At 6:43 p.m. on a Thursday, the few patrons in The Plaza Tavern seem blissfully unaware of the storm that will hit the bar in a few hours.
About eight 50-somethings are up at the bar chumming with each other and the bartenders. Meanwhile, a lady wearing a ribbed white turtleneck, mom jeans and sneakers bops around to James Brown’s “Living in America” like a jovial post office worker walking her daily route.
“The Plaza has been a downtown campus-area bar for over 50 years. It’s one of the last bastions of the old Madison downtown,” Dean Hetue said, who has owned The Plaza for nine years and worked there for over 30. “I bought it so that it would stay the same, so that I could keep it the same way it always used to be.”
With wood-paneled walls and booths with formica laminate tabletops, The Plaza is reminiscent of a grandma’s house or family cabin that has not been renovated since Marcia Brady got hit in the face with a football. The crowd described earlier is exactly what you would expect from such an establishment.
Fast-forward a couple hours, and The Plaza transforms. The place is packed to capacity with college kids sucking down as many $2 Long Islands as their budgets will permit. This Thursday ritual may be what keeps them coming back week after week, and it might also be why readers of The Badger Herald recently voted it the “Best Dive Bar in Madison.”
Hetue also said Thursdays have traditionally been the busiest day of the week. Long Island Night has been going on for seven or eight years, he said, and before that, Thursday was Jack Daniels Night.
However, several other bars have similar deals on Thursdays, including $1 PBR pints at the Vintage and $2.50 rail drinks at Wando’s, according to their websites. A series of interviews with the workers and regulars reveals The Plaza’s popularity is as much about the ambiance as the cheap booze.
“The [crowd] is diverse. Everybody has a lot of energy,” Daniel Thompson, who claims he is “not a regular” but comes to The Plaza two to three Thursdays a month, he said.
“It’s not like most bars where you walk in and people look at you like ‘Ugh, stay away from me.’ You walk in and feel like ‘Hey I could talk to anybody in here and they’d probably be cool,” Thompson said.
While Thompson comes to mingle with the crowd, others go just to watch. Friends Julie Goodwin and Luke Krause stake out a booth by 9:30 p.m. every Thursday because The Plaza is prime people-watching territory.
“You know the type,” Krause said in a snarky tone. Goodwin’s chimed in to elaborate.
“I always say – I’m like, Plaza … ugh, fine. Those fuckin’ hipsters. But I keep coming back, and I really enjoy it here. I like the atmosphere,” Goodwin said.
Atmosphere aside, the power of the Long Island cannot be ignored. The promise of cheap drinks brings students in The Plaza’s door in droves, making bartender Tim Belliveau’s job somewhat difficult. He said early in the night, the place usually hits its 180-person capacity by 10:45 p.m.
“I’d have to say the Long Islands probably bring the girls in, and then the guys come in because they know the girls are here,” Belliveau said, with a nondescript Death Cab for Cutie song playing in the background. This conversation takes place around 8:15 p.m. – hours before the huge crowd will roll in, which explains why he actually has time to chat.
Regular patrons may also recognize him as the man on the stool with strawberry-blond hair who decides whether or not you get to enter The Plaza. Belliveau has held this title for about six months and said he likes working Thursdays because of the “excitement in the air.”
Like clockwork, at the stroke of 10:44 p.m., lucky number 180 waltzes in declaring his love for Long Islands while “Dirt off Your Shoulder” by Jay Z blasts from the jukebox. Immediately after, a line forms outside, stretching all the way to Gorham Street.
Despite the drunken insults and impatient foot tapping from some of the people in the line, Belliveau has a permanent smile plastered on his face and ushers in regulars with an enthusiastic wave.
“Definitely working for a corporate company for a long time helped because I had to be nice when people were telling me I was a horrible person,” he said in reference to the seven years he spent managing a Buffalo Wild Wings prior to working at The Plaza.
Whether for the atmosphere or the cheap booze, those looking to make their first trip to The Plaza should beware of the hangover potential. When asked about a Long Island’s ingredients, Belliveau replied,”Vodka. Rum. Gin. Tequila. Triple Sec. Sour. Lemonade. Pepsi. Straw. Lemon.” That combination has kept The Plaza filled to capacity for many Thursday nights past.