The Nitty Gritty, on Frances St. in Madison, has undergone five renovations since the '70s when young radicals would meet at the then-hazy blues bar.

The Nitty Gritty, on Frances St. in Madison, has undergone five renovations since the '70s when young radicals would meet at the then-hazy blues bar. Photo By Jerry Luterman

Wisconsin's classic college hangouts

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It happens in boardrooms, airports and car pools, around soccer fields and banquet tables, at neighborhood block parties and church picnics across the state and across the country. Wherever two or more Wisconsin college alumni meet, the conversation inevitably turns to the most common denominator in the collective memories of our higher education: Bars. Taverns. Dives.

For many students, off-campus dalliances were as much a part of the undergrad – even graduate – experience as the classroom. It’s the off-campus places (Second Street, Third Street, State Street, Water Street) and spaces (Kelly’s, Ella’s, Nick’s, Brats, The Brick, The Joynt) that continue to be a bonding force among alumni long after commencement.

Amid the ebb and flow of GIs, Baby Boomers, generations X and Y, and the recent grads (Generation Text?), many of the old college haunts have stood the test of time as much as ivycovered academic buildings, and with only slightly worse ventilation systems. And its the confines of these dimly lit places that call to returning alumni.

“Alumni are back almost every weekend,” says Carl Westermann, manager of the Pioneer Tavern in Eau Claire, a fixture on Water Street.

The scene’s the same at Nick’s on Madison’s State Street. “I get a lot of people who used to go to college here,” says owner Dino Christ. “They bring their families now, or their kids are coming here, or their grandkids.”

Pilgrimages to an alma matter are nothing new, of course – it happens officially every year as Homecoming – but the tradition runs deeper in Wisconsin thanks to strong ties between campuses and their communities – the town/gown relationship, as it’s called – combined with Wisconsin’s hospitable spirit, otherwise known as happy hour.

So throw on your favorite spirit wear, brush up on your college cheers and relive your university days – the ones you remember, at least – at these familiar campus watering holes.

Eau Claire

Eau Claire’s early settlers wouldn’t know a Jello shot if they saw one, but they might recognize the Pioneer Tavern (401 Water St.). The distinctive 19th-century building (the city block is on the National Register of Historic Places) has housed various establishments throughout the decades, including a pharmacy and bookshop. Established in 1984, the Pioneer boasts Eau Claire’s longest-serving beer garden. Its two faithful mascots, an elk and a bison, stand sentinel at either end of the bar.

According to manager Westermann, “In 2009 there was an alumni group from 1986 to 1989 with about 350 alumni.”

It’s a bit of a disservice to categorize The Joynt (322 Water St.) as a college bar. While the legendary tavern serves its share of students (and is the starting point for many pub crawls), the Joynt is just as likely to be populated by a mix of locals, college faculty and returning alumni – all folks who have declared their longstanding love for the cozy place in the postcards sent from around the world that are tacked to the wall near the juke box. Photos of jazz greats who performed at The Joynt in the 1970s crowd the interior, and the atmosphere remains as cool as the autumn air breezing through its weather-beaten screen door.

Eau Claire still mourns the Camaraderie, destroyed by a fire in 2001 that took everything but three decades of fond memories. The “Cam” had been a popular gathering place at Water Street’s west end for both locals and students since 1971.

Stevens Point

The first structures constructed along the town square in Stevens Point were saloons, and while the original structures are long gone, the intention remains the same.

Locals, students and alumni mix easily at longtime establishments like the Elbow Room (1321 2nd St.) and Joe’s Bar (831 Main St.). Buffy’s Lampoon (1331 2nd St.) occupies a building constructed in 1866; this low-maintenance, low-cost establishment has always been a natural fit for students. Returning visitors will recognize the hand-painted SIASEFI (a social organization) signs dating back to the Central State College (precursor to UW–Stevens Point) days, along with a vintage “Smile You’re on Radar” state police sign.

Located across the street from campus on Division Street, Ella’s (616 Division St.) has been a convenient after-class diversion for patrons since 1974. The unassuming bar remains virtually unchanged with its knotty pine interior, lone pool table, chalkboards in the bathrooms (for the poets among us) and well-beaten hammerschlagen tables (a German game where players hammer nails into a stump) resting atop empty half barrels. Former Pointers stop in for Ella’s hot bagel sandwiches washed down with a beer from the 154-year-old Stevens Point Brewery, the fifth oldest continually operating brewery in the country.

Madison

In the granddaddy of Wisconsin college towns, the names of the familiar establishments roll like barrels down Bascom Hill. (For the record, the writer does not condone rolling barrels down Bascom Hill, even if they are empty.) Among many establishments in downtown Madison, the Irish Pub, The Kollege Klub, Mondays, Nitty Gritty, Paul’s Club and the Red Shed endure as they have for years.

They say nothing ever changes at Nick’s Restaurant (226 State St.). “I hear that almost on a daily basis, and they mean it in a good way,” says owner Dino Chris. “Even people who come back and don’t have time to eat will stop in because they want to look at the place. The decor is the same. We try to keep it as original as possible, and any upgrades just enhance what already exists.”

What patrons find at Nick’s is 1959, right down to the original bar, wooden beer coolers, booths, light fixtures, and even the dumbwaiter used to carry food up from the basement kitchen. The wallpaper and mural on the back wall were updated – in 1970.

Even the restaurant’s food has remained the same. “It’s still old-school basic, good homemade food,” says Christ, the second-generation owner who grew up in the establishment billed as the Home of Good Food. “Everything is still made in-house with our original recipes. On weekends my mom still makes the pies.”

The Madison scene changed in 2010 when The Pub closed its doors after nearly 70 years. Whiskey Jacks (522 State St.) opened in the same building with a well-deserved makeover – particularly in the bathrooms, which for years were preceded by their reputation and odor.

A far cry from its days as a hazy blues bar where young radicals met in the summer of 1970 to plan the bombing of Sterling Hall, the Nitty Gritty (223 N. Frances St.) has undergone five renovations since those turbulent times when tear gas wafted through the doors at the corner of Johnson and Frances.

In 1985, owner Marsh Shapiro turned the Gritty into Madison’s birthday bar. The restaurant has since hosted more than 500,000 birthday celebrants. Shapiro handed over the reins – and the secret Gritty sauce recipe – in 2010 after more than 40 years in business, marking the end of another Madison tavern chapter.

Not to worry, though. “All of the traditions of the Nitty Gritty are alive and well,” says new co-owner Eric Suemnicht.

Another Madison icon to undergo major changes through the years is State Street Brats. Established as the Brathaus in 1953 by Seymour “Shorty” Kayes and Warren “Lammy” Lamm, the original place, outfitted to resemble a German beer hall, was credited with bringing the bratwurst to Madison menus. That alone deserves our undying gratitude.

Like the Gritty, Brats has employed thousands of students through the decades, including Kelly Meuer, who assumed ownership in the late 1980s. As part of a major renovation in 1997, out went the bench seating and low ceiling, in came 28 televisions and a second level. Traditionalists, fear not: The brat remains the same.

“I get people all the time who come off the interstate and they say, ‘I’m going to Chicago but I had to stop for a brat,’” Meuer says.

The signature Red Brat is sliced lengthwise, char-grilled and served on a fresh bun just like Shorty and Lammy did it. And while the recipe remains a secret, the brats never were – more than 10,000 pounds are served annually.

Platteville

Downtown Platteville was laid out to resemble the early residents’ native England streets with long, narrow lots. Today, that means the college town’s hotspots are concentrated on a one-block sliver of Second Street in the old downtown. Among the familiar names are Orville T’s, Big Jim’s (formerly called The Chute thanks to its narrow confines), Boondocks and Brothers, still displaying the awnings from its days as the popular Hoist House.

Current Orville T’s owner Tom “Chance” Schmid, a former bartender, purchased “OT’s” in 2007. The name dates back at least 30 years, but the origin – just who was Orville T? – seems to have been lost among the happy hours. OT’s remains especially popular for fraternities and sororities holding reunions.

“I get people from 20 years ago that walk in, and say, ‘Yeah, this is how I remember it,’” Schmid says.

Whether it’s the canoe suspended from a tin ceiling, the taste of comfort food in a familiar booth, or the strains of a jukebox through an old screen door, OT’s touchstones remain like portals to the past for many seeking to step back in time.

“I’m always glad when I go back,” says Angela Adams, a 1996 Platteville grad. “Being with your old friends who knew you before you were a mom or a wife or a co-worker, and going downtown – maybe I feel like a college kid again.” 

Michael Bie writes about travel, history and culture in the Badger State at ClassicWisconsin.com. This article appeared in the September/October 2011 issue of Wisconsin Trails.

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