Michael Horne
Taverns

Axel’s, The Quintessential UWM Haunt

Old-school charm from the nexus of Milwaukee’s college scene

By - Sep 8th, 2014 11:33 am
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Axel's. Photo by Balistreri.

Axel’s. Photo by Balistreri.

Axel’s Inn is “a safe and acceptable place for unescorted women,” wrote Jim Higgins in a 1983 Milwaukee Sentinel article about Milwaukee’s college watering holes. Three decades later, Axel’s remains one of the go-to near-campus taverns on the rather limited UWM circuit.

Unescorted women still do range safely and acceptably at Axel’s, mingling with unescorted college men and the neighborhood regulars who manage to find the place by instinct.

It’s right next door to Oakland Gyros, another popular perennial — in fact, both are located in the same building, constructed on the busy southwest corner of N. Oakland Ave. and E. Locust St. in 1903. This was the first building on the block, and the cornerstone of the Riverside Park Subdivision.

While Oakland Gyros boasts large windows, Axel’s has but one. There is still plenty of light, thanks to a glass-block wall that composes most of the bar’s east facade. It’s part of the fabric today, although the whole place calls for a facade restoration, since this is a particularly attractive commercial building beneath all those beer and gyros signs.

The bar itself starts right where you walk in, with 20 padded, backed, swiveling seats for the patrons. The bar is covered in a “Charcoal Boomerang” Formica laminate pattern designed in Milwaukee by Brooks Stevens in 1950, and is possibly from the first batch of that product, which was probably put in about the same time as the glass block and stainless steel facade.

You can primp yourself in front of the circular mirror at the center of the bar, or contemplate the score of beers on tap at two dispensers. The back bar, like the rest of the place, is layered with history, none of it particularly notable. Sliding glass doors below seem to be as old as the place itself, and hold spare bottles of Bacardi, Jose Cuervo and Jagermeister for the college kids, along with Korbel and Jim Beam, which I have a feeling are for the older crew that shows up when the place opens weekdays at 3 p.m. (Weekends it opens at 11 a.m.)

There are also six coolers in back holding lots of bottled beers, with perhaps a greater ratio of Budweiser to Miller products than we are accustomed to seeing around these parts. The Jagermeister is also served from a dispenser. Indeed, the emphasis is on “college bar” here; business has picked up in the last couple of days now that school has started.

The walls at Axel’s (“Where the East Side Meets”) are a composite of plaster and tacky wood-like paneling of several vintages, while decorations are almost exclusively of the beer sign sort. Good. This keeps the art students away. Once you’re settled in with your drink, it is probably inevitable that you will have a chance to follow some sort of athletic event on one of the two large flat-screen television sets behind the bar. If you feel a little chess coming on, there are a couple of tables for that pursuit. Unescorted women find chess players sexy on the East Side.

If chess and sitting in front of a television are a bit too sedentary for you, get off the barstool and head into the back room, where there is a coin-operated boxing machine so you can duke it out against a punching bag. Unescorted women find boxers even more sexy than chess players on the East Side. You can also show off and play pool at one of the two tables in the back room. The walls along the pool tables are lined with benches for unescorted women to admire your skills and backside, while the old folks stuff money into the five slot machines. Or, just go find somebody to play foosball with you. Nobody is sexy during foosball. A pass-through window on the wall between the two rooms lets the bartender keep an eye on things lest they get out of hand.

Eric Rasmussen. Photo by Balistreri.

Eric Rasmussen. Photo by Balistreri.

Oh, Axel’s has had its moments over the years. In 1972 New York Mayor John Vliet Lindsay came by during his brief pursuit of the Democratic presidential nomination and tapped some beers for 150 young people, “many of them veterans.” In 2005 a fired Milwaukee cop called in a bomb threat to a police station after a night of heavy drinking at Axel’s. Oh, the times we’ve had!

In 2010 the police department objected to the renewal of Axel’s license, based on a violation of the underage drinking laws. Police issued 70 citations at that address in 2010 for municipal violations.

Eric Rasmussen, the registered agent, showed up at the hearing and told how his grandfather bought the place after the depression from his boss, a member of the Uihlein family. He was the driver for the Schlitz heir, and his family has operated the place ever since. They also own the real estate, which is now valued at $902,000. (Both the tavern business and the real estate are in the name of his father, 70-year old Allan R. Rasmussen.) During the hearing, Eric Rasmussen produced several boxes filled with fake IDs he had confiscated over the years. The committee renewed the license with a warning letter, and things have been quiet ever since.

Photo Gallery

The Rundown

  • Location: 2859 N. Oakland Ave.
  • Neighborhood: Cambridge Heights
  • Phone number: (414) 962-2122
  • Website: None
  • Facebook: None
  • Description: Tavern shifts from older neighborhood afternoon crowd to college hangout at night. Many beer specials, if you care to settle for Busch Natural Light or similar indignities, but it’s worth the extra cash for the good stuff, abundant on tap. No frills, to be sure, but surprisingly engaging.
  • Hours: 3 p.m. weekdays, 11 a.m. weekends
  • Food: Oakland Gyros is next door, and nobody will complain if you bring food in.
  • Signature Drink: How about a shot of Jagermeister out of that dispenser over there?
  • Capacity: 100 in 2,130 square feet.
  • Restrooms: One for men, one for women, one unisex.
  • Year Established: Likely before prohibition. “Schlitz on Draught” sign is quite old.
  • Year Building Constructed: Built 1903. Was first building on block.
  • Estimated Annual Rent: $31,098 at an estimated $14.60 per square foot annually according to city assessor calculations. Tavern operator owns building.
  • Walk Score: 80 out of 100, “Very Walkable”
  • Transit Score 57 out of 100, “Good Transit”
  • Games of Chance: 5
  • Games of Skill: 2 pool tables, foosball, coin-operated punching bag.
  • Aldermanic District: 3rd; Nik Kovac

Hours of Operation

Is Open? Day Open Close Expected Customers Age Restriction
True Sun 11:00AM 2:00AM 100 None
True Mon 3:00PM 2:00AM 100 None
True Tue 3:00PM 2:00AM 100 None
True Wed 3:00PM 2:00AM 150 None
True Thu 3:00PM 2:00AM 200 None
True Fri 3:00PM 2:30AM 200 None
True Sat 11:00AM 2:30AM 200 None

3 thoughts on “Taverns: Axel’s, The Quintessential UWM Haunt”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Axel’s underwent a huge shift in focus some time in the late ’80s or early ’90s: when I first was of age (1980, back when the drinking age was 18), Axel’s was absolutely *not* a college bar: that’s what we liked about it. Or at least, if it was a college bar, it was a very different sort of college student: perhaps I should say it was most definitely not a frat bar.

    Now it is: it’s obvious the place caters to certain types of college students. The old Axel’s was grungy and proud of it; the men’s room walls were coated in seemingly endless layers of paint covering up god knows what. And of course, behind the bar was Frank…proud of the picture the old Shepherd had drawn of him, flipping off all and sundry.

    That attitude is long gone.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I too remember the old Axels, where people huddled together at the end of the night when they’d run out of money for any other bar, or played the extremely loud jukebox during the day and evening. However, since then I’ve have many non-collegiate conversations there (women travelling on buses talking about their dogs, people dropping in from off the street, and once, when the electricity was down – no one knew why – the drinks were free, and Axel’s was probably the only bar in that area still operating in the dark!).

  3. Ron B says:

    My Junior and Senior years in high school (North Division) I worked in this building. At that time 1954-1955 it was called Druski’s drug store, and the entire building was the store. I suspect that where the bar sits now was where the soda fountain was located. Kids from East Division were always at the store..Soda fountain was their favorite spot. There were no other stores in the area at that time. There was a huge walk in cooler right by the back door if that is still there. At that time the drug store also sold beer and bottles of hard liquor.

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