While most Milwaukeeans haven’t entirely put the possibility of one more 30-degree day with snow flurries out to pasture yet, the meek and delayed introduction of spring is finding locals stepping out from the dim, indoor drinking establishments and taking to the outdoors to imbibe as the mercury level climbs. Sitting on the lakefront of one of North America’s largest bodies of water and with a couple rivers cutting through the landscape, there’s no shortage of apt sites either on or near water in which to drink in the sun. But none have the character and industrial charm of Barnacle Bud’s (1955 S. Hilbert St., 414-481-9974).
This waterfront watering hole is off the map in the most literal sense of the term. The first time I stopped by Barnacle Bud’s, I swore I was lost after weaving through the parking lots of a couple Bay View factories. But like an oasis within an industrial desert, there it was — bordered by Skipper Bud’s marina in the former site of a quaint Chi-Chi’s Mexican restaurant that undoubtedly failed due to its location. Yet where the enchilada emporium failed, Barnacle Bud’s succeeds with its nautical theme, effortless island motif and low-key feel.
Earlier this week, I took advantage of an especially nice day and paid my inaugural 2013 visit to Barnacle Bud’s. As we parked, my girlfriend and I were quickly greeted by a gaggle of adorable baby geese and their mother swimming in the water near the entrance. As we carefully made our way past the wildlife — so as not to feel the wrath of a mother goose — we received a more traditional welcome by a bearded host, whom we recognized from nearby Potter Avenue bar (and Barnacle Bud’s affiliate tavern) Victoria’s, who told us to sit anywhere we liked. We eyed the interior of the microscopic restaurant that was already cluttered with patrons to match the walls jam-packed with ship regalia, life preservers, mounted fish, and beer signage. We then navigated the myriad of wooden outdoor tables, both landlocked and seaside, and eventually occupied a waterside two-top beside anchored pontoon boats on the marina’s dock.
We took in the view, which offers wholly unique contrasts between skull graffiti and decrepit factories in the foreground and a tremendous view of Milwaukee’s downtown skyline beyond, until a server approached.
Not feeling oysters on the half shell at the time (or ever, for that matter), we kept our selections in liquid form. We were walked through the beer options — primarily standard domestics, local craft brew favorites and Pacifico — and nothing struck our fancy. I inquired about any in-house cocktails and was informed of Bud’s pair of specialty drinks. We ordered one of each.
One was unflatteringly dubbed “Dumpster Juice” ($6.50) and it looked the part, with its seaweed green, toxic-waste-tinged hue. Fortunately, it tasted much better than it looked. The drink featured mango rum, blue Curacao and other difficult-to-place juices (I detected a hint of pineapple) and a massive cherry garnish. It was sweet, nonthreatening and, arguably, a touch weak. The second was the less-abrasive “Pirate’s Punch” ($6.50) — an equally rummy sunset-colored Mason jar amalgam that also includes pineapple juice, orange juice and a lemon garnish (pictured above). Of course, a fully stocked bar also offers less kitschy and more traditional cocktails. Sundays feature a build-your-own bloody mary bar and Mondays offer $5 "Stinky Gringo" margaritas.
For my money, it’s tough to beat a bucket of beers and a crab cake by the water on a warm summer evening. In true Milwaukee fashion, Barnacle Bud’s found a way to repurpose the former industrial hub’s brick-and-mortar past into a functional and relaxing refuge befitting warm weather relaxation and outdoor spirits.
In-text images by Tyler Maas. Main photo courtesy of Barnacle Bud's.