Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Bartime: Der Rathskeller

It is nearly impossible to graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison without having visited Der Rathskeller in Memorial Union.

The Rat, as it is affectionately called, is many things at once — a bar, a restaurant, a study hall, a movie theater and a concert venue. Rather than struggling with an identity crisis, the Rat is deeply symbolic of the shared experience students encounter at UW.

College life is rooted in extremes. On a social level, we are free from the tethers of our parents, able to explore life to its fullest and wildest boundaries. At the same time, we are here to study and enrich our intellects, learning necessary skills for adulthood. Although in delicate balance, our lives are filled with a mixture of frivolity and seriousness.


Since its opening in 1928, Der Rathskeller has paid homage to the duality of a student lifestyle. Such testimony is noticeable from the numerous German phrases and murals painted throughout the vast space beneath vaulted ceilings.

Written in gothic script, the sayings are a German major’s dream. The rest of us, however, might need to refer to the board with translations located near the main entrance.

The light-hearted statements are certainly the most entertaining. There is a picture of a sloth, along with an accompanying statement that it represents student merriment.

Another drawing depicts the medicinal value of beer, complemented by the phrase, “A stein of beer is the best medicine — it is fast aid, and the pain is gone.” My personal favorite depicts a battle between animated caricatures of wine and beer, asking the age-old question, “When there is a war between war and beer, who will win, and who will lose?”

Above one of the two fireplaces in the Rat is an amusing toast. It reads, “A toast with the rattle of the salamander — to jollity and good fellowship!”

In stark contrast, the mural above the opposite fireplace takes a more serious and arduous tone. This one states, “To be able, to know, and to will, shall make the master.”

Similar phrases extolling the virtues of hard work are found nearby. The demanding tone is sobering, almost serving as a symbolic counterbalance to the drinking activity that is possible in the Rat.

One of the few student unions in the country that allows alcoholic beverages in a campus building, Der Rathskeller is a landmark for beer lovers. Numerous beers are on tap, ranging from the sophisticated quality of Sprecher Black Bavarian, Newcastle and Franziskaner, to the more down-home appeal of Pabst Blue Ribbon, Miller Lite and Leinie’s Original.

Unfortunately, the traditional sanctity of the Rat has been violated in the recent political controversy surrounding drinking at this university. Over the course of the past year, prices have been raised, and the much-beloved 46-ounce cup has been eliminated from the menu.

The high-end beers are offered at $4.00 for a 16-ounce cup, $5.50 for a 22-ounce cup and $9.75 for a pitcher. On the flipside, you can grab a PBR for $2.75, $3.50 and $6.50 in the same sizing scheme. These prices are in many ways an insult to students. Given that the Union, and more specifically the Rat, is designed for students, one would think the prices would be considerably more reasonable.

Many welcome the move to keep the Rat open until bartime on weekends. This is only a token gesture — do they seriously think we are going to spend more time at a place that is more expensive when there are alternatives nearby?

Students are sensibly driven by economics, and it is unfortunate that such a beloved venue is thrust inadvertently in the center of the drinking debate. Predictably, fewer people are venturing to the Rat for a beer or two.

The declining popularity of the Rat as a place to grab some beer with friends is sad. True, the Rat is still a popular place to grab a bite or watch a movie. But given its historical connection to the students of the past, this downward trend is especially troubling.

For years, the Rat was a big nightspot. Looking at the graffiti engraved in the heavy oak tables, one can almost envision and feel the camaraderie generations of students experienced there.

It also creates a sense of irony, knowing that Der Rathskeller was thoughtfully planned as a drinking hall before the repeal of Prohibition. Are we witnessing an opposite swing of the pendulum away from the simple joys of student life, or is this merely a speed bump in a glorious history?

Perhaps it is simply becoming more serious, as some of the murals suggest. It is a goal and accomplishment to leave here with a degree in hand, but that is only one part of the story.

The other component, so accurately depicted on the walls of the Rat, is the fun and joy we share together as students in the great adventure that is the University of Wisconsin. Student life is both blissful and brief, but these are the memories that will last forever.

To our graduating class, I’d like to propose a toast and wish you the very best — you deserve it. Go out there, have fun, and kick some ass!

And to those staying behind with unfinished business, I’ll see you at the bar next semester. Cheers!

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