Three decades ago, Christy’s Landing burned to the ground after 53 years on the shores of Lake Waubesa.
This was an intentional fire, set room by room by the fire department as a training exercise. Dick Christenson, the owner at the time, looked at a decaying building and a growing summer boat business and decided a floor-to-ceiling blaze was the best way to give a fresh start to the tavern his dad opened in 1936.
Eric Christenson, the youngest of Dick’s six kids, was 22 when the restaurant burned down in 1989, and had grown up in the original Christy’s. He remembered having “a little party” on that chilly November morning, watching fire consume 2952 Waubesa Ave.
“We had a cooler out there,” Christenson said. “The whole neighborhood came and watched it go down. A lot of people were sad. ... It was bittersweet. We had a bigger, nicer place coming up.”
From the ashes of that first Christy’s Landing rose the lakeside bar that brings a little bit of northern Wisconsin lake life to the Town of Dunn. Every summer, Christy’s hosts pleasure boaters, pickup volleyball players and families in flip-flops tossing bean bags on the Madison side of Lake Waubesa.
On sunny days, the docks fill up fast. (That’s why the burn happened in the first place, to give the business more space.) Christy’s now spans two levels, with stuffed deer, birds and fish mounted on the walls, pull tab lottery machines downstairs and a metal fire pit outside.
Eric Christenson now owns Christy’s with his siblings but largely runs it on his own. He calls it “a tavern more than a restaurant,” with “old fashioneds, beer, burgers outside.” The food, which also includes pizza with the basics, nachos and a lot of fried things, is not the draw as much as inexpensive drinks and a lakeside view.
“We’re selling the experience,” Christenson said. “The views, the laidback atmosphere, ice cold beer near the lake.”
Still, people do come to fuel up. Friday night fish fry is confined to certain parts of the restaurant so as not to overwhelm the kitchen. Options range from boiled and beer-battered cod ($11.99) to breaded lake perch ($15.99) and nearly foot-long filets of grilled walleye ($16.99). There’s a good creamy slaw and the usual starchy sides, crisp waffle fries and baked potatoes and a wild rice blend. The bourbon old fashioned ($7.25) with Jim Beam was sweet and strong.
The patio at Christy’s is about 15 years old, but Christenson has made incremental improvements since the bar reopened in 1990. He adds new carpet and a coat of paint every few years, he said, and built an outdoor tiki hut two summers ago. He’s constantly replacing the outdoor furniture — the bar stools are homemade, he said.
It was a gloomy start to the season, but consistent volleyball leagues helped bring a stream of patrons. Christy’s is a “big small business,” Christenson said, with 40 employees in the summer. He sometimes has to fill in in the kitchen in addition to accounting, maintenance, plumbing and paying bills.
It’s been 83 years now that Christy’s has had a presence in Madison. It stays open late during summer evenings, until midnight on weekdays and bar time on weekends. Customers have stayed loyal, kept coming year after year. So has Christenson, who’s “almost addicted” to this life in the tavern his grandfather started.
“We had a lot of memories in that old building, but we’ve made a lot of new ones too,” Eric said. “I hope it doesn’t come down anytime soon.”