and expect on the menu for a neighborhood tavern in the heart of Wisconsin.  There are the practically required brats and cheese curds, plenty of fried appetizers, an assortment of quick order sandwiches and, from many accounts, the best bar hamburger in town. 

Caribou Tavern further solidifies its diver bar credentials by relying largely on Facebook for a Web presence (no website of its own), and as of my visit, maintain a cash-only payment policy.  

So, it you find yourself in downtown Madison someday, and you’re feeling like taking in a dive, I highly recommend you head northeast on Johnson Street for several blocks (it’s a one-way street headed away from downtown) until you see the Caribou Tavern on the right.  Especially if you’re a Hamm’s drinker. 

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