Photo courtesy of Hilton Milwaukee.
For the life of me I can’t recall the last time I was at a hotel bar for purely personal reasons. That is, until I found myself at the recently renovated Monarch Lounge in the Hilton Milwaukee (509 W. Wisconsin Ave.) one Friday after work.
My co-worker and I drove to the hotel and parked in the adjacent lot. (Parking validation is offered for stays less than 2 hours.) Once we navigated the families and mountains of luggage in front of the concierge, we walked up a small set of stairs to enter the lounge.
I was immediately struck by two things: the amazing crystal chandeliers offset by the rich mahogany walls, and how utterly dead it was for 5:45 p.m.
Three middle-aged folks sat at one end of the bar, but the rest of the seats in the 3,800-square foot lounge were empty.
As we sat down, we noticed the padded bar with its illuminated bar top shining brightly. I inquired with the bartender about any specials - specifically, the happy hour variety - but before she even opened her mouth, I could tell the answer.
No happy hour? It's true.
As my eyes began to scroll the menu I overheard the bartender say to her male counterpart that she told their manager they need a happy hour. I couldn’t agree more – especially with the lofty prices of the cocktails and wine.
Now, I’m willing to pay $7 to $9 for a glass (or two or three) of wine. But $14 for a glass of Kendall Jackson Chardonnay? Or $13 for Rutherford Hill Merlot? It's never going to happen for me, unless I’m in New York City.
It seems Monarch Lounge set its prices for the business-traveling crowd and their expense accounts, but on this Friday evening there were few of those spendy patrons to be found.
In addition to wine, the menu includes crafted cocktails, scotch, bourbon, whiskey, tequila, beer and small plates for grubbing. The current tap selection includes Spotted Cow, Samuel Adams Octoberfest and Stella.
As I nibbled on the complimentary Cajun bar nut mix, the cocktail named the MCA Brass Monkey grabbed my attention: Absolut Vodka, rum, Galliano (an herbal liqueur) and fresh squeezed orange juice. It sounded citrusy - but not too sweet. Plus, any drink named after Beastie Boys founder Adam Yauch (R.I.P) is one worth trying.
When I asked the bartender if this drink was indeed worth trying, she smiled and said she had only made one during her time working there, but it was good (the renovated lounge has only been open since August).
With the Brass Monkey's $11 price tag, I wasn’t going to take any chances, so instead decided on the Strawberry Basil: Stoli Strawberry, lemon, strawberries, basil leaf, sparkling wine and bitters. My friend opted for the Raspberry Mint Mojito made with Bacardi Superior, mint, lime juice, ginger syrup and raspberries.
The Strawberry Basil was refreshing – something I wasn’t expecting considering the bitters – and the sparkling wine was balanced just so by the vodka. The presentation was great; each cocktail was served in distinctly different glassware. The mojito came in a Collins glass and my Strawberry Basil was in a cocktail glass.
As I sipped on my drink, two 30-something women came up to my side and ordered a vodka Red Bull and glass of wine before joining a small group of friends at one of the couches. At the same time, a jazz guitarist and pianist began setting up to play for the lounge. A big group of friends also entered and sat in front of the stone fireplace just as the music began.
In that moment, I was almost expecting Tom and Daisy Buchanan to saunter in. Instead, a gentleman entered my view and bellied up to the bar and ordered a Stella. Reasonably priced at $5, it was delivered in a cone-shaped pilsner glass with very little head.
On our way out of the lounge, I noticed long bar tables with charging stations that would be perfect for spreading out and getting some work done. Monarch also features a media center area with two TVs, iPad portals and a printer for guest use - all standards for a hotel.
As we left the Hilton, my friend and I decided the Monarch Lounge has all the ingredients to be a great bar, but could do a bit more to cater to locals as opposed to just the travelers. Who knows? Doing so may attract more of both types of bar-goers.
To see Monarch Lounge’s menu and music schedule, visit HiltonMilwaukee.com.