Michael Horne
Bar Exam

Von Trier Revisited

East Side bar under new ownership, but maintains classic appeal.

By - Jun 21st, 2019 12:44 pm
East Side Week
Jim Haertel dressed as King Gambrinus. Photo by Michael Horne.

Jim Haertel dressed as King Gambrinus. Photo by Michael Horne.

In December, 2015, Von Trier underwent its first Bar Exam, which noted:

  • Its prominent location
  • Its vaguely 1950s supper club exterior
  • The overwhelming profusion of Teutonic artifacts found throughout

Nearly four years later the above remains a statement of fact:

  • Von Trier is one of six buildings (four bars, two banks) located at the heart of a busy commercial intersection where four streets converge at one point. A billboard atop the roof of the single-story structure is another hint to the prominence of the location
  • It was built as an upscale cocktail lounge in 1949
  • The interior with its numerous authentic German furnishings has remained in place since 1978.

In 2009 John Sidoff and his wife Cindy, owners since 1978 of the neighboring Hooligan’s, bought Von Trier, and carried on with business as usual, so we should not be surprised to see things much the same today.

But in fact, it is surprising: although Von Trier has maintained its look and ambience, there was a brief period — a very brief period — in the summer of 2017 when the Sidoffs considered revamping it as an upscale cocktail lounge.

After all, that is what the place was when Frank Rieder built it on the foundation of his family’s original tavern.

An Attempt to Change with a Changing East Side

Sidoff was aware of the changes underway in the evolving East Side business district, some of which, like the expansion and remodeling of Hooligan’s, he had instituted himself. German-themed taverns and restaurants had hardly been the vogue since Von Trier adopted the mode, and Sidoff watched as outposts of other former enemies like Vietnam and Japan established beachheads of their own in the area.

He saw young mixologists with handlebar moustaches muddling, stirring and shaking cocktails in crisp, clean and airy clubs that were more salon than saloon; where the customer was the decor in a sparse environment. And here he was, operating a cluttered cabinet of curiosities, abounding in nooks and crannies. What was he supposed to be doing? Running an easy-to-maintain bar? Or dusting off the antlers of a Cyril Colnik chandelier? He found out soon enough.

Neighbors Oppose Change

Sidoff’s apparently well-reasoned business decision took the community by storm. News outlets carried the story, while customers carried petitions opposing the change. The response was overwhelming: Keep it as it is!

In October, 2017, Sidoff announced that he would retain the original format, give the place a good scrubbing, add a full service kitchen, and enlist partners Wes Shaver and Mike Sorge of the Black Sheep to help run the joint. It reopened in January, 2018.

This May, John and Cindy Sidoff announced that they were selling the business to Mark Zierath, the owner of Jackson’s Blue Ribbon Pub, which is located on the grounds of the original Pabst brewery. Zierath was enthusiastic about the place and the format, and took the reins on May, 14th, at an event attended by the mayor, neighbors, many longtime customers, as well as the Sidoffs, who raised a “Prosit” to the past and future. The mayor tapped a keg of Hofbrauhaus-Freising Jaegerbier, and the party was on, including free “bier.” (See photo gallery below.)

In a statement, Zierath paid tribute to the previous owners, and to the format of the bar:

I could not be more excited to continue the tradition of Von Trier. I am so grateful to John and Cindy for this business opportunity. I also truly appreciate the decision they made to keep Von Trier as it is, an iconic German tavern on Milwaukee’s east side. I plan to make changes to the craft cocktail menu and food offerings by expanding the kitchen, but Von Trier will remain Von Trier as Milwaukeean’s have known it since 1978.

Among the celebrants was Jim Haertel, the owner of the original Pabst tour center, now operated as Best Place at the Pabst. He was dressed as King Gambrinus, and he ruled. This time, the Germans won.

The Tavern Today

From within, Von Trier is a calm outpost. Here, the busy street life outside is more sensed than seen. The light is filtered through the stained-and painted-glass windows, giving color and dimension to the chandeliers, plaques, beer steins, and the tons upon tons of Schmiedearbeiten executed by wrought iron workers, some now dead for centuries. The floor is made of quarry tile, deepening the already dark atmosphere, and adding to its warmth. A room to the side is a few steps down, and leads to another open room a few steps up. There are delights for the eye everywhere, especially for those seeking a relief from minimalist drinking, while not caring to be surrounded by the ersatz knicknacks of American brewers and distillers. This is a place to take visitors, if only to show them that such a place still exists.

The beer list is extensive, and it is unlikely one will encounter a larger selection of European beers on tap elsewhere in the area — or in Chicago, for that matter. The selection of beer glasses and steins ranges from tulips to boots, while the extensive wine list is served in light, thin glasses with a high center of gravity, balanced on slender stems, a counterpoint to the steins, which are hard enough to lift when nearly empty. And of course, the bartenders know how to muddle, shake and stir just like their counterparts toiling at their labors in less elaborate surroundings.

All in all, Von Trier’s offers a counterintuitive lesson about the evolution of the East Side, which incorporates the preservation of well-loved venues as well as the re-creation of old ones, as we see here.

For a complete history of the building’s history, see Bar Exam: Von Trier’s is a Teutonic Treasure, December 18th, 2015.

Additional Urban Milwaukee coverage of Von Trier’s, 2012-2019

On Tap - Sponsored by Lakefront Brewery

  • Andechser Doppelbock Dunkel
  • Ballast Point Sour Wench
  • Bell's Arabicadabra
  • Bitburger Pils
  • Delirium Tremens
  • Duchess De Bourgogne
  • Founders Backwoods Bastard
  • Früh Kölsch
  • Gentry's Own Rose Cider
  • Hacker Pschorr Weisse
  • Hofbräu Dunkel
  • Krombacher Dark
  • Krombacher Hell
  • Köstritzer Schwarzbier
  • Lakefront Riverwest Stein
  • Lindemann's Framboise
  • Mobcraft Vanilla Wafer Nitro
  • Paulaner
  • Salvator
  • Schneider Weisse Aventinus
  • Spaten Lager
  • St. Bernardus ABT 12
  • Three Floyd's Zombie Dust
  • Vitus
  • Warpigs Foggy Geezer
  • Weihenstephaner
  • Weihenstephaner Hefe Weiss
  • Weltenburger Kloster Barock Dunkel
  • Hofbrau Freising Jägerbier
  •  3 Sheeps Cashmere Hammer

Photo Gallery

The Verdict

  • Trade Name: Von Trier Tavern
  • Location: 2235 N. Farwell Ave., Milwaukee
  • Neighborhood: Lower East Side
  • Subdivision: Glidden & Lockwood’s Addition [1854]
  • Phone Number: 414-272-1775
  • Website: http://www.vontriers.com
  • Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/vontriermke Active
  • Twitter: @VonTrierMKE
  • Description: On a corner, but not a corner bar. Filled with many Teutonic artifacts, some Colnik ironwork and other delights.
  • Featured Drink: Draft beer from Germany.
  • Capacity: 153
  • Restrooms: 2 women’s; 1 water closet each, 2 men’s rooms; 1 urinal, 1 stall each.
  • Year Established: Built for Rieder’s in 1949. Long time tavern location on streetcar corner predates current structure. Opened as Von Trier’s in 1978; owned by John and Cindy Sidoff from December, 2009 to May, 2019; under current ownership since that time
  • Year Building Constructed: Building with corner rounded to accommodate streetcar constructed on foundation of old building 1949.
  • Estimated Annual Rent: In 2015: 4,163 square feet at $27.81/s.f.=$115,773 per annum according to City Assessor’s calculations. (This data is no longer readily accessible from recently updated assessment website operated by Patriot Properties, Inc. under contract with the City of Milwaukee.–Ed.). Tavern License application lists monthly rent of $6,500, or $78,000 per year
  • Property assessment: In 2015, it was $88,800 for the 4,438 square foot lot [$20.00/s.f.] and $471,200 for the 4,163-square-foot building for a total assessed valuation of $560,000. Taxes of $19,249.03 were paid in full. In 2019 the lot was valued at $133,100 [$30.00/s.f.] and the improvements at $503,900 for a total assessed valuation of $637,000. Taxes of $19,401.32 are current on the installment plan
  • Former tavern operator owns property through the North Farwell LLC holding company. Operator purchased building 11/03/2014 for $560,000.
  • Business: Tavern [70% of sales alcohol], Full Service Restaurant [20% sales food].
  • Property Owner: North Farwell, LLC. John L. Sidoff, Agent.
  • Business Owner: Black Gate, LLC. Mark A. Zierath [D.O.B. 11/15/1962], Registered Agent. Owns 100% of business. Also owns Jackson’s Blue Ribbon Pub, Milwaukee and Ella’s Public House, Genessee
  • Walk Score: 95 out of 100 “Walker’s Paradise.” Unchanged since 2015
  • Transit Score: 54 out of 100, “Good Transit.” A bit close to the lake to make the Walk score gods happy. Building was once on major streetcar routes, will be so again someday. Unchanged since 2015.
  • Games of Chance: None found.
  • Games of Skill: None found.
  • Aldermanic District: 3 Nik Kovac
  • Police District: 1
  • Bicycle Rack: Outside the door, more could be used.

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