Skip to main content
Madison Monday

Madison Monday: The 605 Grille and the Great Good Place

By January 24, 20112 Comments
The pink place, aka The 605 Grille

Today’s Madison Monday is also related to a book, as many great things in life are. The book is The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community, by Ray Oldenburg. The great good place is the 605 Grille, often known as the pink place, especially for those who have not yet committed to memory the particular number combination that makes up their street address (my mother calls the place some variation of 504, 603, etc.).

The 605 has been in Madison for about 5 years now (or so I heard Julie-Kate, 605 cappuccino-maker, waitress, baker and general master of all things gastronomical, tell someone the other morning). Before this building was the 605, it was McQuiston’s, which was also a place with good beer, which as folks will tell you, is a pretty high priority in my selection of a place to eat (and yes, I have ruled out restaurants because their beer selection was inferior and I’m not afraid to admit it). I will confess at the beginning, because it is a good lesson perhaps for you, but definitely for me, in the danger of first impressions that I did not go to 605 for quite a while after it first opened. When McQuiston’s closed there was some sadness. When the building gradually began to become pink, there was some outrage and consternation (you pick the word that best suits your particular emotional reaction). How could someone paint the beautiful wooden frame doors and windows pink?!?! Ah, the humanity! And now I just thank god for the pinkness on an almost daily basis.

Fresh made bagels

The 605 has excellent food, superb local beers, a stellar wine list, and more recently, the best cappuccino in Madison, and perhaps a 30-40 mile radius. Their soups are always amazing, and they make a beautiful creme brule and a honey balsamic glazed peach something that was probably the most amazing dessert I’ve ever had. All these things are welcome additions to our culinary lives in Madison. But what I really love about the 605 is that it is also, for me and I believe for others in town, a great good place.

What, you may ask, is a great good place? In his book, Ray Oldenburg laments the death of public life in the United States. He’s in the Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone, school of social scientists who study community and believe that in contemporary America, we may have forgotten how to be communal. We know how to buy things (we’re very good at that), but not so much how to be neighbors. Oldenburg in particular argues that post-industrialization, we have two main places–home (first place) and work (second place). They’re both great, and have their purposes, but a third place, on the other hand, is something entirely different. A third place is all about what Simmel called sociability. Sociability is being social just for the pure pleasure of being social. You’re not trying to build an intimate relationship or get ahead. You’re just shooting the shit, so to speak. Oldenburg believes that in the United States, we have lost most of our good third places, and we have also lost the skills that came with being in the third place. Skills like conversation just for the sake of conversation.

The world’s best french fries

Oldenburg has written quite a lot about third places, but if you really want to crystallize his ideas all you have to do is think of Cheers. The tv show and the theme song. Both describe a third place in a nut shell. Everybody knows your name, your troubles are all the same. Sometimes you need a place where you can go to take a break from all your worries. If you walk into a place and everyone yells, “Norm,” you are in a third place (unless your name is not Norm, and then something entirely different is going on).

So maybe this is a testament to how often my husband, stepdaughter and I are in the 605, but the 605 for us is that place. It’s Cheers, in a world where I pretty much thought no one had places like that anymore. There are evenings when it seems like almost everyone we know is in the 605. It’s a place you can go to by yourself, and bring a book that you’ll probably end up not reading, because they’ll be someone sitting next to you at the bar to talk to. One of the beauties of the third place is that you don’t have to plan ahead for it. In today’s world, we have to plan every social gathering, for ourselves, our spouses, our children and even our pets. Having folks over to dinner or having a party is fun, but it takes effort and planning and coordination, often months ahead of time. With a good third place, all you have to do is walk in the door, and usually some of the regulars are there. Regulars are another important characteristic of a third place. I don’t need to name 605’s regulars; they know who they are.

Beers on tap at the bar (Yummy Alpha King)

So what’s so great about having a third place, you might ask (unless you have your own third place, in which case you probably already know the answer). Well, it’s a kind of home away from home. It’s a place to escape being alone (like, say as a pure hypothetical, you’re on sabbatical and in the house all day with the cats, and beginning to imagine that they’re talking back). It does give us an opportunity to be sociable, to just hang out, to practice the fine art of conversation. I think Oldenburg’s right that we’re not so great at this anymore. Most importantly for me, as Oldenburg’s title suggests, third places are core sites for the formation of community, a topic that is always interesting to me a sociologist and a person. How do you feel that you are part of a community? Communities are largely imagined things, but are usually rooted in some concrete experiences. Having a third place where you can go is a key way to experience what it means to belong to a community, to have relationships with the people around you. It’s okay if the only conversations you ever have with the people in a third place are at that particular third place. There’s room for people in our lives who are neither intimates nor co-workers. In fact, feeling like you know the person who rings up your groceries or delivers your UPS packages is a very satisfying thing, even if you never become best friends. So the 605 makes me feel that much more like a part of a community, and for that I am infinitely thankful.  I hope the 605 never, ever, ever goes away.

Oldenburg has a long list of sites that can become third places….cafes, coffee shops, pubs, bookstores, hair salons, bars…so what’s your third place?


  • Randy says:

    This is exactly what is missing from my life – a third place. Sadly, the third place in Southern California is too often the car.

  • Robyn says:

    It's very good to have a third place that's walkable, and hard to hang out when you spend a lot of time in the car. We'll make you an honorary regular when you visit, Randy.

Leave a Reply