Have you ever been to a bar on Christmas Day? I’ve spent a Christmas by myself before, and can tell you it’s a very depressing, very lonely experience. Had there been a welcoming saloon close by, I would have planted myself on a stool, watched a football game, and sipped a few drinks in the fellowship of others who, like myself, had nowhere else to go. But, alas, every single one in the small town I lived in was closed and dark.
But some are more fortunate than me, and I mean specifically the residents of Madison, Wisconsin (or those who lived there until about twelve years ago). For over three decades, an East Washington landmark called the Avenue Club served the lonely, thirsty, and hungry for Christmas, giving solace to the weary with no other option. It wasn’t the drunkard or sot who came to this bar and restaurant on December 25th, it was the long-haul trucker who just drove across the country, the nurse who just finished her shift, or (as in my case) the college student whose home was very far away. In short, it was the crowd that didn’t have a place to go.
The Avenue Bar, owned by the soft-spoken Skip Zach, was like mom’s house for Christmas, for many people, and for many years.
But it didn’t start that way. Purchasing the already fourteen-year-old bar with a business partner in 1970, Skip saw potential in what was at the time a small neighborhood watering hole. Though just a room with a couple of pool tables at first, Skip expanded it to contain a dining room that would become famous for its “fish boil,” a culinary tradition unique to Wisconsin. After a few years of co-ownership, Skip bought out his partner, and the Zach’s (Skip and his wife, Clare) began a 30-plus-year run of ownership and service to their community.
The Zach’s were a generous couple who oozed philanthropy, much of this through their volunteering. Tuesdays would find Skip and up to 45 of his employees serving food at the local Lutheran church, while on Wednesdays, they’d work at the nearby Ronald McDonald House. They were also involved in neighborhood organizations, university booster clubs, and proudly sponsored numbers of amateur sports teams. Every year they even held a fundraiser for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, raising thousands of dollars for them over the decades.
As you can imagine, Skip and Clare made sure their bar was a welcoming place to visit. They featured live music on the weekends (from country to Dixieland jazz), sports on TV when the game was on, and cold beer every day of the year. Conversation could be boisterous, but people were always friendly. Skip called his bar “non-partisan,” so politics was secondary to other matters, usually sports, which meant lively debates about the Brewers, the Badgers, or the Packers.
Despite denying any political leanings though, the Avenue Bar was still frequented by state politicos, not to mention professional athletes and business owners. While holding court, these big wigs shared space with college students, plumbers, and construction workers. People from all walks of life enjoyed this place.
Surrounded by a collection of bric-a-brac, mostly regional antiques collected over the years by Clare, patrons could always find an honest pour and good food. Maybe I should say great food. The menu included not only the daily fish boil (think fish and chips), but also prime rib, burgers, and corn beef and cabbage. Pub grub it was not.
And then there was Christmas Day. On the 25th of December, Skip opened his doors to the weary and lonesome and provided not only a place to share some company and a drink, but also a fantastic meal. Some years it was crab legs, other years, it was lobster, but always it was something special.
And that’s really what this place was – special. If you viewed a late December Madison, Wisconsin newspaper anytime in the 1980s, you’d find an ad for “Skip Zach’s Avenue Bar.” In big, bold letters was written, “Open Christmas.” Surrounding it were countless other ads for other area restaurants and bars. In big bold letters on them you’d read, “Closed Christmas Day.” It takes something special to open your doors to strangers on one of the most important holidays of the year. Skip understood what it meant to the people who made their way to his bar on that day. To them, perhaps missing their homes or loved ones somewhere a thousand miles away, finding the warmth, welcome, and fellowship of the Avenue Bar made the day a little less lonely, and a little more cheerful.
Skip passed in 2005, and his beloved Avenue Bar was sold in 2011. It hung on for a while with the same menu and under a similar name but finally closed for good in 2021. One less place to spend Christmas Day.
I’m not saying you should ditch your family and head to the local saloon this Christmas, but if you happen to see a bit of neon in the distance on a snowy December 25th, know that it’s serving a good cause, and selflessly doing its part to make the holidays merry and bright.