Exploring the Culinary Culture of Madison, Wisconsin and Surrounding Area

The Avenue Club and Bubble Up Bar: First Thoughts

By on October 2, 2015 in Around Town with 0 Comments


As a friend recently stated, there has been much “clutching of pearls” over the closing of The Avenue Bar and the subsequent reopening of the Avenue Club and Bubble Up Bar.

First, a little history. The Avenue Bar had been a Madison tradition for decades. From the Friday Fish Fry, to the Prime Rib specials, to the state politicians sitting at the bar drinking and shooting their mouths off after a long, not-so-hard day of work at the capital, the Avenue Bar was a legendary place where legends were made. Any given day the place was packed with old-timers and regulars, sipping Old Fashioneds and salting their Old Style.

The Avenue was sold in 2011 to Food Fight, Inc. Naturally this was when the first strand of pearls was clutched. The upcoming conflicting visions of the future and subsequent upheaval was clear in the statements released by the sellers, and the buyers:

From the sellers (The Zachs): “We have admired the way in which Food Fight values the individual characteristics and identity of their restaurants. That was important to our family. In our discussions with Food Fight, both parties emphasized that while the ownership structure will change, the parties intend for the Avenue Bar to continue the tradition that has made it a Madison institution.”
From the buyers (Food Fight, Inc): “We love the fact that the Zach family has built a Madison institution by emphasizing great food and outstanding hospitality and we look forward to building on their success

Food Fight made no promises to keep the Avenue the Avenue. None at all. The naively optimistic statement released by the Zach family showed either a lack of understanding of what Food Fight, Inc is about, or a very conscious effort to ignore reality

In May of this year, the Avenue closed for “remodeling”, and then the uproar began. What were they going to do with it? Were they just cleaning it up and updating it? Would it remain Madison’s beloved “Avenue Bar”? Some people were angry on behalf of the tradition. Others were defensive on behalf of Food Fight. I watched (and participated in, and started) a number of social media rantings about this topic. Few on either side of the issue were being reasonable

Reality: When Food Fight purchased the Avenue Bar property, they purchased the right to make it their own. They owed nothing to the history or tradition. People. This is Food Fight. OF COURSE it wasn’t going to remain “the beloved Avenue Bar”. It was going to turn into a slick, high-concept theme restaurant, just like every other Food Fight property.

And so it did. The Avenue Club and Bubble Up Bar reopened in August. Here’s my take on the new place.

IMG_3252High concept does not begin to describe the remodeled restaurant. It’s “hip”. It’s “loungey”. It’s “gimmicky”. It’s a restaurant built around a cocktail.

The corporate Food Fight description is “Mid-century Modern”. It is a restaurant that basically was designed as a big “F*CK YOU” to the old regulars, and a big “WELCOME HIP AFFLUENT YOUNG CROWDS” to the high tech workers in the surrounding businesses (Google, Shopbop, etc). It’s a natural neighbor to the new Star Bar and Sujeo a few blocks away

And I argue that there is not only nothing wrong with that, but that is the way that the entire upper East Washington corridor is going to go. And while long time Madisonians are going to have a hard time swallowing that, it’s inevitable. Food Fight did what Food Fight does best. It found a location it wanted, and set about advancing the up-and-coming vision of the area

But, while I was there for lunch recently, the old regulars were streaming in. Most came in, looked around, shook their heads, and left. A couple argued with the host, telling him how disappointed and betrayed they were. (The host handled it very graciously). And some stayed, but looked exceeding uncomfortable perched on high-concept chairs, with high-concept lighting, in a high-concept lounge atmosphere.

On to the food. Again, it’s Food Fight. Trendy. Gimmicky. And perfectly fine. But nothing that set my world on fire. We tried the Chicken-fried Dill Pickles, the Confit Chicken Wings, and the Grilled Chicken Bahn Mi sandwich

IMG_3250 IMG_3251 IMG_3256 Chicken Bahn Mi Sandwich

I admit that while I honestly disrespect food trends, the Deep Fried Pickle trend is one that I enjoy every bite of, while attempting to swallow my indignation at the “following the trend” trend. And these were excellent Deep Fried Pickles. Crispy, tangy, everything you would expect.

The Confit Chicken Wings were deliberately ordered because I had seen people swooning over them in published reviews. I have one word for them: Eh. I know that the Confit trend is hot right now, but Just Because You Can Doesn’t Mean You Should, and the only remarkable thing about these perfectly adequate wings was that they could use “Confit” in the title

On the other hand the Grilled Chicken Bahn Mi sandwich was quite excellent, despite being — you guessed it — another trendy trend.

It may look like I am going out of my way to use “trend” as many times as I possibly can in this write-up. And I admit it, it’s possible that I am. I could go on a rant about how Madison has become a city of trendiness, and, in my opinion trendiness does not equal original creativity. It’s quite the opposite. But I’ll save that for another time

So I’ll sum it all up in a few words

Slick. High-concept. Gimmicky. Trendy

And that’s Food Fight at it’s best. It’s what they are all about. They have the corporate luxury of being able to pour huge amounts of money into a concept, ride the concept through until the next trend comes along, and then tear down and rebuild as they see fit

It’s good to be them

Can I see this becoming a place I where would go to grab a bite? No. Would I take out-of-towners there to experience it? You betcha. Do I encourage people to try it? Sure.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Feel free to comment.

Note:  The reason the Chicken Bahn Mi Sandwich is not spelled in the usual manner (Banh Mi) is because The Avenue Club and Bubble Up Bar spells it in the way used above.  I chose to use their spelling, even if it is misspelled or a typo.


The Avenue Club and Bubble Up Bar
1128 East Washington Avenue
Madison, WI
(608) 257-6877

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