I'm a little partial to the Avenue Bar in Madison. It's run by a long time friend of mine, Paul Zach, who grew up in Oregon, WI, just south of Madison. Paul and I met while we were going to school at the University of Iowa. He played baseball there until he was injured, then he moved back to Madison to finish school at the University of Wisconsin.
The Avenue Bar has a long history. Joe Keyes built the place in 1956 and it was nothing more than a bar with some pool tables and catered to the workers of the factory across Washington Ave from the bar. Joe ran it until 1967 when he sold it to Homer Middleton. Three years later, Middleton sold it to Skip Zach, Paul's dad, and his partner, Cam Hubanks, who began to serve dinner three nights a week.
In the late 70's, Skip bought Cam Hubanks out and he and his wife, Clare, became the owners. Paul came to work for Skip and Clare in the mid-80's after he got out of school. They expanded the restaurant by putting in a new kitchen area and doubling the size of their dining area. Unfortunately, Skip passed away last year and Paul is now running the place.
I always eat at least one meal at The Avenue Bar when I go to Madison. The fish boil (which is actually steamed fish) is always good and plentiful. Paul said to me one time, "That fish boil is what made this place. There would still be pool tables in this place if my dad and Cam hadn't started the fish boil."
But the Avenue Bar also has good steaks on their menu, too. They do prime rib on Friday and Saturday nights (they have a prime rib breakfast special on Saturday and Sundays which is great, as well). And they have specials each day for lunch and for dinner. I'm particularly fond of their reuben sandwiches and their homemade barley beef soup.
Paul keeps a good selection of beers on tap and they're always cold. He always has one of the Capital Brewery beers on tap. The last time I was in he had the Maibock on tap. It was great with my reuben.
Over the years, Clare has collected a number of antique clocks, kitchen accessories and containers, and put them on display throughout the restaurant. They're pretty interesting to look at.
The Avenue Bar is an institution in Madison. It's the type of place where you could have a highly elected government official sitting at the bar and next to him would be a coach at Wisconsin, the town drunk would be sitting next to the coach, and a college student seated next to the drunk. It's such a diverse and loyal clientele that Paul has in the place. He's always busy every time I go in there, but things get very hectic in the place on Friday and Saturday nights.
Madison is such a great town with a lot of things to do. The Avenue Bar is just another reason to go to Madison.
(Update October 2011 - The Zach family had been contemplating selling the bar since Skip passed away and in April of 2011 they sold the Avenue Bar to the Food Fight Restaurant Group who owns a number of very good restaurants in the Madison area. Paul had offered to stay on and manage the place, but the new owners felt that would be a conflict of interest. I was in having lunch there the fall of 2011 and I was asking one of the ladies who had worked for the Zach's for a long time how things were going. She said that the new owners hadn't changed the menu or the way things are cooked. "Why fool around with success," she rhetorically asked me. I said that it was too bad that Paul wasn't around any longer and she said, "Boy, you're telling me. We miss him everyday. It was a tough, tough day the day he handed over the keys and walked out.")