The first time I walked into Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge, about a decade ago, I was thunderstruck by the unique ambiance of the old Walker’s Point bar. Lights turned down as low as they’d go, soft sounds emanating from the old McIntosh stereo, couples nestled in banquettes tucking into elaborate drinks in Hurricane glasses. It was like no place I’d ever seen.
Until I visited At Random.
Within seconds, I felt a strong sense of déjà vu. Dim lights, deep booths, ice cream drinks – the Bay View bar felt like a sister bar to Bryant’s.
Could this be a bizarre coincidence? Not exactly, explained John Dye, the young proprietor of Bryant’s. Ron Zeller, the 85-year-old owner of At Random, which opened in 1964, began his bartending career at Bryant’s. “He kind of opened his own Bryant’s,” says Dye.
Zeller admits as much, in an offhand manner. “There weren’t enough places like that,” he says. “So I came over here.” Zeller met me on a day when his bar wasn’t open. At Random does business only four nights a week. He jokes that the bar got its name because it’s open “at random.”
That’s not the truth, of course. The truth is much better and speaks of a decades-long rivalry with Bryant’s.
“What’s Bryant’s begin with?” Zeller asks, “‘B.’ I was first in the phone book. You’re looking at taverns, what are you going to look at, ‘A’ or ‘B’?”
Aside from the midnight-in-Milwaukee décor and ice-cream drinks, the two are actually quite different. Bryant’s, with its young hipsterish bartenders, feels like a Cream City outpost of the cocktail revival. At Random is a quirky family business.
Zeller would just as soon pass the reins on. But to the right party. Dye told me he’s offered to buy a few times, but been rebuffed. It may be that Zeller just doesn’t care for the mixology crowd.
“The kids today put in a drop of this and a drop of that and stick a bean sprout in it,” he says. “I make drinks! They look good when you get ’em and taste good when you taste ’em.”