assessing the socialization potential of several Valley bars
Seating Variety: 5 points
The bar’s options for seating. Comfortable, flexible options for big groups as well as intimate affairs are best.
Seating Location: 5 points
The bar’s options for where to talk. Being visible enough so people you know can join, yet removed from others to avoid awkwardice is ideal.
Noise Level: 5 points
The bar’s typical decibel level you must talk over. Hear-able music and the faint sound of others is preferred to silence or blaring music.
Day vs. Night: 5 points
The bar’s consistent talkability during happy hours, weeknights, and weekends.
Cognitive Atmosphere: 5 points
Intangibles that give a bar character and lead to memorable conversations (the crowd, the sounds, the vibe, the bartenders, etc.)
Total possible points: 25
The Joynt: 19
SV: 3 SL: 4 NL: 5 DvN: 2 CA: 5
The Joynt on Water St. is a mildly hidden gem between the piles of birthday mugs and Journey standards of Brothers and the bold yellow awning of New York Pizza and Deli. But, that said, locals know it well for the sheer character it exudes. The three tables are coveted seating spots for group discussions around cheap pitchers of beer. There’s a particular air of je ne sais quoi about it with vintage cartoons and cans, musician portraits, absurd postcards, and not a drop of light beer to be found. Combined with an excellent and diverse jukebox kept at reasonable volume and great conversational bartenders, you’re in for a mellow time unless you’re in on a weekend night.
The Livery: 18
SV: 5 SL: 4 NL: 3 DvN: 4 CA: 2
Behind the dark veil at the entrance you’ll notice the place opens to a delightfully large bar with plenty of scattered seating. If you’re not up for the dimly lit bar or dining room, the back patio is famous for several tables surrounding a big ole’ fire pit. Some weekend nights can get packed, and the country music can be a little invasive, but they’re open early and late so can be a relaxing stop when you wanna get away from the bustle of standing room only. As a bonus, there’s also a game room that’s regularly open for a small group to take over.
The Fire House: 17
SV: 2 SL: 5 NL: 4 DvN: 3 CA: 3
The selection of beers is the name of the game, with 40 taps rotating almost weekly (providing conversational fare for beer snobs). The lighting is excellent and it’s not overbearingly loud, so you can sit and enjoy a weird new beer, and a conversation at a high table or the bar. It’s one giant room, but tables feel like islands, even when it’s packed on weekend nights. The character and atmosphere come in the fire station theme, extreme cleanliness, and young-professional crowd. So it’s more likely a comfy happy hour spot as opposed to a place to traipse to, fully inebriated, and dance to Britney Spears tunes.
James Sheeley House: 17
SV: 4 SL: 4 NL: 4 DvN: 3 CA: 2
The Sheeley House has a fantastic layout that affords the opportunity to either sit at the bar or grab a table far from the action. Even when a band is playing, the tables make it possible to have real conversation (a rare feat for a music venue). It’s typically quiet, but not at all in an uncomfortable “should-I-stay-quiet-too?” kind of way. The only thing surpassed by the historic vibe is the great bartenders, who are super-friendly and pour great drinks. The windows face the street, and it’s fun to sit with friends at one of the tables and look out as you talk.
Bonnie’s Labor Temple: 17
SV: 3 SL: 4 NL: 5 DvN: 4 CA: 1
You’ve probably driven by this place and never stopped in, but when you do you’ll wonder why you haven’t. It’s a large, open, layout with seating at the bar as well as large tables in the back (perfect for privacy). They’ve attained an amazing noise level with a jukebox that cranks all kinds of music but never needs to be screamed over in conversations. The atmosphere screams a simple working class hometown vibe, and though some of the regulars may seem standoffish to your fresh face, they’re often extremely welcoming and treasure troves for random conversation.
The Waterfront: 17
SV: 3 SL: 4 NL: 3 DvN: 4 CA: 3
A great, laid back, hangout bar that is especially popular in summer for its large back patio overlooking Lake Menomin (so long as the algae blooms aren’t too pungent). Their diverse customer base and staff are friendly and casual, and even when it’s packed it’s never too obnoxious. When it does get packed, it’s often for their Wednesday and Friday food specials, so it clears out later in the evening unlike other bars that increase patronage throughout the night. Sit at the bar, a few stray tables, or in the rustic-feeling booths and enjoy occasional live music.
SV: 2 SL: 3 NL: 3 DvN: 4 CA: 4
While more restaurant than bar, Zanzibar is known for a diverse selection of top-shelf booze, wine, and martinis, and thus is a better short stop than all-night haul. The crowd is never student-heavy as it is white collars after a work day, and you can either sit at the bar, in a booth, or at one of the few tables. The atmosphere is diverse and slightly bizarre, with a touch of historic décor meeting an urban bistro that decided to have as eclectic a menu and artwork as possible. All interesting conversation starters, or mind bogglers, depending on your standpoint.
Hoot’s Hilltop Tavern: 16
SV: 2 SL: 4 NL: 4 DvN: 4 CA: 2
Whether you’re meeting coworkers after work or looking for a weekend spot, Hilltop is a great option. While the seating selection can be difficult for a larger crowd, the bar makes up for it in relaxed atmosphere and friendly staff. Whether the jukebox or karaoke are in action, the noise levels are typically agreeable. The fluxuation in crowd numbers isn’t as dramatic as downtown or Water Street, and you never know what to expect in terms of what characters will walk through the doors next (in a good way!). If you need a relaxed night away, stop atop the hill.
Tomahawk Room: 15
SV: 2 SL: 3 NL: 3 DvN: 4 CA: 3
The vibe in the Tomahawk Room is a perfect blend of townie and cool – too cool could come off pretentious, but the inclusion of Northwoods makes it’s down home and comfy. There’s a great selection of tap beers, and the layout is such that you’ll always feel cozy at a table (even if there’s others in the bar) and it doesn’t get too loud (unless there’s a band on at night) so you don’t have to shout to catch up with friends.
The Pioneer: 15
SV: 5 SL: 3 NL: 3 DvN: 1 CA: 3
I know. You went some Saturday last year and you couldn’t even order a drink over the thump of Don’t Stop Believing. During the week, though, especially in summer, The Pio is a sweet bar to sit and talk. The patio is right off the river and has nice tables to accommodate bigger groups. Inside the games area has plenty of standing space and there’s plenty of booths along the bar area. And enjoy the pop art décor of the likes of Elvis Costello and Rocky Horror. Just try to finish up that intense conversation by Thursday, so you’re ready when Sweet Caroline comes on.
Lakeside Lounge: 14
SV: 1 SL: 2 NL: 5 DvN: 3 CA: 3
If you’re looking for a quiet place straight out of the 70s, this is it. There’s an intimate oval-shaped bar with an extremely friendly staff. The crowd leans toward the blue collar element in early evenings, and slowly shifts to students later on – but not ever approaching the obnoxious college bar stereotypes. Regulars and bartenders keep up a fun and casual atmosphere, and the only real downsides in this quaint little watering hole are the lack of seating variety and option for privacy for small groups.
Log Jam: 14
SV: 5 SL: 4 NL: 2 DvN: 1 CA: 2
Up until 10pm, when the music gets cranked and students arrive in droves, this is a great spot to grab pitchers with a group of friends. It’s a super-clean, nice atmosphere with spot-on bartenders, an amazing tap beer selection, and an enormous open layout. There’s also lots of places to hide with your group, whether it’s one of the several booths or the furnished back patio. Definitely a worth-while first stop early in your night.
SV: 2 SL: 3 NL: 4 DvN: 1 CA: 4
With the best jukebox in town, rad bartenders (for both chatting with or playing Scrabble), and an inexplicable parrot décor, Clancy’s has a lot going for it. The crowd, for instance, is typically a good cross section of quirky Eau Claire figures, and as such Clancy’s is interesting grounds for random conversations. The tough part is that the few places to sit are typically fought for, so standing in mini packs is often required. Especially on weekend nights, when it gets really packed and quite loud. Stick to weeknights and days for optimal conditions.
The Mousetrap: 14
SV: 3 SL: 3 NL: 2 DvN: 2 CA: 4
The Mousetrap isn’t the fanciest bar in town, but it has eclectic character, a phenomenal mixed crowd, and sweet bartenders. The Trap is essentially comprised of three rooms (and smoking patio) with tables spread out if you want to stay close or get away from the bar or live music. Weekend nights can get loud and crowded, but otherwise it’s as laid back as it gets. Especially the mixed crowd, whose unifying quality seems to be chill-itude. The Mousetrap might not be glitzy, but it’s comfy and accommodating, which is better for a talkin’ tavern, anyway.
Court’N House: 14
SV: 2 SL: 2 NL: 3 DvN: 3 CA: 4
Most of the time (weeknights and days), Court’N House is a calm and comfortable stop that feels like home, but on select nights and during big games it’s bustling and packed with little room to think, let alone stand. Offering limited booths, tables, and spots at the bar, the seating variety and locations aren’t the best, but when you’re surrounded by charming neighborhood regulars and the family running the place, you won’t much care. A bin of board games help when conversation slows, not to mention their slideshow of local historic photos.
The Grand Illusion: 14
SV: 4 SL: 3 NL: 3 DvN: 2 CA: 2
Inside the zebra-striped door of The G.I. is a formidable amount of seating. The booths on the floor and loft area are large and can fit around six people. The back area has some tables and plenty of standing room for socializing with bar games, while the bar is one continuous stretch for lots of room to snag drinks and popcorn. Late weekend nights bring in lots of people and quite a bit of noise, but the low lighting typically maintains a social atmosphere and keeps it mellower than some other Water Street drinkeries.
Happy Hollow: 14
SV: 5 SL: 2 NL: 3 DvN: 1 CA: 3
Seating options are a huge plus at The Hollow, from stools at the bar and tables for friends to the somewhat outdoor smoke shack (if you seek privacy and don’t mind cigarette smell). The inconsistent noise level from day to night is the down side, with comfortable music and low talking during the day and an increasing intensity of both as night wears on. If you’re looking for a place to hear yourself think and friends talk, I’d stick to the daylight hours. That said, the bartenders and regulars set an inviting mood and there’s lots of games if you need something to do while chatting.