Cari Taylor-Carlson
Dining

Brown Bottle Has Old World Class

Great old Milwaukee atmosphere, some good food and some not.

By - Apr 4th, 2016 06:10 pm
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The Brown Bottle. Photo by Michael Horne.

The Brown Bottle. Photo by Michael Horne.

It was obvious, when we came in from the storm and found ourselves in a vestibule at The Brown Bottle, that we had walked into an historic reminder of old Milwaukee. Broad, heavy, carved wooden doors greeted us, spectacular examples of old world craftsmanship from the original Schlitz Brewery Stock-House building. I ran my fingers over the entrance to the restaurant to touch the timeless skill of the artisans who carved those doors. A greatly appreciated coat rack — also a unique piece of craftsmanship — gave us a place to leave our snow-covered coats behind, instead of draping the wet ones over the backs of our chairs inside the restaurant.

Carved wooden doors. Photo by Cari Taylor-Carlson.

Carved wooden doors. Photo by Cari Taylor-Carlson.

The Brown Bottle has an off-again on-again history, dating to 1938 when it operated as a tavern for visitors to the brewery who wanted to toss down a few following their tour. In 1986, the tavern opened as a pub/restaurant, hence the Brown Bottle. It closed in 2004 then, reopened under new ownership as Libiamo in 2005. I ate there twice during those years and found the food ordinary and the dining room depressingly empty. Libiamo lasted seven years, and after a two-year hiatus, the Brown Bottle, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, reinvented itself under the leadership of Chef Ben Hudson.

My friend and I admired more original woodwork in the bar and the dining room and the inviting, cozy little dining alcoves, albeit occupied by other diners. We found the cave-like windowless dining room a little dreary, unlike the well-lit bar with its unique hanging light fixtures.

On my two visits, the dining room bustled, perhaps because the Brown Bottle sits in the midst of a business park that almost guarantees a lunchtime crowd. By 1:30, we found ourselves alone as silence descended in direct proportion to the departing diners. No complaints. It had gotten quite loud at 12:30 despite the (noise-cancelling) lovely fleur-de-lis carpet that echoed the design of the decorative tin ceiling.

We looked forward to the new menu, reported to be a 21st century update of classic pub food, and experienced some hits and some misses. We opted not to order the Daily Special, even though Three Little Pigs, ham, bacon, and proscuitto topped with a fried egg sounded like a manly feast. My friend ordered something more lady-like, delicate: Ginger-Carrot, the Daily Special Soup. “I can’t really taste the carrot but it doesn’t matter. It has cream in it. That’s good.” We agreed, what if it did taste more like ginger soup than carrot, it was delicious.

And so was the Mushroom Dip, roasted mushrooms, onions, and peppers, topped with provolone cheese stuffed into a hoagie bun. The dipping sauce, mushroom jus, added more flavor. We finished it with a spoon. The accompanying house salad, a montage of fresh colorful greens lightly tossed with roasted shallot dressing surprised us. This was not a boring house salad, it was a superstar.

Things went downhill with my Meatloaf Sandwich, seared meatloaf, provolone, pickles, red onion relish, and tomato jam served on sourdough. It would have been better with a little less tomato jam and a little more meatloaf. Not saying the jam wasn’t tasty because it was, but too much of a good thing left both sides of the bread seriously soggy. On the plus side, instead of one thick hunk of meatloaf, this loaf had been thinly sliced and lightly seared. I removed it from the limp sourdough, ate it with a fork, and enjoyed every morsel.

On the brief sandwich menu, in addition to the schrooms and the meatloaf, there’s Pulled Pork and Slaw and Kimchi Reuben. I couldn’t help wondering, isn’t sauerkraut in a Reuben basically kimchi? They’re both fermented cabbage. I checked online and discovered the former is just cabbage, the latter a complex mix of cabbage, spices, onions, and other fermentable veggies. I stand corrected.

It’s Milwaukee, show up on a Friday and of course, someone has to order the Fish Fry. We tried two out of three: Schlitz Beer-Battered Cod and Baked Alaskan Cod with lemon-caper butter sauce. We left the Battered Perch dredged with cornmeal for another time. Both versions of the cod, baked and battered, were tender and delicate. And the crisp potato pancakes (an additional $1.00) “tastes as good as my dad made them in his restaurant,” my Friday friend noted. Only the coleslaw remained on the plate; it tasted of vinegar, too much vinegar.

Baked Brie and Apricot Flat turned out to be the big disappointment. Because it was dominated by the apricot jam, the little dabs of melted brie were overwhelmed by sticky sweet. Small random cubes of ham didn’t add the intended salty. A sprinkle of spicy arugula helped, but couldn’t salvage the doughy flatbread that might have been rescued by more oven time to add crisp edges.

I can’t speak for the rest of the menu after two lunches, but I will say that the Brown Bottle is a pub with exquisite old Milwaukee craftsmanship. It’s worth a visit just to dine in this historical building. Maybe the food was less than inspiring but as my friend said, “I feel like I’m back in Germany. It feels like an authentic European pub.”

The Brown Bottle

On the Menu

The Rundown

One thought on “Dining: Brown Bottle Has Old World Class”

  1. ryan shortridge says:

    I live 3 blocks north of the Brown Bottle and find myself there on occasion. The food is quite good for the modest price point that it’s set at. The author failed to mention the best thing on the menu though….the best $2 Schlitz you will ever have, all the time. The outdoor seating [dog friendly] in the summer, with a nice big lawn for kids to play in is also a major plus.

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