The Resurrection of a Dive Bar

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The Tip Top Tavern is dead. Long Live the Tip Top Tavern. Madison Magazine recently wrote about the new Tip Top Tavern in Madison’s Eken Park neighborhood, and I managed to wander in and check it out myself. I have a vested interest, as the old Tip Top was my nearest dive bar when I lived in the neighborhood.

I have nothing against dive bars. I’m not one of those slumming barflies who goes around proclaiming my love of the joints, because let’s face it – these places are called dives for a reason. Still, dive bars are not without their charms, and there are some places that are genuinely a good spot to relax, drink a cheap beer, and maybe have a good bar burger.

Not so the old Tip Top Tavern. For ten years, I lived a few blocks away from the Tip Top. I dropped in a handful of times during the first few years. Since it was so close, my friends and I harbored hopeful dreams of taking it over through habit and force of will… maybe win over the sullen bar staff and convince them to improve the beer selection just slightly. But we soon realized it was a foolish endeavor. The place was just too sad and repulsive to make it worth any effort. The city’s smoking ban had caused the place real harm, not by affecting its traffic but by eliminating the smoke fumes that masked the building’s natural funk of urine and failure. During the day the bar was home to angry, broken alcoholics. At night it hosted drug deals and parking lot fights. Too small to ever be a true nuisance, the Tip Top Tavern was just a sad little hole, best avoided on one’s way to better establishments down the street.

And then abruptly, it closed. Signs on the windows proclaimed that a new and improved Tip Top was on the way. We waited. Rumors spread of a possible connection with local favorites Lazy Jane’s and Mickey’s, an encouraging sign. We waited. I moved (ensuring that something good would happen, as is my luck). We waited longer. And longer. “I’m guessing they bit off more than they could chew,” I mused over drinks with friends who still lived in the neighborhood. “It’s the Tip Top, after all. God only knows what they found in the walls. Dead possums and body parts, probably.”

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Maybe the new owners did find such detritus, but if so they did an excellent job eliminating all evidence. The new Tip Top is an utter marvel. The layout is the same, more or less, but the change is stunning. It’s an entirely different place. Dank walls and Bud Light signs have been replaced with warm wood and nifty light fixtures. Sour drunks have been supplanted by happy patrons who seem to be actually enjoying themselves. The warm nut dispenser has been replaced with a full menu. (Actually, I did always like the warm nut dispenser.) The effect for those of us who were familiar with the old space is rather jarring and disorienting, but it is a welcome change.

And of course, it’s not my neighborhood anymore. Figures.

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