Hooligan’s Old School Style
Its 19th century structure was built atop a tree trunk, where the beer has flowed since 1936.
Hooligan’s Super Bar’s roots run deep on Milwaukee’s East Side. Literally. When the building was constructed more than 100 years ago, a tree stood at its location at 2017 E North Ave. But instead of removing the tree, it was incorporated into the building’s structure by the builders, who used it as a support beam while the building took shape around it.
Established in 1936, Hooligan’s was originally just a tavern located in the building’s main level. However, when owners John and Cindy Sidoff bought the tavern 35 years ago, both the building and business underwent major changes. Six months after their purchase, the Sidoffs decided to install a small deli. That was so successful, that just one year later, the couple decided to put in a grill. Ten years later, their dining operation once again expanded, as the building’s upstairs apartment was replaced with a prep kitchen, a bar and an additional dining area.
Back then, Hooligan’s was considered a super bar, which allowed the bar to legally sell carry-out liquor and food until bar time. As one of the few such bars, says manager Jeff Jackson, Hooligan’s was the place to go to get a late-night food fix. Though it still uses the super bar name today, it no longer is legally designated as one, and only serves carryouts until 10 p.m.
With the upstairs addition, the layout came to resemble Hooligan’s current set-up. Upon entering the building, patrons are greeted by the downstairs bar area. Seated against the left wall, people watch sports on one of the establishment’s many televisions, typically while consuming the burgers, sandwiches and wraps that have made Hooligan’s one of the top choices for Milwaukee bar food.
Customers can also sample any of the more than 30 micro and import brews that Hooligan’s offers. The wall behind them boasts a display of dozens of tap handles, which Jackson says pays homage both to Hooligan’s history and its ever-revolving beer choices.
You’ll find regulars like Coco Burnett and Chris Moseley huddled up to the bar, catching up with one another and reminiscing about some of the characters that used to frequent Hooligan’s. Like the bar’s older tap beers, these people may be gone, but are definitely not forgotten.
Those looking to escape the noiser, more congested main level can head upstairs for a quieter dining experience. The upstairs is brighter, as windows let in natural light and allow patrons to look out on the bustling streets below. Children can search through a cabinet filled with board games for something to occupy the time until their food arrives.
This choice between two separate environments is what makes the establishment so unique, says Kelly Schaefer, who’s worked at Hooligan’s for two years: “It has such a homey feel. It’s louder downstairs if that’s what you want or you can go upstairs for a quieter environment.”
Years ago, the downstairs bar area was even nosier. Jackson says Hooligan’s used to set up a stage at the east end of the bar and bring in bands to play. He says the BoDeans and the Violent Femmes often performed outside the nearby Oriental Theater until, one day, owner John Sidoff offered them a gig at the bar — and their first live shows.
“The BoDeans actually mentioned in Rolling Stone magazine that Hooligan’s was their first venue ever played,” Jackson says. “From what I hear, it was crazy times.”
Today, televisions provide much of the bar’s entertainment, with TVs on both levels accommodating sports fans of all kinds. Pat and Mary Reavey have lived in Milwaukee for 14 years and come to Hooligan’s every Saturday to play trivia. Originally from England, Pat said he likes that Hooligan’s is always willing to put on a soccer game for him.
In 2011, Hooligan’s even installed TV’s in their enclosed outdoor patio so smokers would not have to miss any sports action.
Regular patrons also cherish the bar’s history and continuity. Although she only stops by three or four times each year, Daria Kempka says Hooligan’s food keeps bringing her back. As a kid, she would often come to the bar for lunch with her dad and his friends. “I like the history,” Kempka says. “It’s old-school.”
Moseley says he first started sneaking into Hooligan’s in the 1970s at the age of 16, back when “your feet used to stick to the floor,” he jokes. For more than 30 years, the broad spectrum of customers is what keeps bringing him back, he says: “You get everyone from store clerks to attorneys.”
However, not everyone has been so complimentary of Hooligan’s. In spring 2012, there were complaints from two neighborhood associations that objected to Hooligan’s sponsorship of a St. Patrick’s Day pub crawl, charging it caused drunk participants to disrupt traffic and create extra noise in East Side neighborhoods. Despite this, the liquor license for Hooligan’s, along with nearby Vitucci’s and R.C.’s, was unanimously approved for renewal by the City Licenses Committee.
Jackson says Hooligan’s seeks feedback from the East Side Business Improvement District when preparing for events such as the Shamrock Shuffle. He notes that extra doormen are hired in order to prevent someone who is too intoxicated from entering the bar. Ultimately, though, the final call is made by bartenders and managers. Hooligan’s also offers highly-intoxicated individuals water so that they do not have to break up the party, Jackson says.
Hooligan’s is currently in the process of revamping its service in order to keep up with what Jackson calls “the ever-changing North Ave.” While Hooligan’s 4 to 7 p.m. happy hour, along with its happy hour drink prices, will remain the same, Jackson says people can expect to see changes to the food menu, as well as the nightly drink specials.
Yet, despite the changes to the building, the business and the beer over the years, this establishment still remains rooted to the neighborhood, its mighty tree trunk still standing proud in the basement, holding together the history of Hooligan’s.