Critiques, Cravings and Conundrums From the Madison Food and Dining Scene
Jan 20, 2013
01:10 PM
Small Dishes

The Cocktail Lounge

The Cocktail Lounge

At left: A Sazerac at Commander's Palace in New Orleans

I’ve always liked the word lounge. The way it sounds when it rolls off the tongue: “l-ou-nje.” The British especially have an affinity for its use. What passes for a hotel lobby or living room here is called a lounge there. Obviously to lounge means to relax, yet used as a noun it somehow has attained a nuance of sophistication and formality.

Drinking alcoholic beverages has been around forever, but it was the advent of the cocktail that made drinking socially acceptable. There are numerous claims as to who invented the first cocktail and what it contained, but it is American born and bred to be sure. Originally, it was a morning pick-me-up, dispensed at the pharmacy like Coca-Cola. A popular story is it got its name in New Orleans where A. A. Peychaud concocted a popular tonic of brandy spiked with bitters and served it in an egg cup—what the French-speaking population there called a coquetier (pronounced kah-kuh-TYAY). These elixirs were full of aromatic herbs, roots, barks and extracts thought to have medicinal value. By the 1860s when the cocktail shaker was invented, sours, fizzes, smashes and flips were essential accoutrements in the bar of any big city hotel, often referred to as the cocktail lounge. Cocktails traveled to Europe at about the turn of the century, and were a novelty served in what were dubbed “American bars.”  

New recipes for cocktails proliferated with the mixed drinks named after people, places and things: Tom Collins and Rob Roy; Bronx and Manhattan; and French 75 (a gun used in World War I). However, it was the Martini that begot the cocktail lounge. Public drinking had long been the exclusive purview of the working class who downed beer and rough whiskey in utilitarian taverns and saloons. The Roaring Twenties brought unprecedented industrial growth, automobiles, telephones, electricity and motion pictures. Also came an increase in affluence, more leisure time and a change in social mores. It’s not coincidental that people flocked to venues that fit the sophisticated aura of the new cocktail of choice, the Martini. Ironically, Prohibition only intensified the demand for a plush and intimate drinking environment, whether it be speakeasy or country club, to enjoy one’s now illicit cocktail. The end of “The Noble Experiment” was just the beginning of the Golden Age of the Cocktail. Movies like The Thin Man, Casablanca and the James Bond series fueled the cocktail culture. It’s no surprise that drinkers sought out atmospheric places mirroring the romance, mystery and spectacle they saw on the big screen. Décor embraced everything contemporary and worldly, yet no theme was too wacky. Cocktail lounge panache inspired much of what is synonymous with Las Vegas today.

Madison has had its share of remarkable cocktail lounges. I have vague childhood memories of The Tree and Poodle Dog on State Street (later the original Paul’s Club) and its centerpiece tree (which long survived its demise), the kitschy Gay 90s Lounge at the Hoffman House on Wilson Street (Essen House) and its preposterously costumed servers, and the late Tony Schiavo’s stories about the art deco Chanticleer Club in Middleton, a place for whatever reason my parents never took me.

Today there is no shortage of personable cocktail lounges in the city and its environs. Here are a few of my favorites. Cheers!

Tornado Steakhouse in its prior life was a popular downtown supper club called Crandall’s. When Henry Doane took the place over he left well enough alone, leaving intact the original decor that had changed little in 50 years.  The chic circa 1960s cocktail lounge is a real gem. 

The Cardinal Bar began life as a utilitarian standup affair connected to an uninviting station hotel. Ricardo Gonzales gave it a new life and a soul, where for almost 40 years patrons have gathered to relax, talk politics, and enjoy live music. Today, The Cardinal continues to make an exemplary cocktail served with a large helping of nostalgia.

Capitol Chophouse’s bar suffers from neither lack of character or local patrons—too often the case with hotel cocktail lounges. It’s no secret that it’s long been my favorite destination when I wish to warm a bar stool—in no small part due to its legendary bartender, Mary Ward.   

Gena’s Cocktail Lounge is a rendezvous for regulars and downtown visitors alike. It’s an intimate place where attitude is squeezed out by conviviality. The summer patio is the perfect locale to soak up all that makes Madison special.

Merchant takes the craft of making cocktails very seriously and offers an extensive menu of drinks both classic and imaginative as well as topshelf spirits rarely found at other bars. Live music at night and late-night drink specials keeps the place jumping until the wee hours.

Opus Lounge is a true cocktail lounge since it’s not connected to a restaurant or a hotel and its raison d’être is to serve cocktails. The décor is urban and stylish and the choice of drinks almost endless and inevitably made with care.


The Sazerac is an old cocktail, the evolution of Monsieur Peychaud’s original pick-me-up. Named for a bar on Royal Street in New Orleans where it became popular, it combined rye whiskey with a dash of absinthe. The old Sazerac Bar is long gone, but one at The Roosevelt Hotel now bears the famous moniker. The hotel’s art deco bar was a haunt for Huey Long, though the Ramos gin fizz was his drink of choice. He so much liked the one made at the Roosevelt that he took its bartender with him when he went to Washington. Today the Sazerac Bar mixes its namesake cocktail with great reverence and finesse and there’s no finer place to enjoy one. 

Chilled old fashioned glass
2 ounces rye (or bourbon) whiskey
4 drops Peychaud bitters*
2 drops Angostura bitters
2 teaspoons simple syrup
1 teaspoon absinthe or Pernod
Lemon twist

In an ice-filled cocktail shaker, add the whiskey, bitters and simple syrup. Stir (do not shake) thoroughly. Add the absinthe to the chilled glass, then tilt the glass in all directions to coat the inside surface. Pour out any excess. Strain the whiskey mixture into the glass. Place the lemon twist on top.

Makes 1 drink  

*Available at Steve’s Wine, Beer & Spirits and Star Liquor

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About This Blog

Dan CurdI found my interest in writing by accident. My training and first job was as a graphic designer. Unemployed, the only employment I could find in advertising at that time was as a copywriter. Somehow, I convinced Richard Newman & Associates to hire me. Later I learned they were desperate. Madison has been my home off and on since 1957 (nonstop for the past 31 years). I write about food, which I love. – Dan Curd

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