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The things that came to mind before I embarked on my first-ever visit to Milwaukee were three things: cheese, Brewers baseball and hipster beer.
Imagine my surprise when my pre-travel research yielded raving reviews about the city’s bar and lounge scene, which offered much more than just Pabst Blue Ribbon. In fact, Milwaukee was recently named "Best Bar City in America" by Esquire magazine.
This of course made my trip all the more important, and as I traveled to Brew City I vowed to made my way through bars and lounges all across the city, eager to verify the magazine’s claim.
I began my tour in Milwaukee’s Southside neighborhood at Bryant’s cocktail lounge. Bryant’s is a Milwaukee tradition, open since 1938 and still thriving. Little has changed since the lounge’s debut, partly thanks to current owner John Dye, who describes himself more as a ‘curator’ than bar owner.
“It’s remained pretty much unchanged for 75 years,” Dye said. “People in their 80’s walk in and they’re like, ‘It looks just like the last time I was here.’”
There’s no menu at Bryant’s – because they offer over 400 different cocktails. Bartenders and waitresses are on hand to talk you through exactly what kind of cocktail you’re in the mood for, and then whip it up for you. Among the concoctions are classic “Depression-era” cocktails and ice cream drinks, including the Pink Squirrel, which originated at Bryant’s.
I sampled the “Love and Happiness,” made with gin, cucumber and elderflower. It was light, refreshing and exactly what I was hoping for. The Bryant’s cocktail collection is constantly expanding, as bartenders test new recipes every night. Bryant’s bartenders are skilled mixologists who often compete in bartending competitions.
“I think when people come to Milwaukee and they come to Bryant’s … it’s the cocktail bar they were looking for in their town, that they all thought existed when they started drinking cocktails,” Dye explains. “It’s sort of a cocktail bar almost out of the movies, and they don’t really exist anymore.”
I stayed in Southside for my next stop: Koz’s Mini-Bowl. Owner Carol Koz describes this neighborhood joint as a “quirky little bar” -- and nothing could be truer. From the 11-foot lion on top of the antique oak ice chest to the four bowling lanes set up in the back room, Koz’s is certainly unique.
“My husband got drunk on Serb wine and bought the place,” Koz jokes. “This is how he rationalized it to me: that this isn’t just a bar, it’s a bowling alley with a bar attached to it.”
And Koz’s is just that. We ordered a pitcher of Pabst Blue Ribbon, since it is Milwaukee, and divided into boys vs. girls to see who would be crowned mini-bowl champion. I learned there is nothing better than a little competition while drinking.
The mini-bowling was fast and fun. The balls are smaller than regular bowling balls, and there are no bumpers on these lanes. The pinsetter was very attentive and reset the pins after each turn, which we blew through after the girls team found a secret to scoring strikes (I’ll never tell).
Koz’s is home to bowling leagues, but they also offer open bowling Friday through Sunday. Mini-bowling is also popular with local businesses for parties.
“When we bought the place in 1978, we were the last (mini-bowl) in Milwaukee. Now I think we’re the last one in the state,” Koz said. “It’s unique.”
And what about the lion?
“My husband had this story and every time he told it, he changed it and made it bigger,” Koz said. “His story progressed not just to him shooting it -- he said he stabbed it. It was on top of him and he stabbed it. Then he had a whip. Then he had an Indiana Jones hat. My husband was a storyteller.”
Next up on my bar crawl was the Hotel Foster, a cocktail bar with an innovative drink menu on Milwaukee’s East Side.
This two-level bar features a balcony with an outdoor seating area overlooking North Avenue. Inside, the décor is very eclectic: from the large chandelier dangling over the middle of the bar, to the antlers and stuffed animal heads lining the walls. There’s even a stained glass window.
The menu is full of intricate cocktails made with unique flavor combinations. I tried the Rolling Mill, a Hotel Foster original cocktail made with Nolet Gin, Canton, basil, lemon juice and cane simple syrup. The bartenders pay close attention to detail and devote time to every drink – and it shows.
No bar crawl is complete without a visit to a pub, and I found the quintessential British pub at the Three Lions Pub.
And it’s no wonder it’s so authentic – about 75 percent of the staff is British. The menu is full of traditional British fare, including Welsh Rarebit, Cottage Pie and Chicken Curry with chips. The TVs were tuned into the England vs. Belgium game and pub patrons cheered when England scored.
“It’s a bar that brings people together,” said co-owner David Price. “I wanted it to feel like an extension of your living room.”
In typical English fashion, I had a Strongbow cider. Price says many customers enjoy their Strongbow as a ‘Snakebite,’ made with half cider, half Stella Artois and a splash of Black Currant.
I ended my tour on Milwaukee’s eclectic Brady Street at the Hi Hat Garage.
Hi Hat Garage earns its name thanks to the large garage door at the front of the bar that can be opened in the warmer months. But even in the winter, there’s a taste of the outdoors inside – large trees sprout up from the floorboards around the bar and tables.
“It’s an eclectic place; you’ve got trees in there where you wouldn’t expect there to be trees,” said manager Gretchen Fennema. “It’s definitely got that beer-and-a-shot kind of vibe.”
Beer indeed -- Hi Hat Garage offers patrons a liter mug of beer for just $5, and gives away a “mystery beer” for only a dollar. The beer, which is bartender’s choice, is served in a brown paper bag, hence the mystery.
“The cheaper the better,” Fennema jokes. “People get more excited about the fact that it’s wrapped in a brown paper bag because usually when they open it, they’re disappointed.”
My Milwaukee bar crawl was everything I could’ve hoped for and more. Brew City proved to me it can not only do beer better than anyone, but it has the cocktail chops to compete with the rest of them.
As Fennema puts it, “Milwaukee seems to really go out of its way to provide something different for everybody.”