Saying ‘so long’ to the Avenue Bar

The East Washington institution will make way for the new Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras center, but it's not the first goodbye.
Exterior shot of the Avenue Club and the Bubble Up Bar with stone and glass exterior and neon and red sign.

The Avenue Club and the Bubble Up Bar, closed through the pandemic, will not reopen.

Before it was the Avenue Club and the Bubble Up Bar it was the Avenue Bar, owned by the Zach family.

In the opinion of some, the first time the Avenue Bar died was a decade ago, in 2011, when the Zach family sold it to Food Fight, the large Madison restaurant group.

This view holds that the Avenue Bar died a second time in 2015, when Food Fight changed the name to the Avenue Club and Bubble Up Bar.

The Avenue’s third — and presumably final — death came last month with the announcement that its East Washington Avenue location will be the new home of a $25 million Wisconsin Youth Symphony Center for Music, with Pleasant Rowland and Jerry Frautschi as the lead donors.

The Avenue has been closed during the pandemic, though the Wisconsin State Journal reported its kitchen has been used to provide meals for homelessness support services organization Porchlight. The paper noted that contract runs through August; the music center is scheduled to open in 2023.

My own view is that whatever the how and why, the end of the Avenue Bar is a big deal. I once wrote that it came as close to being a public utility as any Madison restaurant ever has.

The Zach family — Skip and Clare and their son, Paul, were the proprietors — acquired the Avenue in 1970. They turned what had been a neighborhood bar into a supper club. Comfort food and generous drinks at a decent price — coupled with its locale, walkable from the Capitol Square — drew politicians, journalists, trial lawyers, musicians, visiting celebrities: all manner of urban wildlife.

“The staff rarely turned over,” Mike May, the retired Madison city attorney, said last week. “If you went there even a little bit, it was like ‘Cheers’ — everyone knew your name.”

Steve Zach — son of Skip and Clare and an attorney in Madison’s Boardman Law Firm — is a close friend of May, who worked at Boardman before and after becoming city attorney. May thought of the Avenue as his “third place” — after work and home — and he reached out after reading the State Journal story about the new music center. We spent our call trying to top each other’s Avenue Bar stories.

It turns out the Avenue rescued May’s wedding day. He and his bride, Briony, caught an early June day in 2001 that was more like early March, and their reception was slated for outdoors at Burrows Park. It only took a phone call for Paul Zach to make the Avenue’s back room available. “Everyone crowded in,” May says, “and had a great time.”

Mike And Briony Wedding At Avenue

Mike May and Briony Foy at their 2001 Avenue Bar wedding reception.

May held numerous August gatherings at the Avenue to commemorate the anniversary of Richard Nixon resigning the presidency. One oft-told story — always worth retelling — involved the 20th anniversary event in August 1994.

Nixon had died a few months earlier, leading May to accuse him of trying to “steal the thunder” from the Avenue party. The highlight of the night was an auction of two golf balls bearing the logo of the Nixon Library. Madison historian and journalist Stu Levitan got them for $16, a small price for being able to forever say he’d purchased Nixon’s balls.
One of the best Avenue stories belongs to someone who worked on Nixon’s impeachment: retired Madison attorney Bill Dixon. Dixon took a visiting friend, the celebrated New York Times political reporter — and noted gourmand — R.W. “Johnny” Apple to the Avenue for a weekend brunch. Apple ate brats and told Dixon, “I wish we had a place like this in Georgetown.”

My own favorite memories include seeing the great Ginny O’Brien serve as vocalist for the Avenue Sizzlers, the Dixieland jazz band that enjoyed a two-decade run playing Monday nights at the Avenue. The launch party for a book of my collected newspaper columns was held at the Avenue. And then there were the countless Friday lunches when a large group of reporters and pols — Tony Earl, Tom Loftus, Bill Kraus, Neil Shively, Frank Ryan, Joel Skornicka, many more — pushed tables together to eat, drink and tell colorful stories, some conceivably true.

Most improbable was the noon when Madison attorney Milo Flaten spotted me across the Avenue dining room and waved me over to his table. This was 2002. He introduced me to a friend from his Milwaukee childhood, a man named Bob Anders, who’d worked as a U.S. diplomat overseas. Anders then related a harrowing story of escaping the U.S. embassy in Tehran moments before it was seized in 1979. Yes. Anders was a central player in the tale told in the movie “Argo.” I first heard it at the Avenue, a decade before the film’s release.

Unlike some, I was hopeful when Food Fight bought the Avenue in 2011. The Zachs had 40 years in by then; Skip died in 2005. The neighborhood, too, was changing. Younger people, many employed by Epic Systems Corp., were arriving. The Avenue likely needed a reboot. But I figured Monty Schiro, the Food Fight founder, knew the Avenue’s storied history well enough not to tinker with it too much.

I spoke with Schiro around the time of the name change in 2015; his aim was to modernize the Avenue while still honoring its traditions.

I was only to the new place a couple of times so am not really positioned to judge. Sometimes, despite all good intentions, things just don’t work out.

May told me that he and Briony went for dinner not long after the name change, which was accompanied by a remodel. He said driving home they agreed the food was good, the drinks robust and the service perfectly acceptable.

“Then we were quiet for about 10 seconds,” May recalls. “And I said, ‘We’re never going back there, are we?’ It wasn’t our place anymore. It was something else.”

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