Joey Grihalva
Weekly Happy Hour

Bryant’s Old Fashioned Charm

Venerated south side cocktail lounge will be open early for the 5th Annual Doors Open Milwaukee.

By - Sep 18th, 2015 01:32 pm
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Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge. Photo by  James Gutierrez.

Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge. Photo by James Gutierrez.

For the first 18 years of life I slept in the Sherman Park neighborhood in a modest two-story house built in 1928. There was a rumor that, like so many of his generation, the man who built the house lost a lot of money during the Great Depression and killed himself. Whether it was true or not, and whether he did it in the house or not, it made for a compelling ghost story. When I moved back to Milwaukee a couple years ago I spent a spell at my childhood home before renting my first apartment in the city, a one-bedroom loft in the storied Schuster’s building on Historic Mitchell Street. Once a popular department store, the building was renovated about a decade ago for federally subsidized low-income apartments. Like a growing number of Milwaukee’s aging architectural gems, the Schuster’s building has been reimagined for the 21st century.

Milwaukee is a city of neighborhoods. What’s a neighborhood without a corner bar? I got pretty lucky living at Schuster’s Lofts, considering my neighborhood corner bar was Bryant’s (1579 S. 9th Street), Milwaukee’s oldest and most beloved cocktail lounge. Inside a non-descript white two-story house is a dimly lit portal into the past, featuring two Rolodexes totaling about 500 cocktails from almost 80 years of serving Milwaukee’s most discerning clientele, plus plenty of visitors. In 2013 Esquire named it one of the best bars in America.

Like the Schuster’s department store of yesteryear, Bryant’s is a destination bar. An article I had read in Milwaukee Magazine inspired my first visit a few years ago. I sat upstairs in a cozy booth, in awe of the plush velvet walls and exceptional sound system. Because Bryant’s list of cocktails is so extensive, instead of a menu you are asked a series of questions about what type of drink you like. It usually starts with your preferred spirit base, then moves onto your choice of flavors; whether you like sweet, sour, bitters, citrus, etc. A common misconception about Bryant’s is that they make each drink on the fly. In reality, each bartender draws from the list according to your taste. I’ve ordered something different during each of my visits and I’ve yet to be disappointed.

In the midst of one of the last 80-degree days I stepped out of the sun and into Bryant’s to sample their Old Fashioned Happy Hour. My bartender John admitted that, “Bryant’s is definitely a winter bar,” and I have to agree. I was planning on including it in this column later in the year but I noticed it would be part of Doors Open Milwaukee; their third year involved in the event. I imagined they would have the lights bright and let you poke around the bar, but the ambiance doesn’t change. They will be serving drinks at 10 a.m. Saturday and Sunday, whereas they usually open at 5 p.m. They will also answer questions and walk you around if you’re curious. Wisconsin Foodie host Kyle Cherek will give a talk upstairs, but that ticketed event is already sold out.

Bryant’s happy hour runs Sunday and Tuesday to Thursday (they are closed Mondays) from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. It includes $5 Old Fashioned’s and about forty-five $5 Depression Era cocktails (not including ice cream drinks). They stick to a traditional Old Fashioned recipe that does not involve muddling. John recommended I try a rye whiskey Old Fashioned sweet. It was among the best I’ve ever had. My second drink was a “Scotch Fiesta,” a refreshing citrusy mix with scotch and a smoky mescal tequila. Three women sat at the bar watching a Jimmy Kimmel holiday video on their phone. “It’s almost Christmas!” one of them shouted. After a few cheerful cocktails under the dim exotic lighting at Bryant’s, you might actually believe that.

While about 90 percent of Bryant’s customers order cocktails ($7-$13, most are $10), they also carry seven beers ($4 High Life, Miller Lite, Coors Banquet, and $5 Big Sky IPA, Central Waters Nut Brown, Central Waters Pale Ale and Hacker-Pschorr) and three wines ($6 red, white and zinfandel). Anything on the rocks is typically $8. Seventy-five or so of the two-hundred bottles on their rail are liqueurs, “where the real flavor comes from,” as John said. About fifty of their recipes include ice cream. Their McIntosh analog sound system cost a whopping $21,000 back in 1971. That year they rebuilt after a devastating fire. Bryant’s keeps the old school vibe alive with a curated playlist that includes jazz standards, soul, early R&B, some classic rock, but nothing after the late 70s. Bryant’s is available to rent during the week.

Bryant’s is a classic example of living history in Milwaukee. They embody the spirit of Doors Open, if anything, because their doors will be open during abnormal hours this weekend. Doors Open is easily one of my favorite events in the city. It’s up there with the Film Festival, Locust Street Festival of Music and Art and newcomer Arte Para Todos. Last year I scaled the US Bank Building, got a behind-the-scenes tour of the Bradley Center and stepped into the Modjeska Theater for the first time in over a decade.

Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge

Doors Open Milwaukee

Below is a list of my recommended Doors Open sites, organized by neighborhood. In addition to the 175+ buildings, there will also be a scavenger hunt, 4 live music sites, 24 family friendly sites (complete with coloring and activity books), plus free Uber and Bublr bike rides.

Downtown

-The best building in the city, hands down, is the Pabst Theater. Almost anyone sounds great inside it’s beautifully ornate walls. This Monday the excellent indie rock group Beach House will bless the Pabst’s hallowed halls with their hauntingly lush sound.

-Across the river on W. Wisconsin Avenue sits the Pabst’s younger but bigger brother, the Riverside Theater, who is slated for a facelift. The Riverside will get a new marquee and a forty-foot vertical sign above it, which is pretty awesome.

-The City Hall clock tower will probably have long lines for good reason. (There will also be an art exhibit inside the lobby.)

-The Federal Courthouse had the longest line last year that my friend and I weren’t willing to wait for.

-I’ve walked past Fire House #1 countless times on my way to the Milwaukee Athletic Club and wondered what it looks like on the inside.

-If an art deco hotel is your thing, don’t forget to stop by the Hilton City Center and Hotel Metro.

-The new Pabst Speakeasy might be capitalizing off a hot trend, but it sounds like a cool place to get lost trying to find, then found while trying to drink.

-There are 420 buses in the Milwaukee County Transit System, this weekend is a rare opportunity to check out where they are serviced.

East Side

-If you want to see the first place where my body rejected alcohol, at the tender age of 19 on New Years Eve 2005, stop by the Knickerbocker on the Lake, an art deco staple.

-Every time I drive by the McIntosh Mansion on Prospect Avenue (home of the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music) I wonder what it looks like inside. This weekend that mystery ends.

-The Woman’s Club of Milwaukee is the oldest in America, built in 1887.

Avenues West

-A fancy name for the part of the city west of downtown, the Rave is the most popular of the “Avenues West” locations. If I had a dollar for every night I spent at the Rave in high school seeing hip-hop shows, teenage me could buy a lot of lemonades!

-I’ve tried to show more than one out-of-towner the Tripoli Shrine Center without any luck. During Doors Open, the doors are finally opened.

-The Chudnow Museum sounds like a mini-version of the Streets of Old Milwaukee.

Historic Third Ward

-The Marshall Building will have a third Friday open doors situation going forward, so if you miss the oldest example of Claude A.P. Turner’s Mushroom System building, you’re in luck.

Walker’s Point

-The Clock Shadow Building is new but it has the first U.S. regenerative-energy elevator.

88Nine Radio Milwaukee’s building was originally a mid-20th century manufacturing building and today it’s involved in the production of Milwaukee’s cultural renaissance.

South Side

-As profiled earlier in this article, Bryant’s is a cocktail lovers treasure.

-The Islamic Society of Milwaukee might chip away at some of your preconceptions about Arab culture. If anything, you’ll see some excellent calligraphy.

-You can wait for the Milwaukee Film Festival to experience the historic and renovated Avalon Theater in high gear, or you can stop by for an in-depth tour during Doors Open.

North Side

-Kilbourntown House was moved in 1938 as part of a WPA project from its original downtown location to its current home in Estabrook Park, conveniently located near America’s first public beer garden since Prohibition.

-Back when I played for North Central Little League we didn’t have fences so home runs were never a sure thing. Today they have a new indoor batting facility with Apple TV video playback that lets you review your session. How times have changed.

-I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Sherman Perk, my beloved neighborhood café a couple blocks from my parent’s house.

This city is so full of history it’s impossible to fit it all into one weekend. But you can try to sample a smidgen of it over the next couple of days. For more information visit www.doorsopenmilwaukee.org

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