Village Bar will reopen under new ownership

Doug Moe's Madison: The new owners are three longtime friends and regulars who hope to reopen the Village Bar — for the first time in more than 18 months — as early as Dec. 18.
Inside the Village Bar, pictured from left to right: Mark Kampa, Mark Venden, Shawn Quinn, Matt Fink and Tom Oberwetter.
Photo by Jeanan Yasiri Moe.
Inside the Village Bar, pictured from left to right: Mark Kampa, Mark Venden, Shawn Quinn, Matt Fink and Tom Oberwetter.

The pandemic screwed up a lot of things for a lot of people.

High on my list — instinct tells me I’m not alone — is that the Village Bar, located at 3801 Mineral Point Road across from Glenway Golf Course, closed, briefly reopened, and then closed again — some feared for good.

The gravity of the situation may best be conveyed by quoting from an essay by the late Southern author Harry Crews.

“I learned a long time ago that for many of us where we drink is more important than what we drink,” Crews wrote in Esquire. “More important even than if we drink.”

Should the bar in question also serve delicious, affordable, non-health food — the Village’s burgers are legendary — its indispensability is further ensured.

Which is why I was smiling Saturday afternoon, sitting at a table in the Village with the three Madison men who, pending a couple of regulatory contingencies, will reopen the Village for the first time in more than 18 months, possibly as soon as Saturday, Dec. 18.

The new owners are longtime friends and Village regulars Matt Fink, Shawn Quinn, and Tom Oberwetter. They are buying the bar from Mark Kampa, who has owned it for more than two decades and is a friend of the purchasers.

All are friendly enough that Kampa will stay on working at the Village, at least for a time, just as Leo Castle, who owned the bar for 20 years before Kampa bought it, still works shifts at the Village.

It’s that kind of place.

The new Village will be managed by Mark Venden, who worked for Kampa for the past five years.

“New” may not be the correct term. There will be some modest changes — sturdier stools, perhaps a bit less clutter, credit and debit cards accepted — but the goal of the new owners is to retain what has made the Village a success for decades.

The menu will not change. The burger meat will still be specially prepared by Metcalfe’s.

All three of the new owners have other professions — Oberwetter is an attorney (his office is next door to the bar); Quinn has an agricultural consulting company; and Fink is a commercial lender with Oak Bank. But they missed the Village.

“We wanted the bar open,” Fink says.

It’s a unique place that can engender that kind of loyalty.

The building has been a bar in its present location for 80 years, but it had an earlier life. Westmorland neighborhood historian Tom Martinelli’s research indicates the structure dates to 1905, when it was a hardware store on University Avenue. A man named Theodore Herling bought the building and eventually moved it to its current location, where he operated it first as a general store and then, starting in 1941, as Herling’s Bar.

Bob Waterman bought it from Herling and operated it as Waterman’s Bar, and then in 1953 the Village Bar got its enduring name when it was purchased by brothers-in-law Frank Vitale and Joe Namio. (Longtime residents will remember Namio also had an eponymous supper club for years on South Park Street.) Leo and Jan Castle bought the Village in 1978 and sold it to their bartender, Kampa, in 1999.

It dawned on me recently that I’ve lived within walking distance of the Village most of my life.

It was at the Village that I proposed marriage to Jeanan, in my typically clumsy fashion. That evening, for the first and only time, the Village had forgotten to put cheese on our burgers.

I thought to myself, “How can I turn this night around?”

I turned to her and said, “I am tired of calling you my girlfriend.”

She said later she thought I was breaking up with her.

“I want to call you my fiancé,” I said.

“That would mean we would have to get married,” Jeanan said.

In fact, Jeanan had also lived close to the Village for a long time. When she worked at NBC15, she would meet her friend and colleague, the late Bob Richards, at the Village. He too lived nearby and loved the bar.

Richards was a consumer reporter — a very good one — but in those days the most famous consumer advocate was David Horowitz, who had a national show called “Fight Back.”

Naturally, whenever Richards walked in the Village, the regulars would shout, “Horowitz!” and then turn back to their beers.

Half of Madison must have Village stories.

Over the past year, when the Village was closed, Fink and Oberwetter would occasionally stop by Kampa’s home to chat and see what was up with the bar. It turned out Kampa had a buyer, though after months passed, that fell through.

“It was then that the three of us decided, ‘Let’s take a look at this,’” Fink says.

That was in October, so the new deal came together quickly. Embarking on their adventure, the new owners seem excited and maybe a little nervous, though less so because they don’t intend to change the beloved business they’re inheriting. Amid the preparatory bustle Saturday afternoon, they were smiling.

Somewhere, Jerry Seinfeld should be smiling, too. In 2005, in town for a performance at the Overture Center for the Arts, the celebrated comedian got in a limo downtown and asked to be taken to a great cheeseburger.

The driver took him to the Village.

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