Just a few steps off campus lies a restaurant familiar to anyone who celebrates a birthday: The Nitty Gritty. Located on the corner of Frances and Johnson, not only is the Nitty Madison’s Official Birthday Place, but its close proximity to the Kohl Center makes it the perfect venue to pregame a sporting event and celebrate a Wisconsin victory.

Its welcoming décor and family-friendly atmosphere makes children of every age happy to be celebrating. The walls are covered with pictures of gleaming birthday-goers ranging in age from one to 106.

Photo by Emily Parkinson

Photo by Emily Parkinson

Don’t get too wrapped up in the excitement of the celebration traditions at the Nitty, to the point where you forget the root of what makes a good restaurant successful: the food.

I have been to the Nitty for a bunch of friends’ birthdays and almost always opt for the “Burger of the Day.” This allows me to be spontaneous and (usually) pleasantly surprised when my food arrives. Today, however, I was feeling particularly adventurous and decided to try the apple butter BLT. Crisp, applewood, smoked bacon always pairs nicely with crisp lettuce and ripe tomatoes. But this American favorite posed something very unique: A sticky, apple butter saturated with flavor was spread across a tangy Hawaiian roll giving the whole sandwich an unexpected kick of flavor. The sandwich paired wonderfully with the pitcher of cold Spotted Cow shared amongst the table.

Most birthday celebrators are not aware of the Nitty’s rich history. The restaurant opened in 1968 when popular television personality, Marsh Shapiro, decided to convert an abandoned general store into a popular neighborhood bar. The Nittly led to a change in culture on campus by serving as an underground headquarters for planning many anti-Vietnam protests in its first few years of business. In the early 1970s, the restaurant transitioned to a famous Midwest blues venue featuring bands all seven nights of the week.

In 1985, the Nitty Gritty went through another transformation to the restaurant and bar we know and love today: Madison’s Official Birthday Place. Since that time, the birthday bell, birthday board, Gritty memento mug, birthday balloon, announcement and songs have helped celebrate an average of 55 birthdays every day.

The birthday boy got a complimentary mini sundae filled with a rich, chocolate syrup and thick ice cream topped with fluffy whipped cream and a candle. He quickly devoured it  and sat with a satisfied grin as a booming round of “Happy Birthday” rounded off our dinner at the Nitty.

While you may think that you know everything there is to know about Madison’s favorite birthday restaurant, take another trip and dig deeper into the secrets it has to offer. The Nitty Gritty’s dependable food, delicious menu items and jubilant atmosphere keep locals and students coming back for birthday celebrations year after year.


Address: 223 N Frances St, Madison, WI 53703
Hours of operation: Mon-Thurs: 11:00 am to 1:30 pm, Fri-Sat: 11:00 am to 2:00 am, Sun: 12:00 pm to 1:30 am.