Established in 1969, The Tracks Tavern (1020 E. Locust St.) is named for the Beerline Railroad that once passed by the building. But conventional wisdom has long held that Tracks is too far west for the “won’t cross the river” crowd (you know who you are) and “too East Side” for certain jingoistic Riverwesters (you know who you are, too). So what's Milwaukee's friendliest sports bar to do?
It helps to be inviting. At Tracks, it’s easy to sit down and watch a Monday Night Football game, or Game 7 of the NLCS (or both), with a room full of strangers or friends whose names you might never know. The lone Bears fan in the room this past Monday had to contend with a room full of one-night-only Lions fans, but the atmosphere was tongue-in-cheek all night long. The bartenders, for their part, greet everyone with a smile and a “how ya’ doin'.” And they’re always up for a game of dice.
It was sort of like hanging out in your grandfather’s basement with your uncle behind the bar, and that can’t be said affectionately enough. The herringbone wood paneling is adorned with Milwaukee’s hallowed sports memorabilia, such as a pennant celebrating the 1957 and 1958 NL Champion Braves teams, as well as curiosities like 2004 NFC Championship tickets at Lambeau Field. (Green Bay lost to Minnesota in the infamous “Moon Game” in the first round that year.)
But Tracks is definitely a taps-and-rails kind of bar. You won’t find much top-end liquor, and there is an overrepresentation of flavored vodkas, but middle-range bottles there are aplenty. If you can’t stand to drink anything less than a 10-year-old Laphroaig, you shouldn’t be here anyway. The taps balance the standards like Miller Lite, High Life and Schlitz with a couple specialties such as Abita Turbodog, New Glarus Moon Man and, rarer still, Shiner Wild Hare Pale Ale. They feature a host of Lakefront Brewery favorites and three seasonal taps - currently Oktoberfest from both Leinie’s and Lakefront, as well as Lakefront’s Pumpkin Lager.
A note about this seasonal treat: Pumpkin beers are among the most diverse beer varieties available. Unlike an IPA, which is expected to have specific characteristics, the only qualification for pumpkin beer is that it includes some idea tangential to “pumpkin.” Too often the pumpkin itself is replaced by nutmeg, coriander and other “seasonal” spices. You can often feel like you're drinking an entire pie.
Where Lakefront differs is that they allow the natural pumpkin flavor to permeate a crisp, naked lager without leaving behind a syrupy sweetness. And this predominating lager taste means you don't have to pair your beer with a glass of milk or scoop of vanilla ice cream. Not until November, at least.
Tracks keeps their prices fair, and they offer two daily specials to further soften the blow. Happy hour runs from 3:30 p.m. - 7 p.m. with all taps $3, and every night after 10 p.m. all shots are $3. The food menu includes standard pub fare; it's mostly burgers and sandwiches, some with clever names and some without. Tracks also offers the prerequisite fish fry every Wednesday and Friday. It’s nothing special, but the portions are generous and satisfying. My only caution is that the chicken tenders, typically a no-brainer group sharing, are exceedingly salty.
I lived in Milwaukee a long time before I gave Tracks a fair shake (refer to the aforementioned biases). But I was wrong. So, too, is anyone who has passes over this inviting landmark because of silly geographical prejudice.