OUR FAIR CITY does indeed have a bar for every occasion – retro cocktail time warps, craft beer bars, haunts for oenophiles, MKE classics (think Wolski’s) and everything in between. We’ve rounded up the best in five categories.
By ANN CHRISTENSON, CHRIS DROSNER, LINDSEY ANDERSON, CHELSEA FISCHER, ALLISON GARCIA, LIBBY LANG, DAVE LEE and DAN MURPHY
Photos by Chris Kessler
2501 S. Delaware Ave.
Not just the dark (instant face-lift) joint for sweet, retro ice-cream drinks, At Random has grown with the times – along with its new owner, John Dye of Bryant’s and The Jazz Estate fame. He gingerly spruced up the digs and added a list of classic cocktails, such as the Toreador (similar to a margarita) and French martini. One of the house rules is that only those seated will be served. That’s why this is called a lounge.
4828 W. Lisbon Ave.
Besides being a cool, industrial-vibe cocktail lab where the tenders are super skilled in drink-mixing, Bittercube offers some of the most creative and tasty libations in town with many entry points, from classics like the Manhattan to lesser-known heirloom recipes to tailor-made highballs.
818 S. Water St.
This hip Old West saloon-meets-Northwoods cabin does respectable work with classics like the Manhattan, Sazerac and old fashioned. It’s also the place to sip something different, maybe light and frothy, and partake of the artful Mexican offerings of adjacent food truck Taco Moto.
1579 S. Ninth St.
The storied lounge – MKE’s oldest, an octogenarian – where the menu is all in the bartenders’ heads. If the drink exists, they can make it. The cozy booths and vintage McIntosh audio system help conjure up the olden-days feel. Truly bucket list-worthy.
2423 N. Murray Ave.
Known since 1977 for its banner lineup of live local and national acts in a very intimate space, it has only gotten better since John Dye, the guardian of classic cocktails, took over. Now it’s attractive inside (leather, chrome, retro pendant lights), and the drinks will appease traditionalists and those who like razzle-dazzle.
2151 S. Kinnickinnic Ave.
Sired by two experienced and creative cocktail makers, Tripper Duvall and Dan Beres, the Whale is where cocktailing becomes an adventure. The menu changes seasonally, but there are always staples like the Harvey Wallbanger and beautifully bitter negroni spritz.
703 S. Second St.
There’s something homey about this lounge that feels like an o eat collectibles shop. The tenders are chatty and know their sauce; plus, there’s an impressive selection of whiskeys and spirits. A perfect weekend nightcap place.
326 E. Mason St.
With an urban, modern vibe, this Downtown oasis targets business professionals with a tidy lineup of sophisticated cocktails like The Dreamer, which looks like a rainbow in a tumbler glass. It also hosts Wine, Wings and Whiskey Wednesdays.
224 E. Washington St.
If you’re looking for an idiosyncratic experience, make a beeline to this little bar. Sure, it’s overlit, but that makes it easier to see owner George Vomberg’s displays of memorabilia, including photos of himself in the service in the ’50s, when he looked like Robert Mitchum. Sit tight if a Pedal Tavern party stops in, because that’s when George grabs the mic and puts on a show.
1800 N. Arlington Pl.
Perfect light – in volume, color and distribution – can make a bar great. Jamo’s photic equivalent of a Sinatra croon is created by strings of jumbo Christmas-style bulbs, bright enough to barely illuminate a compact scene of retro decor and art, bar dice and rail cocktails.
1920 S. 37th St.
You won’t find Ted Danson behind the bar, but this neighborhood tavern certainly feels like a place where everybody knows your name. The regulars are as friendly as the bartenders, the owner often books live bands (including some stellar polka acts), and there’s a great beer garden out back. Cheers!
2078 S. Seventh St.
This South Side institution doesn’t mess around with craft cocktails or scores of seasonal brews. It doesn’t have to, because the four diminutive bowling lanes that dominate its back wall are more than enough to keep locals coming back again and again.
5905 S. Howell Ave.
Time travel is indeed possible. The nearly 170-year-old building that once served as a stagecoach station is outfitted with vintage touches like ample woodwork and ornate tin ceilings. The beer list is not dated at all, though; Landmark 1850 has become a worthy craft beer destination.
2235 N. Farwell Ave.
This Teutonic East Side institution was taken over earlier this year by a new owner who respects (and says he won’t mess with) the traditions that make Von Trier special. And there are plenty of them: boots of German draft beer, plus a huge selection of bottled American craft and imported beers, classic cocktails (a cold, crisp Moscow Mule) and that dark, still-Germanic-but recently-updated setting perfect for long, philosophical debates.
1836 N. Pulaski St.
Professional day drinkers give way to early evening regulars, who eventually cede valuable bar stools to a late-night crowd of students, young professionals and tourists drawn to the friendly bar by legend and the promise of a free “I Closed Wolski’s” bumper sticker.
1716 N. Arlington Pl.
Although it’s as much a restaurant as a wine bar, this o -Brady Street haunt offers loads of options for grape juice drinking. By-the-glass choices (white, red, rose) are well-chosen, a mix of labels from big wine-growing regions in the U.S., Europe and beyond. The bottle “book” is a weighty collection that caters to those who know what they’re drinking or want to learn. The small plates menu is also very wine friendly.
804 E. Center St.
The owners of cozy Riverwest pasta place Centro Cafe opened this casual room with a small U-shaped bar, piano and intimate, low-lit tables in spring 2019. Wine (about a half-dozen available by the glass) isn’t the only emphasis here. The bar also stocks many kinds of the Italian liqueur amaro. It’s a sweet little spot to wait for a table at Centro or end your evening with a nightcap.
Milwaukee Public Market, 400 N. Water St.; 4512 N. Oakland Ave.
Both a retail shop (with a great selection of wines of various price points) and a bar for the newbie and the aficionado. The owners come with extensive knowledge from their careers in the California wine industry, and they have trained their staff as grape guides to help navigate the menus, heavy on eclectic wines from all over the world. Special emphasis on wines from emerging regions.
219 E. Erie St.
There’s as much effort put into education as sales. The by-the-glass and flight lists change often, so there is a lot of variety. You can buy a bottle there and take it home, sign up for a class to learn the art of tasting, or how to balance wine and food like an expert. A wine club membership includes complimentary tastings and events.
422 E. Lincoln Ave.
This low-key bar co-created by Jordan Burich – whose bartending (and cocktail crafting) experience includes Hinterland, DanDan and Strange Town – focuses on European wines. And while the labels might be fancy, the service isn’t stuffy. It’s a fun, unorthodox little place with a personally curated feel, as if they only serve and stock what the owners themselves love.
1902 S. 68th St., West Allis
Unfortunately, there are not a lot of bars in Milwaukee where you’ll find people of all backgrounds gathering for a drink. This quirky corner bar on the edge of West Allis’ industrial corridor is one of them. These quirks – an affinity for pro wrestling, and unbelievably cheap and very good beer – come courtesy of owner Neal Steffek, the big-bearded guy you’ll see behind the bar more often than not. This year, Steffek completed a remodel that updated and opened up the space without remotely gentrifying it. And cheap beer? Let’s quantify that a bit: $3 a pour for any of the 48 taps, from hazy IPA to barrel-aged sour, all the time. On Saturdays, any of the many IPAs on tap are just a buck. Stallis, here we come.
2599 S. Logan Ave.
There’s cool, and then there’s effortless cool. Burnhearts is the latter – not to mention cozy and intimate. The killer and curated tap list goes without saying.
1240 S. Moorland Rd., Brookfield
With great food and a tap list that always has multiple “wow” beers, this sports bar is much more than a great spot to watch a big game.
4417 N. Oakland Ave., Shorewood
The overall vibe of this pint-sized taproom and a couple of its booths could both be described as snug. A beacon of gemütlichkeit on a cold winter’s night.
3475 S. Kinnickinnic Ave.
Settle in here for a pint and a lesson on craft beer from longtime owner Mike Romans, a curmudgeonly pioneer in bringing better beer to Milwaukee.
441 E. Lincoln Ave.
Proprietor Adrienne Pierluissi is a pillar of Milwaukee’s beer community and an artist. Both show in this sleek Bay View taproom.
2060 N. Humboldt Ave.
This roomy, contemporary gastropub in Brewers Hill packs a monster tap list 53 beers deep – one of the biggest in the city, and it’s always interesting, too. But don’t overlook the solid menu of solids, either.
The Best of the Rest
Milwaukee’s bar greatness is restricted neither by geography nor by labels.
722 E. Burleigh St.
Funky, cool, well-lit art encircles this lounge-worthy Riverwest watering hole – you might even leave with a trendy piece at the end of your visit. After a game of pool or a round of pinball, chat up the diverse clientele and pet their canine companions. Stick around for the live music, too.
2718 N. Bremen St.
The Polynesian-themed Foundation, named one of the 10 best tiki bars by an international travel guide for tiki lovers, is a dark retro island-esque retreat whose owner could teach you everything you ever wanted to know about rum. The definitive spot for a mai tai, Singapore Sling, Zombie, etc., plus there’s a tiki-themed Airbnb on the second floor.
2778 N. Weil St.
The recipe for a Riverwest standout: a skillfully used panini press, craft cocktails, plenty of wine options and solid beer choices.
320 E. Menomonee St.
This friendly Third Ward bar preaches good vibes all around. The service is always attentive, and the crowd casual and fun. Laughter and conversation ll the room, and many days the party starts with the lunch crowd.
181 S. Second St.
From behind the bar of this decidedly ungentrified corner of Walker’s Point, the whip-smart, Santa-bearded eponymous proprietor dispenses a mix of friendly cheer, endearing ribbing and PBR. Newcomers will be chatting comfortably with regulars before the first mug is empty.
Kimpton Journeyman Hotel, 310 E. Chicago St.
Beyond being nine floors above the Third Ward, with boffo rooftop skyline views, The Outsider dials in really strong food and drink menus and an urbane, big-city atmosphere. And during this holiday season, the décor will replicate a winter wonderland with twinkly lights, faux snow and woodland “creatures.”
2461 S. St. Clair St.
This gem is among Bay View’s historic taverns, and it has photos of the neighborhood’s founders on the wall to prove it. There’s lots of space to stretch out here – and two pingpong tables for game lovers.
6351 W. Grange Ave., Greendale
Everyone in Greendale knows about Ray & Dot’s. It’s where the locals go. The bar hasn’t changed much since it opened in 1957, but with beers for less than $2, a pool table and friendly faces, it doesn’t need to.
1019 N. Old World Third St.
The 76-foot bar, long known as Milwaukee’s biggest, isn’t Buck Bradley’s only claim to fame. The drinks and food are also noteworthy.
2417 N. Bartlett Ave.
The neighborhood bar concept still thrives in Milwaukee. Champions excels at it with a friendly vibe, a small but accommodating beer list, and a sizable dash of quirkiness that’s well suited for its eclectic East Side locale.
833 N. Jefferson St.
The décor is the epitome of cool, circa 1989. But the hip, diverse clientele is strictly 21st century. Sit at the fancy-feeling bar on a cold winter night and enjoy one of a dozen warm drinks from the cocktail menu (you can’t go wrong with the Vatican Coffee), or just order your usual. Then, with these reasonable prices, there’s no reason not to have another.
1875 N. Humboldt Ave.
You can play pinball in a lot of places around town, but few of them have the warmth, ambiance and killer cocktails of Finks. Hello Milwaukee, indeed.
1401 E. Brady St.
Soccer – er, football – is a programming staple, but karaoke and DJ nights keep the party going when there’s no action on the pitch.
1501 N. Jackson St.
You’re definitely going to want to take a seat (if you can find one) at this lively, high-energy bar. The hand-sauced wings and draft pours keep the place packed with people all night long.
706 E. Lyon St.
It’s easy to lose track of time here, partly because the dimly lit bar seems to celebrate multiple holidays at once – leprechauns dangle from the ceiling alongside paper hearts and plastic eggs. But mostly because the bartenders are friendly, the seats cushy, and there’s always something interesting on tap.
7413 W. Greenfield Ave., West Allis
This friendly classic in downtown West Allis just does everything right: a laid-back vibe, a solid and simple menu, an always-interesting tap list. It feels old without being dingy or tacky.
7342 W. State St., Wauwatosa
It’s not a sports bar per se, but the high points of Wisconsin sports history are immortalized inside this friendly Tosa Village watering hole. Newspaper pages covering Super Bowl wins, 3,000th hits and the like cover the walls, ceilings and tabletops.
7170 W. Burleigh St.
Find a spot at the bar to shoot the breeze with the welcoming neighbors or take a seat in the dining room, adorned with wood paneling and red leather booths. Among the unexpected delights is an exceptionally good fish fry.
6930 W. North Ave., Wauwatosa
A come-as-you-are staple, this neighborhood bar remains as unpretentious as ever while North Avenue evolves around it. Don’t overlook Wednesday’s wings special; bathed in a secret house sauce and grilled, they are worth the weekly wait.