First, a little perspective.
This past week, I visited Chicago for the first time (I know, I know. *Sigh*). During the day I had a bit of down time by myself. Never once did I consider drinking in the hotel bar. Why would I, when the entire city of Chicago lay in front of me, with endless bar possibilities. So my advice, first and foremost, is this: If you ever find yourself in a city that’s strange to you, never, EVER drink in the hotel bar. Simply put: It’s not a good representation of the city you’re in. The only notable exception to this rule (Michael Klecker’s Bar Drinking Rule No. 15) is if you’re in the city on business. Then you pretty much have to.
With that being said, and if you live in or around the city of Milwaukee (why wouldn’t you?), or are intimately familiar with this city, grab a drink at Branded or The Yard at the Iron Horse Hotel (500 W. Florida St.). They’re pretty good.
The Yard, or what I consider the stronger of the two bars, is outdoors. Not to be confused with a patio or a patio bar; it’s a full, large, outdoor bar. There aren’t many fledged out and fully stocked outdoor bars. So that by itself is pretty great. (But don’t waste your time deciding to go to The Yard. It’s an outdoor bar … and winter is approaching faster than you may realize. This week’s upcoming heat wave notwithstanding.)
On the back half of The Yard there are a ton of lounge chairs/patio couches, which looked incredibly comfortable from my uncomfortable seat at the bar top (Seriously. Don’t even sit up there). The bartenders were friendly, and they had a nice selection of wines. The cocktail list, though small and a tad pricy, does lean heavily toward the artisan side. Their “Barrel 1907 Manhattan,” for instance, is made with their own limited-edition rye whiskey and the “Sandia,” which can be yours for $15, features watermelon vodka, white peppercorn simple syrup, fresh-squeezed lemon juice and rose water.
But let’s get to the beer. At The Yard they’ve got a beer on tap called White Horse Ale, by Lakefront Brewery, which is EXCLUSIVE to The Iron Horse Hotel, or so they say. I asked for a sample to try, at which point the keg promptly went dry and they had none left in the back. So I went into Branded (where they don’t have any tap beer, only bottles) and asked if he had any of this White Horse Ale. He said no but that they’ve got a regular White Ale by Lakefront. He went on to explain that he suspects it’s the same beer because he used to work at Trocadero, and they also had an exclusive White Ale by Lakefront. If this is the case, shame on you Lakefront and Trocadero and the Iron Horse Hotel, and anyone else who serves up beer under the exclusive guise. This is something – a beer exclusive to one place and one place alone – that would be special enough to bring people back again and again. How dare you lie to me, Lakefront. (If this is true … if it’s not, my sincerest apologies, love your IPA.)
Branded, the bar inside the hotel, is pretty nice. Actually, it’s really nice. I guess the best word to describe it is refined in a “look-at-how-rustic/chic-we-can-be” sort of way. The most baffling thing though about both The Yard and Branded is that they market themselves as “biker bars.” On the website, they’ve got tabs that list when biking events are happening, and on the pillars in The Yard they’ve got signs that say “No Burnouts” and a little smoking wheel. And, even more baffling, I saw a few bikers in there.
Now, I’ve got no affinity for motorcycles (possibly due to the fact that some people call me Michael Michael Motorcyle). But I do know bars. And I’ve been in quite a few biker bars. They are nothing like this; not even close. Just check out some of the pictures of this place. It’s beautiful and clean and polished. Most of the biker bars I’ve been to are dirty and noisy and grungy. But I’m thorough when it comes to these reviews, so I checked out the one constant I’ve found with biker bars: the bathroom.
At Branded, I could have washed my hands in the toilet, and it probably would have been cleaner than touching the doorknob in your typical biker bar. Hell, I could have taken the rest of my drinks in there and felt cleaner than some of the bars on I-94 (you know who you are, dirty, dirty I-94 bars). To me, there is a difference between a bar that markets itself to bikers and a “biker bar.” The Yard and Branded are the former, not that there is anything wrong with that.
The biker aspect aside, if you live in Milwaukee, these bars are worth a check out, and here’s why: When I was going to school in southern Minnesota (don’t hate me) I used to tend bar at a place in a hotel. The best part of that job was the people I met and the way they opened up.
In hotel bars, everyone is typically friendly, and many want to talk because they’re a long way from home and alone and drinking by themselves. These bars bring people together in a mysterious way, forging some sort of relationship on the grounds of distance from home.
If you don’t travel for business, travel down the street to the Iron Horse, meet someone on the road and see what they have to say.
And if you are a biker, don’t expect any Roadhouse going down … leave those boot knives at home.
Like this bar? Hate this bar? Think you know someplace better (or worse)? Let me know in the comments section if you’re not shy. If you are too shy, contact me by clicking my name at the top of the article, or find me on Facebook, Twitter, (and for the really cool) Google Plus. Reader beware: I might not like the bar as much as you, and may express my opinions as such.