the Best Place in Milwaukee
First off, I have to start this week’s column with what sounds like a Craigslist “Missed Connections” post but really is just a prologue on how I ended up at the not-yet-minted Best Place on Friday night.
It’s also a portrait of how out of practice I am.
It was 6 p.m. on Spring Gallery Night. I arrived too early for the Parachute Project’s Sweeping the Pool of Light, which was ironically marred at that time by bright evening sun. On the slope of 9th and W. Juneau Ave., in the heart of what used to be the Pabst Brewery complex, there is a man leaning out a heavy door of the old Sternewirt Pub calling out to art patrons.
“Art there, beer here!”
I resolved to come back after dusk.
She actually starts chatting with me and the rapport is great. She says her name is Gabrielle and she just moved to town from Philadelphia. Her friend is playing piano at Rustico, but the session is three hours long so she thought she’d check out Gallery Night. Gabrielle asks for advice on what short stops she could make in high heels. I walk her up to Cranston (also a high-class place) in the Marshall building telling her what to see.
Then like a scene out of Dumb and Dumber, I stop and say, “okay, here you are – have fun and good night!” — and continue around the corner on my own.
Somewhere mid-block on Chicago Ave. the mental brick hits me. Yes, I had commitments that night and a friend to meet. But why? It’s not clear if I was subconsciously thinking she was out of my league or that I am too broke or low-cultured for her. I don’t think so. I think I’m just stupid.
So that’s how I end up back up at the Pabst Brewery complex again. I was looking forward to ending my night there, and I wasn’t disappointed. I’m not saying I would have traded the experience for a nice walk with that woman — okay, probably.
I had no expectations walking into what I’m hoping will be called The Best Place (901 W. Juneau Ave.) Besides the old Sternewirt room, it combines the old schoolhouse into a giftshop, a courtyard and the old Blue Ribbon Hall. The reference, if you don’t get it, is to Jacob Best and his sons Phillip and Jacob Jr. who ran the brewery until Capt. Frederick Pabst took over operations. On the seal for the Pabst Brewing Company, the giant ‘B’ in the middle stands for Best.
“I was thinking of calling it “The Best Place” but my marketing friend is trying to talk me out of it,” Jim Haertel said.
“DON’T you dare let him do that,” I implored.
Haertel was the character/owner leaning out the door earlier. He is in full swing this evening, showing off different areas to guests. It’s not open yet; a failed icemaker didn’t pass inspection,so the soft opening will have to wait until this weekend.
The venue doesn’t appear to be the kind with deep pockets or corporate investors. Jim and Karen Haertel (along with some investors) seem to have taken a real chance here, and will likely have to rely on out-of-town visitors and young bohemians for patronage. Event though the beer became legendary in low culture, Pabst didn’t exactly leave a great taste in a lot of mouths when they left town.
Oh, and they took King Gambrinus with them.
Who? Oh, only the patron saint of beer. It was a grand aluminum statue that replaced the 1857 wood model (which fell apart) in 1966 and stood in the courtyard outside the side tavern. All that’s there now is an original placard that apologizes while the statue is being “used in a parade.” Har har.
When Pabst left town and moved into an industrial park-style building in Woodridge, Illinois, the King was put up in the employee tasting room. A new model would cost $23,000. A few weeks ago, Karen told me the president of Pabst was there and expressed a wish for the giant courtyard sign. I smell an awesome trade in the works.
This night, a catering group was called in to tend bar in the Blue Ribbon Hall. The 300-capacity room bustled as the small balcony full of artists watch 16mm films. Ladies powdered their noses in the infinity mirrors, original blueprints were admired in the gift shop and a piano in the original tavern waited for a player. The overall charm of the place is that everything is original and not simply manufactured to look old.
I ordered a cold can of PBR, popped it in the courtyard and started giggling with happiness. Sorry, Gabrielle.