Dan Murphy

24 (Unorthodox) Hours in Milwaukee

From a picturesque sunrise to a stroll down one of the city’s most diverse streets and a behind-the-scenes look inside a local institution, one man found a great, albeit out of the ordinary, way to spend a day.

Note: I initially planned to do all this in 24 consecutive hours but soon realized my sleep-deprived self wouldn’t be able to craft a coherent sentence. So I broke it up over several days.
New York may be known as “the city that never sleeps,” but look closely, and you’ll find Milwaukee’s fair share of insomniacs. There’s something going on at every hour of the day, and I set out to capture snapshots of these moments. I tried to look off the beaten path, in neighborhoods that I don’t get to often and do things I don’t normally do. Being the resident beer writer at Milwaukee Magazine, I also naturally included a number of beer-related items, including a visit to Romans’ Pub, which wasn’t new to me but is always essential.

Veterans Park ➸ 6:19 a.m.
1010 N. Lincoln Memorial Dr.

Veterans Park and I have a history. As an 18-year-old college student, I sneaked beer into a BoDeans concert at the now-defunct Maritime Days. In 2008, I joined tens of thousands of enthusiastic fans to see Bruce Springsteen at Harley Fest, in nearly the same spot where I heard the collective sighs of disappointment when Elton John took the stage five years earlier. I’ve jogged in the park, biked its paths and rode a Segway here (don’t tell anyone).

But I’d never seen the city wake up from Veterans Park.

From the parking lot at the end of Lagoon Drive, I see it for the first time. After the sun crawls over Lake Michigan, it emblazons the east sides of condos and apartments on the bluffs overlooking the shore. Sunlight glints with eye-searing force off Cudahy Tower’s windows.

And there’s life in the park. A gray-haired guy clad in black tights and a windbreaker runs by and waves. A woman on a sleek road bike zips by the far-away lagoon. Traffic on Lincoln Memorial Drive increases from a sporadic trickle to a steady stream of commuters. And the constant dull roar of Lake Michigan’s waves serves as a soundtrack to it all. There are few better ways to start the day.

Jo’s Cafe ➸ 8:14 a.m.
3519 W. Silver Spring Dr.

The service at Jo’s Cafe is quick, but the small diner is a linger-for-a-while-and-read-the-newspaper kind of place. A seat at one of the counter’s nine stools is the only place to be in a spot like this. A spot where co-owner Chris Platzer, working behind the counter, asks if you want a cup of coffee before you even sit down. A spot where most people order without looking at a menu. A spot with a refrigerator sticker that reads, “Love people, cook them tasty food.”

I pass on the special (a feast of pancakes, eggs and bacon for only $4.99) and settle on eggs and sausage. My order immediately hits the griddle behind the counter and is in front of me in minutes.

As I eat, a diverse crowd steadily files in. Two young men wearing blue work uniforms sporting labels I’m not familiar with sit at the four-top behind me. A pair of leather-clad men (biker chic) stroll in later. One, wearing a black Department of Public Works hat, tells Platzer that he’s been “working on the South Side” lately, explaining his recent absence for breakfast. A bespectacled 50-something man is at the counter, immersed in a crossword puzzle.

Within an hour, the place is full. The griddle is buried under mounds of eggs, pancakes and meat, and the diner smells a lot like bacon. I linger, just like everyone else.

Forest Home Cemetery ➸ 10:21 a.m.
2405 W. Forest Home Ave.

Forest Home Cemetery is an awful place to people-watch, yet I try anyway. I don’t see another soul as I meander among the ornate Gothic mausoleums, tall spires and hulking trees. All cast long shadows over the cemetery in the middle of the morning.

It’s mostly quiet and serene, except when I stroll by the Pabst family plot. The monument features a short white tower with “To the Memory of Our Beloved” carved into it. A life-sized, robed, marble woman leans forlornly against the tower. Her right hand, reduced to a stub over the course of time, is draped across her lap.

She’s an unsettling midmorning companion, so I toast the Pabst family and get out.

Jake’s Deli ➸ 11:48 a.m.
1634 W. North Ave.

Salted and cured meats bring people together. At least they do at Jake’s, the famed deli oasis in the inner city. From my spot at the first four-top in the small and tidy space, I can see who’s lined up at the counter, tickets in hand, waiting for lunch – black, white, blue-collar, white-collar, no-collar. A trio of carvers works magic with foot-long knives and steaming briskets, piling glistening reddish meat on bread quickly enough to keep the hungry masses from revolting. I can’t be concerned with the carryout line. In front of me sits a plate with a mound of corned beef held perilously between two pieces of light rye bread.

Dr. Martin Luther King Drive ➸ 1:03 p.m.
Between North Avenue and State Street

I peer through huge windows into the ornate art deco (and empty) lobby of the vacant Home Savings Bank near the corner of North Avenue and MLK Drive. I sense someone behind me. “How’s your day going?” says a smiling middle-aged woman with graying, slightly dreadlocked hair. I respond with a “fine, thanks.” As the woman walks away toward North Avenue, she blurts out “have a blessed day.” The neighborly touch is a nice way to begin my walk south on MLK from North Avenue into Downtown, exploring one of the most interesting and diverse stretches of road in the city.

Just after Lloyd Street is one of the most visually striking areas of Milwaukee. The two-story brick facades that line MLK give it the feel of a turn-of-the-century Main Street. I duck into Northern Chocolate Co. (Entrance requires being buzzed in by owner Jim Fetzer.) The one-room customer area in the nearly 130-year-old building smells of rich chocolate. There’s nearly no foot traffic outside, but four women in their early 40s browse shelves full of boxed chocolates. I snag some peanut butter meltaways, pay with cash and head back outside.

I pass the large red crown that juts out from the brick front of Crown Hardware & Plumbing Supply. I dodge a couple of guys clad in paint-splattered jeans heading into the hardware store, and I cross the street to Fein Brothers restaurant supplies. The sign on the front of the massive place is the most recognizable on MLK. F-E-I-N is spelled out in large white letters on a blue-green rectangular background that stretches from above the roof of the two-story building, to just above the entryway.

The classic architecture continues as I head south. I notice the lack of pedestrians and wonder if it’s partly due to the abundance of “For Lease” signs.

I cross Vine Street and for the first time notice the statue of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It depicts Dr. King orating with an outstretched arm, and it’s new to me. I’ve driven by it countless times, but in my hurried state, never noticed it. As I admire the likeness, I’m eyed suspiciously by a woman having a cigarette outside of Voluptuous Secrets, a full figured lingerie boutique (I refrain from entering to avoid more stares).

The cozy Main Street feel ends at the statue, and I begin the descent into Downtown, passing the metal arch marking Schlitz Park. The street begins to level off when I get to the modern, multicolored bricks of the Park East Lofts.

Finally, I reach Juneau Avenue and the edge of Downtown. The gleaming white Moderne building towers 30 stories over me, but after it, the style of buildings lining the avenue, which is now Old World Third Street, returns to the inviting brick I strolled by a few blocks before.

I walk past the classic German decor of Mader’s and the striking orange and white accented shutters at Usinger’s (if Willy Wonka had made sausage, I have no doubt the factory would resemble the brightly colored Usinger’s building). I pass under the large red and white awning in front of Buck Bradley’s and make my way into the Brat House. I order a High Life and sit at a barstool, joining seven other patrons. I’ve walked a long way, and I’ve earned the beer and the chance to rest.

I’ve also burned enough calories to make up for two or three meltaways. They’re delicious.

El Rey Plaza ➸ 5:03 p.m.
3524 W. Burnham St.

I have no idea what Jorge Ramos is saying on his ESPN Deportes TV talk show. It’s airing on the flat screen TV at Taco Loco in the corner of El Rey on 35th and Burnham. He’s animated, saying something about soccer in Spanish (both are reason enough to make Ramos’ diatribe indecipherable to me). What I do know is that the shredded chicken tacos with cilantro I’m munching on are muy bueno. I sit at the counter with my tacos, a side of chips, and green and red salsa served unapologetically in Styrofoam bowls. It’s this delicious fare that has families lined up at the cash register just to my right. Most order in Spanish, and most order tacos. A middle-aged man with a Fu Manchu mustache peers into a deli case at flautas, roasted poblano peppers and some edibles I’ve never seen before. I turn my attention back to my last nibble of tortilla, and wonder what Ramos is talking about.

Potawatomi Bingo Casino ➸ 6:16 p.m.
1721 W. Canal St.

Near the end of a long escalator ride, I’m hit with the din of digital bells and whistles, bright flashing lights and an odd aroma akin to perfumed cigarette smoke. This is Potawatomi, and upon entering the casino floor, I see the hopeful masses mesmerized by sensory overload and chance. Not being a high-roller, I sit down at the nickel slots. The gray-haired woman two machines over has her Player’s Club card attached to her like a lifeline, one end of a telephone-cord-looking lanyard stuck in the slot machine and the other curled around her belt loop. I put in $10 and start hitting buttons. In five minutes, I’ve somehow parlayed that into $70. I have a bettor’s bargain with myself and promise to cash out at $60. Soon the drop-dead number is $40. Then, I reason that I’m on a hot machine, so I should stay on it. Five minutes later, I have zero credits.

I leave the half slot machine/half woman behind and head to the blackjack table hoping my skill will translate to riches. After getting $80 in chips, I lay down my $5 bet. I lose quickly and often. Susan the dealer implores, “Let’s turn this bus around” to the cards she’s handing out (the cards don’t listen; the bus remains headed for a fiscal cliff). I turn my $80 into a donation to the Potawatomi tribe (not a sound investment strategy) and slink back toward the parking garage. I never had a chance.

Koz’s Mini Bowl ➸ 8:07 p.m.
2078 S. Seventh St.

I have an odd way of showing my appreciation for George Dryden’s hard work. I take a second to admire the perfectly spaced creation of the 22-year-old, and then I hurl a softball-sized bowling ball at it, knocking it all down. Such is the strange, symbiotic relationship between pinsetter and bowler at Koz’s Mini Bowl.

Dryden sits perched above 10 miniature pins, barely visible behind a wooden facade that resembles a dunk tank at a county fair. But Koz’s is no fair. It’s a friendly South Side tavern that happens to have four mini bowling lanes in the back. Its blue-collar neighborhood location is belied by the fact that the crowd appears to be made up of young urban professionals and recent college grads.

I flatten 10 undersized pins, and Dryden, who I can only hope has a short memory and holds no grudges, jumps into action. His hands fly instinctively to the small pins, deftly flipping them upright and into position. In a few seconds, he’s ready for me again.

The skinny kid with no shortage of tattoos says he’s been setting pins for the last nine years. He’s soft-spoken, and his approach is decidedly Zen.

“I need to keep pace for the bowlers,” he says. “That’s all that matters.”

Romans’ Pub ➸ 10:02 p.m.
3475 S. Kinnickinnic Ave.

Mike Romans is an esteemed figure among beer geeks, due largely to the excellent beer list he maintains at Romans’ Pub and the fact that he knows his stuff.

So, when he opens the door of his bar and walks in for a 10 p.m. bartending shift, a receiving line of sorts forms to shake hands with the barrel-chested bar owner. He welcomes eager patrons with a booming “How you doing?” while taking a spot behind the bar.

I’m securely entrenched at a bar stool, so I greet Mike after he pours me a hard-to-find Bell’s This One Goes to 11 Ale (a rather verbose name for a beer). Romans works his way up and down the bar, pouring tasty brews for two dozen patrons and discussing an upcoming beer tasting. I make a mental note. You never turn down a beer event at Romans’.

Henry’s Pub and Grille ➸ 12:52 a.m.
2523 E. Belleview Pl.

Walking into Henry’s Pub and Grille late at night can be daunting. The small spot just off Downer Avenue has its regulars, and newcomers can feel like a bit of an outsider. Luckily, I’ve been here enough to know that two of the people sitting on one end of the bar are named Stacy and TC, and they don’t bite (the majority of the time).

Andy Krew, the bartender, cracks opens a bottle of New Belgium Ranger IPA and sets it in front of me. The discussion around the barstools ranges from the Brewers’ pitching staff woes to Big Lebowski quotes. It’s not hard-hitting stuff, just friendly banter. And that’s really all that I need this close to bar time.

Lakefront Brewery ➸ 3:18 a.m.
1872 N. Commerce St.

They work as Milwaukee sleeps, but Nick Landers and Nate Bahr tell me there are perks to being the only two people on Lakefront Brewery’s third shift.

“You can control the music, and there are no tours,” Landers says. “But I’m kind of useless during the week.”

The beer at Lakefront never stops brewing, and Landers and Bahr spend their nights making sure the process runs smoothly. On this night, they’re standing on the elevated brew deck in front of a control panel outfitted with an array of switches and gauges. Not all of the switches work, but enough do to control the lautering process (separating malty wort from grains before boiling).

I’m bleary-eyed but up to discussing their latest brews. I tell them how much I like the Lakefront Chad Barleywine. Landers walks me over to a large steel tank, opens a spigot and pours a two-ounce sample of the stuff into a small plastic cup. The batch isn’t quite carbonated, but it’s strong and tasty (and eye-opening this early in the morning).

Peter Sciortino’s Bakery ➸ 4:49 a.m.
1101 E. Brady St.

Just a couple of hours after the masses poured out of Jo-Cat’s and the Nomad, Brady Street is eerily quiet. The only vehicle I see is a yellow delivery truck backed up to an open garage door at Sciortino’s Bakery. The street is dead asleep, but life is bustling inside the brightly lit bakery. And the aroma is delicious; the smell of freshly baked bread permeates the place as workers move wheeled stacks of metal trays in and out of 6-foot tall ovens, and put hundreds of buns and rolls into clear plastic bags by hand. The bags are placed on more trays and loaded onto the truck. It’s the fourth delivery truck they’ve filled this morning.

Joe Vella oversees the operation. The affable bakery co-owner is there every morning (he commutes from his family’s residence upstairs), making sure they churn out the 2,000 or so loaves of bread. Much of it is used at restaurants, completing burgers and Philly cheesesteak sandwiches.

“It’s kind of cool to be doing something while 75 percent of the world is sleeping,” Vella says. “I’m making something that people will use today.”

What I need him to do is make me a cup of coffee. He complies.

Zad’s ➸ 6:12 a.m.
438 S. Second St.

There are two kinds of people in a bar at 6 a.m. – third-shift workers and derelicts. Sadly, my previous early morning bar visits have always fallen into the latter category. When I get to Zad’s in Walker’s Point just after 6, I do something I’ve never done on an early morning bar visit. I walk in sober.

The cozy spot is nearly empty aside from Terry Zadra, the lone occupant and owner, who is stocking and cleaning. I order a Lakefront IPA and wait for company.

“Some days it’s busy, some days it’s not,” Zadra says. “There aren’t that many third-shift jobs around here anymore. But if it’s not busy, I can get some things done.”

A few minutes later, a young group walks in – early-morning regulars and third-shifters. The lone girl orders a dirty martini (my reflex at that hour is to cringe and gag), and I learn from their conversation that they work at the Milwaukee County Jail.

When the “Today” show starts, I find the situation surreal. Matt Lauer and beer don’t mesh. So I walk out into the harsh sunlight and onto Second Street.

Milwaukee is coming to life. 

This article appears in the City Guide 2013 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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Dan Murphy has been reviewing bars for Milwaukee Magazine for roughly 15 years. He’s been doing his own independent research in them for close to 25.