Michael Horne
Bar Exam

Top 10 Bar Exams of 2017

Most popular stories: old bars. Corner bars. And some surprises.

By - Dec 28th, 2017 11:37 am
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La Cage. Photo by Michael Horne.

La Cage. Photo by Michael Horne.

In 2017 Urban Milwaukee published 27 Bar Exam columns, and you, the reader, have responded with an enthusiasm that has been deeply appreciated. It is a fraught time for a tavern reviewer (not to mention for a tavern owner), as many longtime corner bars — the mainstay of this department — have closed. It’s a tough business.

Fortunately, there has not been a single casualty on our list this year, although such now-closed classic joints as Ducky’s, Frank and Barb’s Silver City Bar, Grady’s Saloon and the Kornerstone Pub, shall remain forever unexamined. But we still have the likes of Bosco’s, Baby Boomers and  Bremen Cafe, classic local bars, along with eight others that were among your top eleven favorite stories of 2017. Yes, our Top 10 actually has 11, since Bosco’s and Vintage tied for sixth place.

A Fondness for Corner Taps

Russ Klisch is the founder, president and owner of Lakefront Brewery, the sponsor of Bar Exam’s “On Tap,” a listing of draft beers available at each establishment visited.

Klisch had this to say in the 2017 Official Milwaukee Visitors Guide from VISIT Milwaukee:

London has its Pubs,

Paris has its Cafes,

But Milwaukee has the Corner Bar.

Seven of the most popular bars this year are, technically, located on a corner. Some, like Nessun Dorma or Baby Boomers, are more representative of the neighboring watering hole genre than are others, such as the Best Place at the Pabst Brewery, built as a post-Prohibition tourist spot in the midst of a factory complex. Today the “City’s Most Beautiful Bar” is rapidly assuming a neighborhood tavern status, as apartments and hotel suites spring up around it in new structures and repurposed brewery buildings. It is one of the best places to have endured in a changing city.

Two of your favorites — Henry’s and Foundation — are of a sub-genre even more typical of Milwaukee than the corner bar, namely “the one in the middle of the block.” Henry’s evolved into that status, carved out of former retail spaces, while Foundation is a classic sort of purpose-built tavern once found commonly in the Riverwest neighborhood. It was not too many decades ago that stopping for just one drink at every tavern on E. Wright St. between N. Dousman and N. Holton streets would get your B.A.C. up to .20 percent guaranteed, all within a half-mile’s walk — or stumble. Today, all that remains of the strip is The Gig and Vegga’s. The latter is one of the few old Riverwest corner bars we haven’t gotten around to… yet.

A Passion for Old Places

You like them old. Among your favorite Bar Exam locations of 2017, the newest structure is almost 80 years old. That is the North Shore American Legion Post #331, a freestanding building constructed in 1940, when Art Deco was a new style, and not a revival. La Cage is located in an 1887 building, while the Foundation was already an old building when it was hauled to its current site from Commerce St., way back in 1893. Four of your favorites were located in Riverwest, while two were in Bay View. This is no surprise, since these are two of the most representative tavern neighborhoods in the entire city, and part of a culture alien to the rest of the nation. Other favorites were located in Kilbourn Town, Walker’s Point, Bay View and the Lower East Side. The Legion Hall in Shorewood was one of the few non-city taverns visited. It merited inclusion due to its notably original condition, its longevity, its quality and its proximity to the Oak Leaf Trail bicycle path, that very urban Milwaukee amenity.

About Bar Exam

This is a good time to acquaint the reader with the methodology behind the Bar Exam tavern reviews. The taverns are selected by the writer from among the licensed establishments of the area, with, as noted, a preference for the classic neighborhood bars that define our community and are so much a part of our social fabric, generation after generation. Although there are numerous venerable bars within some great restaurants, we have so far held off from covering them. Perhaps that stricture should be enforced more casually, as we would have visited Karl Raatzch’s intimate bar before its doors were shuttered this year. Also in keeping with the preference for intimate establishments, many nightclubs and hotel bars are not within the Bar Exam purview. But this shortchanges such exciting new venues as the rooftop terrace of the Kimpton Journeyman Hotel, which opened this year. Again, some adjustment may be in order. (And we welcome your feedback.)

Once a tavern is selected, the work begins. This involves searching the history of the tavern building, as well as of the business itself. The staff of the Development Center at the Department of City Development has been most helpful in locating and providing source documents like building permits, floorplans and inspection records.

The staff of the Legislative Reference Bureau, which, like the License Division, is a part of the office of the City Clerk, has been invariably helpful in providing the resources to be found in its “Bookmobile” — a wheeled cart that holds dozens of volumes of the Wright’s Milwaukee City Directory. These historic books are essential for tracing the many tavern owners and trade names over the years, although at Nessun Dorma, we gave up after counting thirteen. For certain very old taverns, particularly those located in historic districts, the staff of the Historic Preservation Commission, also affiliated with the City Clerk, has been most kind and forthcoming with vital information. The City Clerk himself, Jim Owczarski, is a historian by nature and inclination, and he has helped straighten out certain tricky points and quirks of the licensing procedure. The staff of the License Division has also been of assistance when the occasional ambiguity in a tavern license is encountered. (Corner buildings often have more than one address.)

Another great source is the paper documents on file in the office of the City Assessor, as well as the property information on its computer that is only available at City Hall. A further bonus is its compendium of building photographs and old real estate advertisements. The online archives of the Wisconsin Historical Society‘s Architecture and History Inventory often provide information and old photographs of historic taverns. The UW-Milwaukee online collection of Sanborn Insurance Atlas maps of 1894 and 1910 is especially helpful in tracing the oldest taverns and their neighborhood context in a changing city.

Once armed with this data, a site visit is of course in order. This is done by bicycle, and to the extent possible, the visit is unannounced and anonymous. This gets a little bit challenging at times, especially when it comes to the matter of taking interior photographs. Only one tavern prohibited interior shots, and that turned out to be La Cage, the number one favorite. Go figure.

Once in the tavern, the focus is on the ambience of the place, especially as viewed through the prism of its history, its current clientele, and, poignantly, its likely future in a changing neighborhood. Baby Boomer’s was particularly instructive in that regard. Here, an old corner tavern located on an odd-shaped lot surrounded by factories and cottages, now finds itself located directly across the street from a new upscale apartment project, a sort of development not thought of just years earlier. How will it adjust? That’s something to ponder.

Time to settle down on a bar stool to drink it all in.

The Top 10 Bar Exams of 2017

There was a tie for #7 so there are 11 bar exams listed.

10. The Foundation

9. Lee’s Luxury Lounge

8. North Shore American Legion Post #331

7. (Tie): Vintage

7. (Tie): Bosco’s

6. Henry’s

5. Baby Boomer’s

4. Nessun Dorma

3. Bremen Cafe

2. Best Place at the Pabst Brewery

1. La Cage


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