Photo courtesy of Camp Bar.
When I first heard that there would be a camping-themed bar opening in Shorewood, I was skeptical. All the same, Shorewood has had room for a tavern or two and I wanted to see how the owners envisioned the theme. Pardon the obvious pun, but my biggest fear was that it would be too campy.
From the outside, Camp Bar (4044 N. Oakland Ave., just north of Capitol) has a subtle but noticeable sidewalk presence. From a distance, there’s a neon red “C” that, upon closer inspection, is the bar’s logo, reminiscent of that of the Chicago Cubs. They currently have holiday lights in their windows, which serve as a gentle tug on the shoulder asking you to stop and peek in. This is the first invitation the bar gives, and its friendly tone carries you inside.
Once you open the door, your sense of smell is immediately engaged by the warm aromas of a northern lodge. This is produced by candles from Camp Edna Mercantile, formerly of Boulder Junction, Wis., used to light the tables and bar.
I came with my expert team—an interior designer and a bar manager—and we were immediately impressed with the layout and how the flow of the space maximizes their limited room. Shorewood residents might recall that this property was most recently a pet hospital and required a completely new build-out to convert it into a bar. It was designed by Wade Weissmann Architecture, who typically specializes in residential spaces, and they’ve given it a homey lodge-cabin essence.
The interiors were designed by Peabody’s Interiors of Brown Deer and feature knotty, rustic tables and chairs and fabric patterns clearly inspired by the native Indian tribes of Wisconsin. Replica painted signs for places like the Fenwood Post Office or Holiday Acres of Rhinelander hang from the walls and posts, and there is a backsplash on the eastern-most wall featuring an enlarged version of the bar’s logo. Fitting with the theme, there are also several taxidermied animals adorning the nooks and crannies. My favorite of these was a team of raccoons rowing a canoe.
Our bartender, Meryl, was prompt, attentive, and answered all of our questions all while wearing a moose hat. I could not ask for more.
We were then approached by a young man whom, were it my bar, I would have flatly refused service for being clearly underage. This was the bar manager, John McCarthy.
“So what do you think of the place?” he asked.
It should be noted that he had no idea who we were, nor any idea that I would be writing this article, and he won’t know that I’ve written it unless he happens to see it on his own. He simply wanted our feedback, which is the first, but often most overlooked rule of opening a new bar, particularly in a place like Shorewood, where people are particular. It seems, though, so far so good.
Their capacity is safely under 100, but they’ve proven popular over their first several weekends open.
“I’ll go outside [as the bouncer] when we need it,” John says. “Shorewood isn’t used to bars with a doorman.”
Young as he is, and with next to no bar experience (“I was working as a DJ next door”) it was clear to us in our few hours with him that he has a head and a passion for the business.
We discussed the beers on tap; there are nine, chiefly local or regionally-made, as well as their impressive bottle selection. They also have 30 wines—French, Italian, Californian and Wisconsin-made—available by the glass or bottle. John also pushed them to install a wine tap with four varieties. Wine taps are common in California, but the only places in Milwaukee I can think that have them are Thief Wine, Whole Foods, Metro Market and Ruby Tap. They’re a cost-effective means of reducing product waste (which generally means lower prices for customers), and should become as commonplace as the soda gun.
Each bartender has her own specialty cocktail, but the house specialty is a Wisconsin-style blackberry brandy Old Fashioned - sweet. One of these is enough to elicit memories of supper clubs, fish frys and dads liberally applying Stetson or Aqua Velva back home. Two is enough to remind you of your dentist appointment next week.
Put simply, I had fun at Camp Bar. I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun at a bar. There are no critiques, no nitpicks, that weigh against the experience of a really enjoyable time. It all starts at that first welcoming tug that asks you to stop in and check the place out. Apologies to the Oakcrest, Village Pub, Three Lions and Harry’s, but if Shorewood has a must-visit establishment, it’s Camp Bar.
Happy hour runs 4-7 p.m. Monday through Friday, and they run a special each weekday from 7-10 p.m. They also have an 80-inch TV and typically offer specials for Packers games. Details can be found on their website or through the Facebook page, both of which feature a photo galleries that link to Instagram posts tagged at the bar.