The resuscitated Brown Bottle at Schlitz Park honors our city’s brewing history, but that doesn’t mean it’s stuck in the past.
In a home project a few summers ago, a demolished concrete floor unearthed artifacts from several decades ago, including a grimy but unbroken brown beer bottle. The bottle was probably discarded by workers who laid the concrete. Since no remnants of the bottle’s label remained, the brewery’s identity remains a mystery, although through my eyes, the “Schlitz” logo curved smoothly across the mottled glass.
The days of brewing “the beer that made Milwaukee famous” have long since split, and the Schlitz Brewery complex has evolved into an office park whose social amenities include the Brown Bottle, considered an institution or a new initiate, depending on the age of the local you ask. The restaurant opened in 1938, but closed and reopened a few times over the years, and the space, although recently vacant, last operated as the Italian joint Libiamo. Now operated by Davians Catering, the Bottle is an “homage to old-world food,” says 31-year-old head chef Ben Hudson, whose Illinois upbringing deprived him from experiencing this MKE landmark. But Hudson, most recently employed at Bacchus, has a newly acquired degree in old-world MKE pub food, courtesy of his wife, a native of the area.
The “biggest hurdle” to building the menu was “honoring the history” of the restaurant, known for casual pub food and fish fries. That aura remains, but recognizable plates (like meatloaf and the classic Reuben sandwich) have succumbed to the recasting hands of the chef. The Reuben, for example, falls under the spell of kimchi (Korean fermented cabbage) instead of sauerkraut.
As it has done over and again, this setting – located in what is called the Stockhouse – casts a spell, beginning at the door. The copious dark-brown woodwork originated in 1930s Europe. Hardware on the doors was salvaged from chateaus and mansions in Germany and France. Early 20th-century Milwaukee metalsmith Cyril Colnik’s antler chandeliers hang from the plaster ceiling in the dining room. (The same plaster form was used for a salon inside the Titanic.) What interior grooming was done is modest – carpeting, a fresh coat of paint, new furniture and pendant lights in the lounge. The only thing missing is the lack of attention to the dining room acoustics, which are very poor when the room is bustling.
Bar food would be a diminishing title for the cuisine. A few appetizers attest to that. Searing a couple of deviled eggs ($6) yields firmer, more substantial vessels that seem to deepen the flavor of the mellow curried filling. Unexpectedly, satisfyingly good – and certainly not a salute to old-world food – is the cauliflower tempura, the florets encased in light, crisp batter and scattered on butternut squash puree ($6). (There’s also a version with tempura shrimp served over sweet potato-coconut rice, $10).
The flatbreads perform well as an appetizer or light meal. The cracker base melds particularly well with the sweet, salty mix of baked Brie, diced ham, apricot preserves and a little peppery arugula ($11).
Veering off-Reuben course resulted in an inspired, pungent sandwich ($10), which is otherwise traditional with its Swiss cheese, corned beef and Russian dressing on marble-rye bread. The poached pear-blue cheese mesclun salad tossed in walnut vinaigrette placated in a more abstemious way ($8).
It’s hard to bring anything new to the meatloaf table. But a loaf doesn’t warrant reinvention when it’s good, and this one is, a dome-like slice lacquered in tomato jam and accessorized with dense garlic mashed potatoes and a respectable mushroom gravy ($12). The mustard cream sauce invigorates the pretzel-crusted pork chop ($14), served with herb spaetzle, which would have been more invigorating had the dumplings been pan-fried crisp. By contrast, the roasted chicken dish is creamy Southern charm steeped in cheesy polenta, okra succotash, chicken jus, and more sweet tomato jam ($14).
The Brown Bottle shows its ancestral side with the Friday night fish fry (beer-battered cod $11.95; or baked cod $12.95) and keeps the kitchen busy making applesauce, slaw and tartar sauce from scratch. Along with delicately crisp (and not terribly greasy) potato pancakes, the from-scratch touch gives the staple a competitive edge.
Schlitz Park’s renovation brought new tenants to the complex, and that has likely given a boost to the lunch business at Brown Bottle. But drawing evening traffic to this north-of-Downtown venue presents a challenge. Perhaps history and solid “pub food” will be a potent combination.