Translucent pod bathrooms and industrial mezzanines may come and go, but in the end, Milwaukee’s newest, cutting-edge bars can’t quite match the charm of our city’s old-school favorites. The fact that many nostalgia-steeped venues have been kicking around for decades speaks volumes. How does the song go? “Ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby.” A lover of all things vintage myself, I set out to revisit some of our best authentically retro bars with a willing friend in tow.
You couldn’t possibly write about Milwaukee’s vintage bars without mentioning their reigning king, At Random (2501 S. Delaware). This Bay View lounge has an atmosphere and ambience like no other in the city. The bar is loaded with all the fixings for mai tais, Pink Squirrels, and other ridiculously large, tasty, umbrella-d cocktails (don’t even think about ordering beer or wine here), including the infamous Tiki Love Bowl, a flaming cocktail built for two. Lounging in the dim main seating area, my friend and I opted for something more individual, drink-wise. My choice? The banana-y “Bosom Caresser” (even after getting to the bottom of the glass, I don’t get the name). Though most specialty cocktails here are a bit pricey (around $10), the generosity of booze and overall size makes them worth the price tag.
The owners (we chatted up Shirley Mae) are just as much a fixture in the bar as the plastic poinsettias and electric fireplace. At Random is inconspicuously located in Bay View and its hours are equally inconspicuous. Best to call first.
At nearby Bryant’s (1579 S. 9th Street), the scene is equally Rat Pack-reminiscent, the drinks just as dangerous, but we didn’t need to see pages of choices. Rather, the seasoned bartenders determine what to whip up for you based on your answers to a couple key questions. Take your custom-made, colorful new accessory upstairs to a funky lounge lined with velvet wallpaper and drink in the nostalgia.
Just off Brady Street, the tucked-away Jamo’s (1800 N. Arlington) offers another throwback attribute we welcome: cheap drinks. Jamo’s brings back vintage cocktails like the Singapore Sling (made with gin, grenadine, and cherry brandy) and Old Fashioned for less than a five-spot.
Although technically Jamo’s is a baby compared to the aforementioned bars, the building and hallmark elements of the lounge are just as authentic. Count on extensive wood paneling and pitch-black, who-knows-what’s-going-on-in-there back booths. We stuck to the bar and left the booths to the shadier set. I’d suggest making Jamo’s your last spot of the night and try sticking to busy times, like weekends, as the bar can be a nest for solitary, yet overly chatty, drinkers.
The first time I went to Vitucci’s (1832 E. North Avenue), my mom reminisced, “Sounds like it hasn’t changed since I used to go there 30 years ago!” While there have been some updates (note the flat-screen TVs) and the crowd is more UWM than baby boomer, Vitucci’s has managed to keep its cool as a laid-back cocktail lounge. Eastsiders (and beyond) keep coming back for strong drinks and some serious pool-playing.
Social as we are, Pyper and I befriended our bartender, a ringer for Jason Lee, who helped us get in the nostalgic spirit with classic cocktails such as gimlets (vodka or gin with a splash of lime juice) and on-the-rocks vodka martinis. If it’s a Wednesday (which, fortunately for us, it was) ladies drink free. I’ve never been one to long for life pre-Women’s Lib, but if retro means free drinks, count me in.
“Bar Time” runs every other week on the Milwaukee Magazine Web site. Look for the next column Wednesday, Jan. 24.