City Bar: Part of your civic foodie
We stumbled into City Bar first as a place for UW librarians to unwind after conferences; we had no idea it was also a favorite spot for nerdier undergrads. Circa 2009, they revamped their menu and rightly lay claim to some of the best bar food on State Street, yet they remain a well-kept secret. Plus, their cozy leather couches are perfect for sinking into after a day of sightseeing.
From 1982 to 1998, the bar was the “Flamingo,” a dive with a bad rep (named after the 1979 Pail & Shovel Party prank that stuck a thousand plastic pink flamingos into Bascom Hill, at the upper end of State Street). And before that, it was the “Grotto,” where budding journalists, activists and bohemians mixed back to the 1950s.
These days City Bar hosts regular trivia nights and have a fine wine selection as well as good beer and rail options. We recommend it as a less raucous late-night State Street stop, but watch your step - they’re literally underground.
City Bar dishes up fresh popcorn with better-than-movie-theatre-quality condiments, including real butter, ranch sprinkles, and bacon salt. Every day, you can order wonton-wrapped kosher dill pickle wedges, which retain their salty crunch even after a bath in fry medium. You will doubtless encounter deep-fried cheese curds in Madison, which are often compared erroneously to Mozzarella sticks (we won’t get into them too much here, as cheese curds deserve their own tour). At City Bar, “Wisconsin egg rolls” take deep-fried cheese in a different direction, with mild white cheese in wonton wrappers served with a sweet-hot mustard sauce.
City Bar also infuses its own fruit vodkas (strawberry and mango are especially good) and has a witty way with what’s basically a college-kid mixed drink menu. For example, the “Skyyscraper” (vodka, lemonade, Blue Curacao) so named not only for the vodka brand, but also because of 1989 Wisconsin Act 222 that prohibits any building within a mile of the Capitol dome to rise taller than its 284-foot peak - a rule that helps Madison keep its human-scale character.