Each Tuesday throughout the summer, throngs of Milwaukeeans will venture to Bay View’s Humboldt Park in search of great, free local music. For those who aren’t ready for their night to end when the music stops, the closest place to imbibe is none other than Toni’s Moody Blues (2813 S. Howell Ave.), a dingy-yet-charming neighborhood bar brimming with character.
My friend and I walked into the tavern just in time for first pitch of the Brewers game and just in time to see bullets ricocheting off RoboCop, midway through the classic 1987 film bearing the character’s name playing on the other TV behind the bar. The bartender was the only soul in the diminutive establishment.
We sidled up to one of the myriad vacant bar stools and ordered our first—of what turned out to be many—mini pitcher of beer. “What flavor?” he asked. Our flavor options were a limited, but sturdy quintet of domestic mainstays: Miller High Life, Miller Lite, Bud Light, Coors Light and Pabst Blue Ribbon. We opted for the High Life.
If the selection isn’t to your liking, at least the prices will be. Our mini pitcher (an estimated 36 ounces) set us back a scant $4.50. On Mondays, they’re a mere $3.75—approximately the cost of a pint of the same brew at some places within a mile of Toni’s. Later, we took notice of a house-made (by Toni herself!) concoction called a Chilled Margarita Shot. We couldn’t resist trying one, and found it to be an oddly accurate portrayal of a strong house margarita reduced to shot glass portions. The gamble is well worth the buck it costs.
As we sipped our cheap standards and took in the losing exploits of a franchise that currently employs something called Sean Halton, I took stock of the still-vacant (save for two regulars—one of whom told me I reminded him of a country singer I’d never heard of) bar built into the lower level of a modest-sized ranch home. There was wood paneling throughout, much of which is covered with metallic signs and framed pieces provided by beer and liquor distributors. There’s a pool table near the front entrance and a Golden Tee machine set further back in the thin corridor before a couple two-top tables near the rear.
And that’s it.
Toni’s conjured the laid back, no frills, cool-uncle’s-basement-rumpus-room feel of places like Bomb Shelter (RIP) or Victoria’s On Potter, but is blissfully unaware it’s adhering to any theme. Bar prefixes like “townie” and “dive” are thrown haphazardly around and, more than not, intended to be insults. Toni’s falls headlong into the criteria, but does so in an endearing, genuine and heartfelt way.
Both bartenders—eventually Toni came to relieve the original barkeep, whom I faintly recall being named Steve before my second chilled margarita shot—were exceptionally kind, and the right mix of engaging and non-intrusive. The bar’s soundtrack (when people weren’t plugging quarters into the CD jukebox) was provided by local radio stations, which employees switched at commercial breaks or during songs that didn’t agree with them. You can buy chips, beef jerky and pumpkin seeds behind the bar, or have a bartender cook you a frozen pizza. “No frills” is the operative mindset.
Assuming tap domestic beer and homemade shots aren’t in everyone’s wheelhouse, the liquor assortment is actually pretty OK for a bar its size. Ketel One, Grey Goose and Absolute sit beside Burnett’s, with Jamison, Bulleit Bourbon and Tullamore Dew set next to Seagram’s 7 (and worse). But if you’re seeking a place to experience an unfamiliar microbrew, I hope you’ve never had Spotted Cow before.
Then again, if you’re at Toni’s, you’re locked in for a night of basic and affordable creature comforts in the company of good people. If you’re seeking specialty beverages and hip décor, drive a bit further upon leaving Humboldt Park. For the rest of us, dive in to Toni’s Moody Blues.