In 2022, we reported that the Cardinal Bar, a monolith establishment in the LGBTQ history of Madison, was reopening under new management but with much of the same aesthetic and mission as the original. Now the bar is open again. The Cap Times reported that the bar had a “soft opening” for a few weeks until it fully opened in late June.
The five new owners, who all share equal stake in what they have deemed “Cardinal 3.0,” have retained details from the 100+ year history of the building, while still refreshing the menu and decor for a more contemporary consumer, offering a late night menu, and an Art Nouveau design scheme that captures both the old and new. The Cap Times reports that, “Business partner Anthony Rineer took the lead on tapas-style late night plates—chicken wings, kebabs, empanadas, nachos, a relish tray—that will be available until midnight most nights, until bar time Thursday through Saturday.” Live music is also coming back to the bar, albeit in a newly designed and renovated space where part of the original bar used to be. The colorful tile, polished brass accents, ornate wallpaper, original stained glass, and freshly painted walls all create an atmosphere of the early 20th century, an intentional nod to a rich history.
The very first incarnation of The Cardinal Bar opened in 1912 to serve people coming off of the trains, The Cap Times reports. The queer history of the bar started much later, however, when Ricardo Gonzalez, a Cuban refugee who became the first openly gay Latino man elected to office in the entire country, saw the then-rundown building in 1974 and decided to lease the space and turn it into one of the area’s first LGBTQ-friendly bars in the area.
The 70s saw the bar become a haven for Madison’s queer community, and regularly hosted music like jazz and punk, more risque leather and lace parties, and was a hub for progressive political activity. Gonzalez owned and ran the club until the early 2000s when he sold it but stayed on to run it until 2017, when it closed and was turned into another bar, Nomad World Pub. When Nomad moved to a different location, The Cardinal’s current owners saw an opportunity and worked diligently to restore the bar to its former glory, taking pieces from each part of its storied past to create the simultaneously modern and retro chic “Cardinal 3.0.” They did not make these moves without the blessing of Gonzalez, who has passed the torch officially and who is reportedly very happy with what the five new owners have built.