At Random: Keeping Cocktails Classy

It’s like stepping into a time machine (plus, booze).

You can always spot a first-time visitor to At Random (2501 S. Delaware St.; 414-481-8030). Their eyes widen. Their jaw may drop a bit before their lips arch into a grin as they scan the room, with its snug leatherette booths, wood paneling and large arrangement of Christmas-style branches and beads, all bathed in a warm red glow, which not only soothes frayed nerves but also whispers a promise of something sensuous. Welcome to the Shangri-La of 1960s cocktail lounges. Shut the door tight, and don’t let 2018 in.

“The younger kids have no idea when they walk through the door what they’re walking into. They really don’t,” says Ron Zeller, 86, who opened the Bay View establishment in 1964.

“They say to me, ‘Ohhhh, I’ve never seen a place like this in my whole life.’ They love it!” adds his wife and co-proprietor, Shirley Mae, 83.

A self-described people person, Shirley Mae works the front of the room, while Ron serves as chief mixologist. He developed the recipes for all the drinks on the menu, including the alcohol-infused ice cream concoctions the lounge is known for. Those were meant as an option for the ladies. 

“The girls would come in with their boyfriends and they wouldn’t know what to order. I always felt bad for them and I said, ‘We have to find something for the women,’” he says.

In keeping with the old-school aesthetic, patrons of At Random are expected to adhere to a certain level of decorum. “If people get out of hand, I say, ‘Sorry, you’re in the wrong place,'” says Ron. “At Random is a cocktail lounge. It’s not a neighborhood bar. People don’t understand the difference.” He shrugs; his place, his rules. “I tell it the way it is,” he says. “I love doing this.”

The Ultimate Milwaukee Drinking Guide

‘I’ll Drink to That’ appears in the December 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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Editor-in-chief Carole Nicksin has worked in publishing for over 20 years. Prior to joining the staff of Milwaukee Magazine, she was the style director at All You, a Time Inc. publication. She also served as decorating editor at Home magazine. Carole has written for the New York Times, Martha Stewart Living, InStyle and numerous other publications.