By Evan Solochek Additional Reviews by Anne Baesemann, Kurt Chandler, Ann Christenson, Cristina Daglas, Kathryn Lavey, Dan Murphy, Mary Van de Kamp Nohl, Adrian Palomo, Carly Rubach and Kahara Schabach. There was an infographic from the folks at bouncing around the Internet a few months ago that caused quite a stir. It was a […]

By Evan Solochek

Additional Reviews by Anne Baesemann, Kurt Chandler, Ann Christenson, Cristina Daglas, Kathryn Lavey, Dan Murphy, Mary Van de Kamp Nohl, Adrian Palomo, Carly Rubach and Kahara Schabach.

There was an infographic from the folks at bouncing around the Internet a few months ago that caused quite a stir. It was a map of the United States colored with red and yellow dots – red represented areas where bars outnumbered grocery stores, and yellow the opposite. Not surprisingly, most of the map was yellow, except for an explosion of red right over the great state of Wisconsin. Is it really any wonder why we routinely rank near the top of all those “America’s Drunkest Cities” lists?

For a city that was built on the brewing industry, it should be no secret we love our bars, from the neighborhood juke joint to the posh downtown nightclub. It’s also no secret that we’re fiercely loyal. Our bars are our homes away from home – secret, sacred places to those in the know. Sharing a bar experience is a special bond. Over free-flowing pitchers and songs, strangers become friends. After all, how different can you really be if you’re belly up to the same bar?

Narrowing down the Brew City’s 30 best bars was a monumental challenge filled with almost as much discussion as drinking. We started with a list of over 100 and, yes, many great establishments didn’t make the cut – possibly one of your personal favorites – but we’re confident our selections represent the best of the best. So, pull up a stool and cowboy up and maybe, just maybe, you’ll discover a new regular hangout filled with your new best friends.

Art Bar
This cozy Riverwest hangout is more café than rowdy bar. Local artwork covers the walls with a central focus on the “Painting of the Week.” Every Sunday a new artist paints over the previous canvas – a clash of creation and destruction. The unassuming stage in the front room is crowded with lively plants and soft lantern lighting, backed by a large window that is perfect for people watching. With free pool on Mondays to go with $2 PBRs, what else could anyone want? 722 E. Burleigh St., 414-372-7880. (CR)

Benno’s Bar and Grill
Not long after opening in 1980, Benno’s began stocking ample supplies of microbrews, when no one knew what a microbrew was. It feels like a standard neighborhood watering hole, but the massive bank of 30 taps behind the bar sets it apart. The selection includes standards from New Glarus and Lakefront, as well as oddities like Old Heathen bourbon barrel aged stout. Not in the mood for an unusual tap beer? Peruse the cooler full of bottles at the end of the bar to pick your poison. Window shopping, Milwaukee style. 7413 W. Greenfield Ave., 414-453-9094. (DM)

There are two kinds of dives: the classic, dingy, feet-sticking-to-the-floor, smoke-filled hole in the wall and the crisp, clever, vintage-inspired joint. Both have their place in every community, but Blackbird takes ‘70s chic and spins it into 21st century relevancy. Opened in 2008 with turquoise walls donning sponge-painted trees, leather wraparound booths that envelop seated patrons, rich, wood tables and eclectic decor ranging from PBR signs to sculptures and paintings, Blackbird proudly serves and entertains Bay View’s clientele with everything from a solid beer selection and craft cocktails to pinball and a photo booth. Smile! 3007 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., 414-486-1344. (CD)

Housed in a historic warehouse turned boutique hotel, Branded offers up Wisconsin bar classics with a chic twist. The cream city brick, antique drafting chairs and exposed Edison bulbs that dangle from the ceilings hint at the building’s history. The cocktail menu changes seasonally but features staples such as the Iron Horse Old Fashioned (infused with Door County cherries) and newer creations like the Platino Sauco (tequila melded with citrus and mint) – a delightfully balanced drink. Branded has broken the mold for a hotel bar and is worth a visit, even you are not spending a night at the highly acclaimed Iron Horse Hotel. 500 W. Florida St., 414-374-4766. (KL)

Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge
If any bar in Milwaukee is built to last it’s Bryant’s. Opened in 1938, this cocktail haven has maintained a unique sense of self throughout changing times, owners, fashions and even a large fire in the ‘70s. But its staying power is easy to understand. Where else can you mix the speakeasy-style sweetness of Depression-era cocktails with super-’70s baroque floral patterns in black velvet on the walls? The answer is nowhere. Drink recipes are locked away in a Rolodex and the minds of Bryant’s highly educated craft bartenders, and the unbelievably dark, two-story joint remains comfortable with a sense of rebellion more apt to appear in the age of Prohibition. Perhaps it’s the drinks set on fire or the overall decadence of Bryant’s that make it simply timeless. 1579 S. Ninth St., 414-383-2620. (AP)

Some bars just get it. Burnhearts is in that rarified air. Maybe it’s the selection of around 20 taps and roughly 50 bottles of beer. Maybe it’s the dark lighting and earth tones that exude both lounge and hip basement rec room. Maybe it’s the cozy back room complete with leather couch, shuffleboard, and a pool table. Or maybe it’s that it’s all set to a soundtrack that includes the likes of Tom Waits. The relative newcomer to the Milwaukee bar scene has made a splash since it opened in 2007. It’s simply the coolest corner bar in town. 2599 S. Logan Ave., 414-294-0490. (DM)

Club Paragon
Club Paragon may feel like a hunting lodge in the far reaches of the state, but it’s conveniently located on the southwest side of town. The decor is decidedly “log cabin,” with round timber beams, a stone fireplace, wood walls, and a smattering of taxidermy that includes a moose and other wild game. But Paragon is no quaint little lodge. The massive interior includes two dozen tables, darts, pool tables, and roughly 15 TVs. Northwoods bar flavor with a city feel, a combination that is surprisingly unique in Milwaukee. 3578 S. 108th St., 414-541-9270. (DM)

Club Timbuktu
It’s not often in a Milwaukee bar that you’re welcomed by a traditional African drum circle. But that’s exactly how I was at Club Timbuktu. People of all ages and races were pounding their fists and vigorously shaking their heads in a deafening rhythm as the circle leader walked around the room with his large drum tucked between his legs, laughing and enticing customers to dance. From the outside, Club Timbuktu could easily be mistaken for a small shop or restaurant, but the bold colors, artwork and African décor represent the crossroads of African culture and American nightlife. In addition to African drums, Club Timbuktu acts as a dance club with live bands and DJs and what they may lack in drink specials, Club Timbuktu makes up for with a distinctive flair that can be found nowhere else. 520 E. Center St., 414-265-7000. (CR)

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When this dart hangout and sports bar moved from West Allis to Tosa, some were skeptical if their regulars would follow. They did – and then some. The expanded and updated space provides plenty of room for playing darts, watching games, playing pool, and dancing (if you like) to the jukebox or a live band. Regulars and sports fans are the usual crowd, but that just means you will have to go in more often and become a regular yourself. 5018 W. State St., 414-777-5060. (KS)

The Harp Irish Pub
Quick word association…”The Harp.” If you didn’t immediately think “outdoor deck” then you need to hone your lackluster Milwaukee bar skills with a visit on a sunny and warm weekday. The large wooden deck overlooking the lovely Milwaukee River (please refrain from word association here) was a hotspot two decades ago when outdoor seating was a Milwaukee rarity. It hasn’t lost its draw. Downing an ice cold Harp surrounded by others who just escaped the work day is a bonding experience you won’t soon forget. 113 E. Juneau Ave., 414-289-0700. (DM)

The Hideaway
The non-descript building and off-the-beaten path locale are reminiscent of a Depression-era speakeasy. Located on Okauchee Lake, what The Hideway lacks in spit and polish, it makes up for in character and a friendly clientele that’s as likely to include a state legislator and local business owners as it is to host laborers, vacationers and touring motorcyclists. Conversation around the u-shaped bar is often lively and the bar – basic as it is – enjoys an almost cult-like following. Drinks are generous and reasonably priced and balmy weather brings crowds to the lakeside tables even when the bar isn’t hosting its popular pig roast, bikini competition or pajama party. N55 W34657 Road E, 262-567-4655. (MVN)

Hi Hat Lounge and Garage
This East Side pair comes joined at the hip with gorgeous design. The lounge portion overcomes the industrial-warm juxtaposition, mixing rich woods, eye-catching art and exposed piping while the garage next door embraces a modern-earthy feel (more contemporary than tree hugger) with a boat load of repurposed wood used in everything from tables to trees. Adventurous flavors and concoctions fill the cocktail menu (jalapeno jelly, anyone?), but the beer and wine lists are just as impressive. 1701 N. Arlington Pl., 414-220-8090. (CD)

Hooligan’s is much more than a pie-shaped building overseeing North Avenue. It’s a Milwaukee staple. And the simple reason is that Hoolie’s does everything well. The service is outstanding and it has one of the best patios in Milwaukee on the bustling corner of Farwell and North Avenues. Several TVs keep sports fans happy and make the tavern a hotspot during the NCAA basketball tournament. The drink menu consists of a rotating list of more than 30 tap beers. What else do you need from a bar? 2017 E. North Ave., 414-273-5230. (DM)

The Irish Pub
In an age of imitations, The Pub is the real thing – a traditional Irish Pub run by real Irishmen, Aelred and Bernie Gannon. Memorabilia from the Gannon’s homeland abounds and the lights and traditional music are kept low, encouraging conversation in the cozy, unhurried atmosphere sans TVs and video games. Four snugs – private alcoves – built to resemble the storefronts of the Gannon’s native Sligo provide the perfect spot for sampling the best selection of Irish Whiskey in the state and over 12 beers on tap – including a perfectly poured Guinness. Local Irish musicians perform informally on Thursdays and there are occasional poetry readings. 114 N. Main St., Oconomowoc, 262-567-8850. (MVN)

Jazz Estate
More Lower East Side of Manhattan than East Side of Milwaukee, the Jazz Estate has been slinging hot licks and cold drinks for over 30 years. Decorated with black and white glossies of jazz legends and featuring live music up to 5 nights a week, the Estate is a true throwback. And while going smoke free might cost it a bit of its authentic atmosphere, at least the regulars will be able to enjoy great local music a few years longer. 2423 N. Murray St., 414-964-9923. (ES)

Leff’s Lucky Town
You may have visited Leff’s (and its enormous urinal) before, but with a recently expanded bar and spacious patio – now featuring a trendy garage door panel – it’s worth a second look. Though still a casual, no-frills sports bar at its heart, the new addition offers a decidedly more modern option for the fans who pile in on game days. It may feel like a throwback to your college days but it’s the colliding of neighbors and friends that make it feel a bit like home. 7208 W. State St., 414-258-9886. (KL)

Mad Planet
“People still go there?” a 30-something once asked in surprise to his 20-something coworker. “I haven’t been there since the ‘90s!” Mad Planet is the kind of bar that is continually “discovered.” A rock venue most days of the week, Mad Planet’s true legacy is the Friday Night Retro Dance Party (as well as The Get Down every second and fourth Saturday of the month). A good chunk of patrons are college-aged, but this is most certainly an all-ages crowed, and a diverse one at that. How many dance clubs are there with an anything-goes atmosphere and an overall lack of judgment in the air when busting out your goofiest dance moves? 533 E. Center St., 414-263-4555. (AP)

Nessun Dorma
In a quaint two-story house on a quiet Riverwest street is a hidden gem to end all. Dark and romantic, Nessun Dorma is the perfect bar to take a date – or, if you’re flying solo, grab a spot at the bar and chat up the knowledgeable and friendly bar staff. Featuring an extensive wine line (with nearly 100 by-the-bottle and by-the-glass options) to go along with over 80 craft and micro brews, Nessum Dorma doesn’t do gimmicks. Just grab a table in one of the cozy dining rooms or, if the weather cooperates, get comfortable outside and soak in the old-world ambiance. 2778 N. Weil St., 414-264-8466. (KS)

Nomad World Pub
The tables outside are prime real estate during warm months, a front row seat to the bizarre (an understatement) scene that is Brady Street. The cozy interior is similarly eclectic. East Side regulars, Brady Street hipsters, soccer fans, and drinkers of all types come to sample a wide range of tap and bottled beer. The walls are adorned with odd tribal masks, globes, a massive world map, and other souvenirs from around the world. The bar’s catchphrase is “Travel the World and Never Leave Your Bartsool.” If a can of Pabst and a shot of Jameson are the only passports I need, count me in. 1401 E. Brady St., 414-224-8111. (DM)

Old German Beer Hall
On weekends, it’s not easy to find a place to sit. But that’s the point. Patterned after the legendary Schwemme beer hall at Munich’s Hofbrauhaus brewery, Milwaukee’s version is a place to stand and chug – an amusement park for recreational drinking. Dimpled glass steins (a popular souvenir among area shoplifters, apparently) overflow with Hofbrau Original, Dunkel, Kindl Weissbier, and the seasonal Maibock and Oktoberfest, each brewed according to a 400-year old German purity law. If you’re a member ($100 for a lifetime) you use the ceramic mugs stored on hooks for whenever you return. The main attraction, though, is the dancing: Drinkers are allowed (encouraged, in fact) to stand on top of a half dozen long wooden tables and dance to polka music. Bavaria’s Hofbrauhaus has nothing on this local beer hall. 1009 N. Old World 3rd St., 414-226-2728. (KC)

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Palm Tavern
Travel down KK, and keep your eyes peeled for the tiny neon sign in the window of a nondescript, uninspired building. Chances are you’ll drive right by. But if you find it, you’ll reap the rewards. Tucked inside the intimate space is a bare-bones bar that specializes in the basics – whiskey and beer – with an anything but basic selection. With $10 beer flights, burgundy, textured walls, a tin ceiling and artwork with a story only a bartender can tell, Palm welcomes locals in the know with relatively open arms. Just don’t ask for a martini menu. 2989 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., 414-744-0393. (CD)

The Palomino
From the second you walk in, it feels like you never left. The atmosphere is as unique as the patrons and the ever-changing music. The drinks are as cool or as hot as you want them, with knowledgeable bartenders to help you find just what you like – or something altogether new. Where else can you find a pint of Irish coffee, or a black cherry infused whiskey in seltzer. If it’s a cold beer you’re hunting for, their assortment of Lakefront beers on tap will surely satisfy. With nightly events such as Monday night bingo and varying drink specials, Palomino has whatever you are looking for. 2491 S. Superior St., 414-747-1007. (KS)

Revere’s Wells Street Tavern
The peaceful ambiance of an 18th century tavern meets visitors at the door: plank floors, raised paneled walls, scattered fireplaces, iron chandeliers. But rest assured, the modern conveniences are never far away. The warren of rooms that make up the pub includes some furnished with classic Windsor chairs and vintage wooden tables, but the flat screen TVs in the bar follow the Brewers and popular elevated granite-topped pub tables fill two rooms. There’s live music on Thursday evenings and the outside brick patio is popular in good weather. For the time traveler or the modern man, this is a great place to linger over a cold one – 89 beers (10 on tap) grace the menu along with an impressive roster of 21 single malt scotches. 505 Wells St., Delafield, 262-646-8807. (MVN)

Romans’ Pub
The Big Beer Board hanging from the ceiling lists 30 draught beers – Germans, Belgians and American crafts like Founders Breakfast Stout, brewed with Kona coffee and Dogfish Head’s Palo Santo Marron Ale, aged with wood of the Paraguayan Palo Santo tree. You can also get a Guinness, if you’re intimidated by Paraguayan Palo Santo trees. But, honestly, there’s nothing pretentious about this Southside pub. Built in 1885 as a stagecoach roadhouse, Romans’ has all the components of a great drinking bar: a state-of-the-art beer engine that pumps from cooled kegs in the basement, a humidor stocked with quality cigars, an unpredictable musical playlist and a salty bartender named Mike, who swears like a sailor but thanks you kindly for your patronage. 3475 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., 414-481-3396. (KS)

Silver Spring House
There’s nothing like getting a history lesson at a bar. The Silver Spring House is a Milwaukee County landmark (literally), and exudes what truly is “old school.” The forest green ceiling, ample woodwork, and ornate back bar give the place a saloon feel, while the volleyball courts in back, a popular patio, and a row of video games along the front wall remind you that you’re not in the early 1900s. Shelling out $3 for a pint of High Life makes this history tour well worth it. My ancestors would be proud. 6655 N. Green Bay Rd., 414-352-3920. (DM)

Sugar Maple
While a masterfully crafted cocktail might be the telltale of a great bar, Milwaukee is above all else a beer town. And with 60 craft brews on tap, Sugar Maple is a beer drinkers heaven (no pun intended for this former Sikh Temple). Tap pulls stand at attention behind the long, curved bar like some stoic palace guards as live music from the back room fills the big and airy space. Be warned: there are limited distractions at this bar – no TVs or pool tables or dartboards. Sugar Maple is all about the beer. 441 E. Lincoln Ave., 414-481-2393. (ES)

Taylors People’s Park
Downtown Waukesha has been going through a revival of late thanks, in part, to Taylors. Housed in a beautiful brick Civil War-era building, People’s Park gives a nod to its downtown sibling with similar specialty cocktail offerings – most are a bit on the sweet and girlie side – as well as a respectable beer and wine menu. The interior is clean and straight-lined. Well, except for the eclectic (and somewhat creepy) 3-D collage of toys, doll heads and puppets behind the bar. Day or night, Taylors brings a bit of cool and fun to the sleepy suburb. 377 W. Main St., 262-522-6868. (KL)

Von Trier
A Milwaukee staple home to a recent facelift, Von Trier possesses the same charm as the pre-renovation days but with an improved beer garden and significantly cleaner digs. Its signature chandelier, beer steins, murals, free popcorn and stained-glass windows all remain in this classic German beer hall, and the East Side clientele is happy to patronize. Specializing in beer with a dozen drafts and signature hot drinks such as Hot Buttered rum, Von Trier also expanded an underused portion of the bar, creating a wine cellar. Unironically, the bar’s decorative antlers still hang, somehow embracing current design trends. 2235 N. Farwell Ave., 414-272-0711. (CD)

Whiskey Bar
In the shadow of its predecessors Club Marlyn, Metropolis and Park Bar, Whiskey Bar stands out as cosmopolitan but comfortable, posh but unpretentious, trendy but timeless. With a surprisingly large interior, you can grab a drink at the main bar, wander back and check out the VIP area or hit up the dance floor and enjoy a selection of ‘80s and ‘90s pop hits. If you’re lucky enough to snag a couple of leather lounge chairs, you’re set for the night. 788 N. Jackson St., 414-312-8566. (AB)

Wolski’s Tavern                   
A Saturday afternoon reinforces the idea that it might be the best bar in Milwaukee. PJ, an affable veteran bartender, serves and converses with the early drinking crowd. The barstools are lined with regulars (grizzled and ungrizzled) and young hipsters. Intoxicated college kids play pool in the back, and an apparent pub crawling group of 10 suburban housewives (decidedly not grizzled) occupy a table. PJ’s claim that Wolski’s doesn’t separate the masses couldn’t be truer. Ellis Island has nothing on this bar. 1836 N. Pulaski St., 414-276-8130. (DM)



by Evan Solochek, photo by Adam Ryan MorrisAdditional reviews by Anne Baesemann, Kurt Chandler, Ann Christenson, Cristina Daglas, Ryan Hurley, Kathryn Lavey, Dan Murphy, Mary Van de Kamp Nohl, Adrian Palomo, Carly Rubach and Kahara Schabach. There was an infographic from the folks at bouncing around the Internet a few months ago that caused quite a stir. […]

by Evan Solochek, photo by Adam Ryan Morris
Additional reviews by Anne Baesemann, Kurt Chandler, Ann Christenson, Cristina Daglas, Ryan Hurley, Kathryn Lavey, Dan Murphy, Mary Van de Kamp Nohl, Adrian Palomo, Carly Rubach and Kahara Schabach.

There was an infographic from the folks at bouncing around the Internet a few months ago that caused quite a stir. It was a map of the United States colored with red and yellow dots – red representing areas where bars outnumber grocery stores, and yellow the opposite. Not surprisingly, most of the map was yellow, as grocery stores are generally more essential to the populace than taverns. The grand exception was Wisconsin, a veritable explosion of red – more red than any other state in the nation.

Yes, this is a state – and a city – with a hell of a lot of bars. Milwaukee was built on the brewing industry, and it’s no secret we love our watering holes, from the neighborhood juke joint to the posh Downtown nightclub. And we’re fiercely loyal. Our favorites are our homes away from home – secret, sacred places we love to frequent. Sharing a bar creates a special bond. Over free-flowing pitchers and music, strangers become friends, patrons become a family. After all, how different can you really be if you all belly up to the same bar?

So it takes a certain amount of nerve – in a city so sated with taverns and traditions – to pick the 30 best bars. But hey, we have a lot of nerve here at Milwaukee Magazine, and we were perfectly willing to do as much discussing and drinking as needed to handle this monumental, albeit convivial, challenge. We started with a list of more than 100 and kept adding and subtracting and, yes, many great establishments didn’t make the cut – possibly your favorite – but we’re pretty confident we’ve chosen the best of the best. Although we couldn’t resist adding a sidebar of the top bars in certain categories – best dance club, karaoke bar and the like – just to add to the fun. So pull up a stool and maybe, just maybe, you’ll discover a new regular hangout filled with your new best friends.

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