Tucked into the corner of W. Juneau Ave. and N. 9th St. sits a discreetly marked beer hall next to the old Pabst Brewery gift shop and it goes by the name Best Place Tavern. If ever there was a bar made for history lovers, this is most certainly the place.
The Pabst Brewing Company, established in 1844 by the German immigrant Jacob Best Sr., put Milwaukee on the map in the beer world, becoming the largest brewer from the late 1800s until 1946. After the brewery in Milwaukee shut down in 1996, Jim Haertel, the current “Steward/Historic Tour Guide,” according to his business card, purchased the Pabst Brewery buildings and brought them back to life, including what is now Best Place Tavern.
Keep your eyes peeled for a small circular red sign with the bar’s name for the only entrance inside. For a bar so hard to recognize, it’s impossible to be prepared for all the beauty that awaits. Before you even get to the bar, you must pass through an outdoor patio, “The Captain’s Courtyard,” filled with beautiful ceramic tiling and sturdy brick walls, as well as a statue of Frederick Pabst—affectionately known as Captain Pabst.
There are a couple of doors to the interior from the patio, and though not all lead directly to the main bar, you will not regret opening any of them — they reveal a bevy of Pabst Brewery nostalgia. The door to the immediate right leads to a smaller bar area filled with vintage steins and German trinkets, sprinkled among Pabst and Schlitz bar stools and wall hangings. Painted above the fireplace is a sundial with the German phrase “Mach es wie die Sonnenuhr/Zähl die heit’ren Stunden nur,” which translates to, “Do like a sundial and only count the sunny hours”—a sweet saying that perfectly reflects the jovial environment of Best Place Tavern.
If you go through the door in that room, you’ll end up at “The King’s Courtyard,” yet another outdoor patio, this one, however, slightly more open-air than the former. It’s essentially impossible to miss the giant statue of the courtyard’s namesake: a king dressed in bright blue and red garb (Pabst colors, if you weren’t aware), proudly holding an overflowing chalice of beer up to the sky with a barrel of beer behind his right foot.
On the night I visited, aside from a group of bicyclists who must’ve designated Best Place as their meeting spot post-race, there couldn’t have been more than twenty people milling about the large main room, sipping on Pabst or Schlitz tap beers and talking amongst themselves.
The Blue Ribbon Hall is a sizeable space—and it makes sense why these facilities are rented out for wedding receptions and the like—yet glancing around the room, it doesn’t seem full, in that, it’s not bursting at the seams with décor. The ornamentation in this bar is all in the details. There doesn’t seem to be much to it, but Best Place Tavern feels inexplicably rich and fascinating.
The paintings that surround the perimeter of the main bar area, detail day-to-day tasks in the brewing process, from field to factory, in muted red and blue hues. These paintings line the outer walls, as well as the upper trim of the inner molding above the columns. Haertel helped pull all of these paintings together, as he told me when he led me into a side room completely covered in similar paintings. All of them were done by Edgar Miller, a master of many art forms who was born in the late 1890s.
But that was one of the last stops on the impromptu tour Haertel so generously gave me that evening. Before that room, he had called the entirety of the bar’s patrons upstairs to look at other parts of the building under renovation and not open to the general public quite yet, all the while spilling over like a fountain with information about the history of the building, the brewery and its former inhabitants.
Traipsing through Captain Pabst’s old office and board room—and even getting to kick my feet up on his desk—was surreal. And Haertel does that for anyone who buys tickets for the tours held Friday through Sunday at 1, 2 and 3p.m. He made it very clear that even though Best Place holds so much historical value, it’s important to him that the whole experience is very hands-on.
To properly encapsulate all of the facts about the brewery and its buildings that Haertel bestowed upon me would require a book’s worth of writing, for which there is not space here. Truth be told, you should hear it from Haertel, because he most certainly tells it best (No pun intended). “[I’m] a CPA with an MBA, now a brewery tour guide–my mom is so proud,” he chuckled Friday night.
In case it’s not yet abundantly clear, this is not the kind of place for those who favor a detailed cocktail list or multiple bartenders at your beck and call. The actual bar area has a large selection of liquors, but there are only a few tappers, of mostly Pabst and Schlitz, which are listed on a small sign holder next to a bucket of pretzels on the bar’s countertop. But that’s the beauty of it: Best Place is a no-frills kind of joint, because here the history speaks for itself and there’s no fancy beer, wine or spirit that could ever top that.
Best Place Tavern is open Thursday through Saturday 12 p.m. to 12 a.m. and Sundays 12 p.m. to 6 p.m.