Plaza Tavern’s pals come to the rescue

Owner grateful for $75,000 raised but still fears for Plaza's future if it can't reopen soon.
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The Plaza Tavern. (Photo by Ian Miller)

The last time the Plaza Tavern needed saving, I stopped in for a Plazaburger, had two, and got a history lesson.

That was exactly 20 years ago, October 2000, and a crusading alderman, in cahoots with Madison’s mayor, had threatened the Plaza’s liquor license, claiming the bar had violated capacity limits on four occasions.

I will resist naming those politicians to avoid embarrassing any innocent relatives.

Suffice it to say that when word of the controversy surfaced, Madison rallied around the Plaza, as befits a beloved institution, and the license issue went away.

Now Madison residents and city ex-pats have once again united in support of the Plaza, as it struggles to remain solvent during the pandemic.

Last month, the Plaza launched a GoFundMe page. Owner Dean Hetue said he hoped to raise $75,000, which he estimated he needed to remain open through the end of the year.

The response was overwhelming — $75,000 raised in less than a week.

“We met our goal in six and a half days,” Hetue told me last week. “I had no idea how much love there was out there for the Plaza.”

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Plaza Tavern owner Dean Hetue

Back in October 2000, Hetue was the bar manager, having started at the Plaza in 1980.

“I celebrated my 40th anniversary in May,” he says.

During my visit in 2000, I happily munched on two Plazaburgers — the “secret sauce” on top is the key ingredient — while various members of the Huss family paused from squirting sauce and wiping tables to fill me in on the bar’s storied history.

At that point, four Huss siblings — Jim, Tom, Kathy and Peg — owned the Plaza, which is located at 319 N. Henry St.

The legend — defined as a story too good to thoroughly vet — is that the first beers in the Plaza were tapped during Prohibition by Frank “Moon” Molinaro, a University of Wisconsin-Madison football star who later won the state father-daughter golf championship with his daughter and eventual UW–Madison women’s golf coach, Jackie Molinaro Hayes.

The Huss siblings’ father, Harold Huss, started working at the Plaza in 1945 and became manager in 1951.

Jim Huss told me: “My mom, dad and I pooled our money together in 1963 and bought it.”

It was the siblings’ mom, Mary Huss, who developed the famous sauce for the burger. The recipe is top-secret and even though burger joints across the country have put “Madison’s Plazaburger” on their menus, it’s never been duplicated.

I once asked Tom Huss what was in it.

“I could tell you,” Huss said, “but then I’d have to kill you.”

Plaza customers — always a mix of UW students and city residents — make a habit of coming back to visit even after moving away from Madison. CBS correspondent Rita Braver worked as a waitress at the Plaza.

In 2003, the Huss siblings sold the Plaza to Hetue, their longtime manager.

I can claim a small role in the Plaza’s ascendance.

In 2005, New York filmmaker George Motz secured a book deal in the wake of his acclaimed documentary, “Hamburger America.” The idea was for Motz to expand the eight classic burger joints profiled in his film to 100 for the book.

Motz and I had previously corresponded regarding our mutual passion for good burgers. Now he asked me if I could pick one Madison burger as the best in town, which would it be?

Motz came to Madison in November 2005, the day before Thanksgiving. He drove up from his in-laws’ place in Chicago.

I knew Motz appreciated having a good back story to go along with a tasty burger, so I ended up taking him to two places: Dotty’s, where he was regaled by “Hamburger King” Jeff Stanley, and the Plaza.

Motz had a burger (and fried cheese curds) at both places. He told me that his cholesterol was 129 and his wife was a vegetarian.

Motz wound up including both Dotty’s and the Plaza in his book, “Hamburger America: A State-by-State Guide to 200 Great Burger Joints.”

Of the Plazaburger sauce, Motz wrote: “This unique topping is good. Very, very good.”

Dean Hetue told me last week that as pleased as he is with the GoFundMe response — and he is deeply appreciative — potential trouble still looms if the Plaza can’t open its doors soon.

The infusion allowed him to increase the hours for take-out to Wednesday and Thursday, 3-8 p.m. and Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

I was last in the Plaza in September 2019, when my friend John Roach hosted a party there celebrating the success of his songwriter son, JT Roach, on the NBC show “Songland.”

John covered the wine and beer for everybody that night, but he stopped short of a blank check for Plazaburgers.

“There is not enough net worth in the world,” he told me later, “for a guy to pick up that tab.”

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.