Michael Horne
Bar Exam

Top 10 Bar Exams of 2018

Most popular stories: neighborhood taverns, a gentleman’s club, a lesbian bar. And some surprises.

By - Dec 26th, 2018 05:27 pm
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Milwaukee Club, 706 N. Jefferson St. Photo by Michael Horne.

Milwaukee Club, 706 N. Jefferson St. Photo by Michael Horne.

During 2018, Bar Exam visited 22 establishments, mostly in the city of Milwaukee, and nearly all of them neighborhood spots, usually located in century-old buildings built as taverns. No other city in the nation boasts such a diverse array of remarkable and historic gathering spots.

You, the reader, responded by following these columns, and more than a few of you discovered for the first time places of unique culture and charm. The tavern keepers also responded, happy to see new customers.

With the exception of the Nomad Nacional, a pop-up bar themed to the World Cup, all of the taverns reviewed this year remain in business. This is no mean feat, considering the great changes underway in the demographics of both tavern owners (ma and pa are growing old) and of customers (will the young fill the bar stools vacated by their elders?).

Perhaps you might care to revisit in print, and maybe even in person, some of the Top Ten bars as chosen by their popularity among those published, listed below. But don’t bother with the readers’ most popular tavern, the Milwaukee Club, which is a members-only outfit generally averse to publicity.

Readers showed a preference for historic taverns, which suits this author perfectly well. There are many neighborhood taverns as yet unexplored in this column, and you are sure to see some of them featured in the upcoming year. During that time it is likely that a number of taverns will close, both old and new. Many new places will come and go before they are ripe enough for a visit. Such is life in a changing city.

Special thanks are due to the professionals on the staff of the City of Milwaukee Legislative Reference Library, the Historic Preservation Commission, the Development Center and the Assessor’s office. These departments have unique records that help bring out the story of Milwaukee’s taverns through the ages. The librarians happily bring forth heavy volumes of City Directories and other documents helpful in tracing the business histories of taverns. This gets tricky during Prohibition! The Historic Preservation Commission can often provide unexpected details of Milwaukee’s old taverns and their lore.

The Development Center holds microfiche files of permits applied for and issued for city buildings. Some of these files include tavern license applications, both successful and unsuccessful, and other tidbits. Of particular interest are applications for tavern signs, which were historically provided by brewers. It can be fascinating to see allegiances shift from Blatz to Schlitz to Miller to Gettelman, and so on over the years. These signs are becoming increasingly rare, although the fixtures remain, usually now boasting the name of the establishment.

Many of the older records are in cursive script, which, I have discovered, may as well be Cyrillic for a generation now in college, unacquainted with the format. The microfiche reader is likewise an unknown device to nearly everybody.

The Assessor’s office has paper files on the taxable real estate of the city. These folders, sorted by tax key number, can provide fascinating detail on taverns, including their evolution over the years. You can see property values rise and fall as the buildings weather the years, for better or worse. Assessor employees over the years stuff some of the files with news clippings and other ephemera, including in some instances vintage photographs. Their “Remarks,” can be quite revealing.

After visiting the places listed above, it’s off for a bicycle trip to the selected tavern for firsthand research, and to take some photographs. It’s time for a drink! Thanks also to Lakefront Brewery for sponsoring the “On Tap” portion of the column. I never know ahead of a visit which breweries have their products on tap, and you will find that Milwaukee taverns offer more varieties than ever before.

I also want to express my gratitude to various Facebook page administrators who have allowed me to post these stories on their sites when suitable. Primary among these is Adam Levin of Old Milwaukee. This juggernaut of a page is wildly popular and has brought much enlightenment to its followers, and thousands of page views to the Bar Exam. Historic Milwaukee Architecture is likewise a first-rate site, as is Old Eastsiders. Thanks also to Riverwest Neighborhood and The History of Gay Milwaukee for featuring columns of interest to their readers.

Thanks especially for your support of urban Milwaukee and its astounding tavern culture. As always, I welcome your comments and suggestions.

The Top 10 Bar Exams of 2017

10. Kochanski’s Concertina Bar

Milwaukee’s polka heritage remains intact in this old tavern on the South Side.

9. Walker’s Pint

This Walker’s Point tavern is expertly managed and is a popular neighborhood spot with a welcoming staff and customers. Its beer garden shows what can be done in a small space in a densely populated area.

8. Vegga’s Pub

This Riverwest bar has gone through many iterations and is one of the sole survivors among the taverns of E. Wright St., which was once loaded with them.

7. Toni’s Moody Blues

This Bay View beauty is a classic Milwaukee tavern, spotless, friendly and family. It is an extra-domiciliary living room.

6. Boone & Crockett

Bar Exam never visited the original Boone & Crockett, located in Bay View, but was waiting in line when it reopened in this magnificent riverside remnant of Milwaukee’s early manufacturing days.

5. The Tavern at Turner Hall

This bar on the first floor of the Historic Milwaukee Turner Hall is just down the street from the Fiserv Forum, which will draw business. It is also located across the street from the under-demolition Bradley Center, which brought it no business. Go figure.

4. Ollie’s

Ollie’s is a small slice-of-the-past neighborhood tavern in a rapidly changing area. It is likely for sale, and has a more prominent location than you might think at first.

3. Hooligan’s

This East Side “Super Bar” has evolved from a single story to two on its busy and prominent corner.

2. The Speakeasy

This Bayside basement drinking spot is one of the few confirmed instances of a building built as a bar but masquerading as a home. The building was threatened in a proposed development, for now withdrawn.

1. The Milwaukee Club

This storied institution is a members-only club of great history and tradition. We managed to get in.

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