For as long as anyone can remember, The Plaza Tavern on North Henry Street in downtown Madison has been the place to be on a Thursday night. With its famous $2.50 Long Island iced tea special, perfect to wash down the bar’s signature Plaza Burger, the tavern is a mecca for college students, seasoned locals, and downtown waitstaff when they get off work.
As the Dick Clark of Madison establishments, The Plaza Tavern hasn’t aged a bit in the 35 years owner Dean Hetue has been behind the bar. The same booths, same long bar, and same large murals of Wisconsin scenery, painted between 1949 and 1952 by a guy who needed to pay off his bar tab, still decorate the walls and its old-fashioned wooden paneling.
“About the only thing I’ve changed is that I added a few televisions,” Dean says. “The rest is the same as it’s always been.”
Legend has it is that the first beers were served in the Plaza during Prohibition as “Moon” Molinaro, a University of Wisconsin-Madison football player, ran a speakeasy next to the pool hall that occupied most of the building. In 1930, bowling lanes were added by Al Grebe, and the bar made history when Madison’s Jennie Hoverson Kelleher bowled the first 300 game by a woman in a sanctioned competition.
The bowling lanes are long gone, but the current look of The Plaza Tavern has been the same since 1963 when the Huss Family purchased the business and Mary Huss invented the now infamous “Plaza Sauce.” In 2003, Dean, who had worked at the bar for 23 years, took over ownership from the Huss Family. He’s been at the helm ever since. He is also the sole keeper of the secret Plaza Sauce recipe. He makes 10 gallons every week from scratch and from memory. The recipe itself sits in a safe deposit box, and his wife has the only key.
“I make every single batch,” Dean says. “It’s our signature item. Newcomers come in and ask for a side of ranch dressing with their fries or tarter sauce with their fish sandwich. We don’t have ranch dressing or tarter sauce. We have Plaza Sauce. Period.”
The recipe for Plaza Sauce—white and creamy with just the right amount of zip—has been debated for decades. Some swear the base is mayo, others say sour cream. No one knows for sure except Dean, and he’s not saying—just smiling and serving up more sauce.
“We’ve had folks come in here and order a Plaza Burger as their last meal before going into hospice care. We’ve had folks come in and order a dozen Plaza Burgers to take to a relative who’s battling cancer six hours away. One customer wrote in her obituary that in lieu of flowers, friends and family should go to The Plaza Tavern and eat a Plaza Burger. The burger and the sauce hold a special place in a lot of folks’ hearts,” Dean says.
Since its inception, nearly 3 million Plaza Burgers have been sold. Dean knows this because the previous owners kept meticulous records of every pound of hamburger they bought. He’s tried to do the same. Every one of those nearly 3 million burgers has been cooked on a small grill behind the bar, which can hold 20 burgers at a time. On average, between 500 and 1,000 burgers are sold every week. That’s a lot of flipping burgers over 50 years.
When asked what other items are popular on the menu, Dean squints his eyes and blinks. “People don’t even know we have a menu,” he says. “They just come in and order a Plaza Burger.”
This is immediately confirmed by a bar patron, who is enjoying a draft beer, watching golf on television, and listening to a conversation between the owner and a writer. “You have a menu?” he asks. Dean tries hard to not roll his eyes, grabs a menu from behind the bar, and shows it to the customer, whose name is Robert. “Huh, who knew?” Robert says, looking it over.
Dean does confirm that several years ago he added one item to the menu: a roast beef sandwich. It is the same recipe that a tavern in Rosendale, Wisconsin, served before it closed. Dean used to stop there on the way to watch Green Bay Packers games, and when the bar closed, the owner gave Dean the recipe. “It’s the best roast beef sandwich you’ve ever had, and no one knows about it. I maybe sell one a day,” he laments.
While the menu and ambiance haven’t changed much at The Plaza in 50 years, Dean has instituted several eco-friendly changes during his tenure. The tavern is part of the city’s pilot composting program, and he buys as much food as he can every week from local purveyors. “We’re trying to reduce our environmental footprint,” he says.
And while on Thursdays the place may be packed with college students, during the rest of the week, a solid group of locals, government officials, and other bar owners and workers call The Plaza Tavern home. With a solid clientele, Dean says the tavern’s not going anywhere. “We’re going to keep making Plaza Burgers for a long time to come.”
Jeanne Carpenter is a cheese geek and food writer living in Oregon, Wisconsin.