If there was ever a bar I’ve visited that should have its own reality show, it would be The Parlor (1517 S. 2nd St.), which opened in July in the former Bomb Shelter.
The Walker’s Point establishment has all the ingredients for an awesome show: a great environment, a unique cast of characters and an underdog story. I learned all of this during a recent visit one Friday evening after work with my friend Christy.
From the outside The Parlor looks like any neighborhood bar in Milwaukee with a modest sign on the corner of the building and a few illuminated beer signs in the window. The inside is where it gets more interesting. The self-described dive bar features an eclectic mix of signs and pictures from different genres including pin-up girls like Bettie Page. My favorite is a picture of Johnny Cash flipping the bird, followed by a sign above the cash register that reads: “Free punch in the face, just ask.”
And the crowd? They're anything but boring. Seated in the back area among high-top tables and dart boards was a group of Rockwell Automation employees; to the right of us were a group of friends in a deep discussion about - of all things - the Sahara desert; and to the right were a few middle-aged men catching up.
Once we were seated on the traditional vinyl bar stools, we were quickly greeted by a female bartender. I asked about the happy hour specials and she pointed to the small sign in the corner that read $3 craft tap beers, $2 Miller Lite and PBR taps as well as all domestic bottles, and $3 rail drinks. Happy hour runs 4-8 p.m. Monday through Friday, with the deals in effect all Monday night.
Blame my inner hipster, but anytime Johnny Cash is involved I feel a PBR is necessary. But skeptical about the dive bar’s vino offerings, Christy asked if what they had was decent. The bartender pulled out a few bottles to choose from, and Christy decided on a Gato Negro Chardonnay. I can’t remember the exact price, but as it retails for under $10 a bottle, so it can't be too steep.
Nothing short of a wine aficionado, Christy nodded and said “it’s good” after her first sip.
In addition to Miller Lite and PBR, The Parlor’s on-tap selection includes Wisconsin brews such as Spotted Cow, Lakefront’s IPA, Riverwest Stein and Milwaukee Brewing Company’s Louie’s Demise.
While their bottled beer selection continues to grow, patrons can expect all the staples including Blue Moon, Blatz, Schlitz and seasonal Lakefront and Sam Adams. Batch 19 Pre-Prohibition Style Lager, New Glarus Coffee Stout, Anchor Steam Beer, Sconnie and Brau Brothers Moo Joos oatmeal milk stout are The Parlor’s newest additions.
As at any neighborhood bar, dive or not, be prepared to pay in cash. There is a $10 minimum for payment with plastic, and if you decide to open a tab it is kept by a somewhat primitive post-it note system.
While we were chatting, a man approached the cash register and began counting the drawer and tip jar. When he turned to us, Christy asked if he was the owner. He smiled, said yes and introduced himself as Lenny.
A conversationalist, Christy began asking Lenny a series of questions that I have to believe raised a red flag in his mind about why we were really there. I can’t fault her, however, as she was able to gather some great information.
When asked if they have many Rockwell patrons, he said yes and nodded to the group in the back, but said not everyone who visited the Bomb Shelter still comes around.
Enter the underdog story. Lenny had never owned or even worked in a bar before opening The Parlor.
But if March Madness teaches you anything, you know to never count out the underdog. Based on the crowd at 5:30 on a Friday and the amazingly good time I had, I’d say the underdog is doing just fine.
Before working on the Crown Royal account at a public relations agency in North Carolina, I had never even tasted whiskey, let alone the holy grail of Canadian whiskey. But after one Crown and ginger I was hooked. When I noticed the brand's newest offering, Crown Royal Maple, perched atop the shelf, I knew I had to give it a try.
Unsure of how to order, I shot a text to my former co-worker to see what she’d suggest. Just as I hit “send,” in walked another character made for television, a male bartender who goes by "Smitty."
Christy and I learned that he had recently returned to The Parlor after trying a 9-to-5 gig for a few months. I’m not sure how he performed there, but his personality is made for bartending.
Christy ordered another glass of wine and I asked what he’d suggest mixing with Crown Royal Maple. He said he’s been trying his own concoctions, but nothing had tickled his fancy or balanced out the strong maple taste.
I decided to try it on the rocks, and Lenny reappeared to give me a pour. When I asked how much the drink cost, he replied with “how much do you think it is?” My instincts said $8, but I was pleasantly surprised when he said he’d take the $8, but the drink was only $6.
Crown Royal Maple is incredibly smooth and easy to drink, and tastes exactly like – you guessed it – maple syrup. After the first few sips, Lenny asked if I’d like to try a sample of something he likes a bit better. Never one to turn down a sample, I obliged. He grabbed a bottle of The Knot (Ireland) and poured it into a thimble shot glass. It was much smoother than Crown Royal, but after some research online I found out why – it is a whiskey-based liqueur, not a traditional whiskey.
Shortly thereafter I received a reply from my former co-worker. She recommended it straight, or with lemonade. I flagged down Smitty to let him know, and his reaction was one of horror: “Lemonade, really?”
What happened next is what I wish more bartenders would do. In search of the perfect pairing he made up a drink to try, giving me the first sip. We both came to the conclusion it was okay, but we prefer it on the rocks.
After I got home that night I visited The Parlor’s website and noticed a slogan at the bottom, “The Parlor, where new friends become old friends.” Before I knew it, the theme song from “Cheers” was playing in my head and I began to plot out Milwaukee’s own reality show.
Watch out Bachelor Sean, The Parlor is coming for you!