To those who have never ventured past the Capitol, Williamson Street may seem as far away as the moon. After all, you have to walk all the way up State Street, around the Square, down King Street, down Wilson Street and across Blair to get there.
Those who haven’t made their way over to the near-east side are missing out. Just a 20-minute walk from downtown (or a five-minute bus ride, or a $3.50 cab ride) is one of Madison’s coolest, most unique neighborhoods, which just happens to be home to four great bars.
The Willy Street Pub and Grill, known to locals simply as the Wisco, is located at 852 Williamson St. Beware, though — housed in a rather nondescript white building, it can be hard to spot if you’ve never been there before. Indeed, the Wisco looks a lot like a house that just happens to have a bar and grill on the first floor and a volleyball court in the back yard.
For a rather small place, the Wisco knows how to pack in the fun. There’s a pool table, dart board, bar and plenty of seating in an area no bigger than a college student’s living room/kitchen. And the beer? There’s plenty, ranging from classics like PBR (which is only a dollar if you show up at the right time) and Rolling Rock, to more specialized Wisconsin brews like Fat Squirrel.
Beer is really where the Wisco shines, both in quality and in price, but the rail drinks shouldn’t be neglected either. They can all be ordered in singles or doubles, and they all pack some serious heat for an incredibly reasonable price. If bar food is what you’re looking for, the grills are always on and ready to go.
Just down the street from the Wisco is the Weary Traveler Free House at 1201 Willy St., one of Madison’s best-hidden gems. Featuring an interior full of gorgeous wood floors, walls and furnishings, in addition to some subtle-yet-effective lighting, the Weary is the perfect place to chill out with friends and throw back a few. My friend and I immediately noticed the great use of music — loud enough to enjoy, quiet enough to allow for conversation — and were amazed when we realized it was coming from a turntable. The sound system’s quality was such that it could just as easily have been piped in from a CD.
The Weary has a great beer menu, ranging in price from $2 for Point to $5 for Hacker-Pschorr Welsne. Included on the list are beers from the Great Dane, Lake Louie, Bell’s, Capitol Brewery and, of course, Guiness. And that’s just the tap beer! Plenty more are available in bottles. In addition, there’s a fantastic food menu, which includes everything from a delicious-sounding Lamb Au Jus Sandwich (lamb, carmelized onions and a red wine au jus for $7.50) to Jewish Chicken Soup, Goulash and a South of the Border Snack Plate, featuring guacamole, pico de gallo, spicy escabeche and tortilla chips for $4.50.
If you really want to chill out, head further down the street to Jolly Bob’s (1210 Willy St.), the closest thing to Jamaica that Wisconsin has to offer. Bob’s menu of tropical frozen rum drinks is more than impressive, and lets you sample Madison originals like the Purple Meanie (Jamaican Overproof, coconut rum, grenadine, blue curcao and lime juice) and the Hummingbird (Appleton rum, banana liquor, lime juice and strawberries) for less than $6. Another favorite is Ami’s Revenge, which blends pineapple rum, citrus rum, blue curacao, pineapple and cranberry for $5.
If you’re hungry by this point, Bob’s is also a great place to grab dinner, especially in the warmer months when its outdoor seating area is open. There are a variety of tasty options, especially if you enjoy spicy food, and the reggae music piped out through the speakers will make your dining experience memorable.
The last stop on the Willy Street pub tour is the Crystal Corner Bar (1302 Willy St.). Do yourself a favor and drop by the Corner on a Monday night, which is Irish Night. Not only will you get $3 pints of Guinness and Harps and $3 shots of Jameson, but for another $3 you’ll have the pleasure of hearing the Whiskey Lash All-Stars play live. The All-Stars play Irish music like no other, and if the Jameson doesn’t have you dancing in the aisles by the end of the night, the band certainly will.
The Crystal Corner is one of the largest bars in the area, and is the most “typically college” drinking establishment in the Willy Street area, and it would probably be just as at home near State Street as it is at its current location. The bar itself is gigantic, and there are a three pool tables and dart boards as well. It’s the perfect place to end the night, and the perfect place to end your nighttime trip down one of Madison’s funkiest streets.