Behind the scene at Bryant's
Anyone who's been to Bryant's Cocktail Lounge, 1579 S. 9th St., knows the deal: there are more than 450 drinks available – all of them have names, some of them are on fire – and there aren't any menus.
Some return guests know exactly which cocktail they want. Maybe it's the Brain Buster or The Rat Pack or the Black Magic. However, first timers or those not sure what they're in the mood for rely on the server or bartender to provide options.
Hence, the ordering process requires guests to express what types of alcohol and flavors they like or don't like, and then the bartender rattles off their options. The servers and bartenders don't have menus either, so they have to remember hundreds of different drinks in order to come up with a suggestion dependent on the customers' dislikes or desires.
Bryant's has ice-cream drinks, tiki-inspired cocktails, classic cocktails and pre-Prohibition cocktails. Guests can also order based on color, strength or texture. For example, one might say, "I want something with raspberry and vodka" or "I like cucumbers" or "I want a drink with ice cream but not chocolate."
The servers and bartenders usually suggest the perfect drink or give a couple of appealing possibilities – or a customer can ask the bartender to surprise them. They will not, however, give away recipes.
Emily Chappelle has worked at Bryant's for four years, first as a server and then as a bartender.
"People usually need help figuring out what they want. They don't know what to do without a menu. Sometimes they say we used to have one, but we never did," says Chappelle.
Sometimes, it can take 10 minutes or more for a group to order drinks, and then the mixology magic begins behind the bar. Does Chappelle ever wish she worked in a beer-and-a-shot bar?
"Sure, sometimes when it's really busy, but I love making drinks," she says.
Leah Delaney has worked at Bryant's since October. She was recommended for the position by a friend, not because she had a lot of bartending experience, but because she has a background in theater and a lot of personality.
"This is not a position you'll find advertised on Craigslist," says Delaney. "It requires so much of the razzle and the dazzle."
Delaney says during her job interview with owner John Dye, he told her how special Bryant's was to him and that he always enjoys the time he spends there. She says Dye's enthusiasm sets the tone for the comfortable and fun environment.
To prepare for her first shift, Delaney poured over pages of drinks and drink recipes. She says learning all of the drinks is an ongoing process and is constantly evolving because the bartenders are always making up new ones.
"At the risk of sounding like a booze hound, if you work here you have to do a fair share of tasting so you know what you're serving," says Delaney.
Chappelle, for instance, has invented numerous drinks, including a bourbon-based drink called 96 Tears as well as Graveyard Whiskey and a sour gin drink called The Glamor Shot.
"If it's really dead, I'll play around with liquors and liqueurs and see what happens," says Chappelle.
Although Bryant's is famous for its massive, decadent drink selection, most people are as enamored by the atmosphere as they are by the cocktails.
Built in 1938, Bryant's is Milwaukee's oldest cocktail lounge, and everything is either original or has been restored with historic accuracy. The atmosphere includes cozy booths, ambient "Christmas" lighting and swanky music, from Sinatra to '70s soul.
"John is so careful about preserving the history. He loves every bit of this place," says Delaney.
The second-floor Velvet Lounge, which was added in 1968, is open on weekends after 9 p.m.
"People don't come here to grab a beer and chat, they come here for the experience," says Delaney. "It's like they're on a ride here. They sit down, 'fasten their seat belt' and wonder what's in store."
Because of the potency of some of the cocktails, Delaney's job as a server also requires her to monitor how much people are drinking. Bryant's has a two-drink-maximum policy on the super-boozy Mai Thai and the Brain Buster. (Customers who finish a Brain Buster get a "I got brain busted at Bryant's" bumper sticker.)
Plus, a lot of customers have already had drinks at other bars before ending the night at Bryant's. Miraculously, Delaney says she has never witnessed anyone get sick.
"This sounds like a great place to end the night because it's dark in here, so I really have to keep an eye out," she says. "Luckily, however, I was never in the restroom and mortified by the range of fruit flavors on the floor."
Bryant's has ranked multiple times in OnMilwaukee.com's Best Bars contest as one of the city's top places to have a secret rendezvous. The dim lighting and the secluded booths definitely make Bryant's a destination for lovebirds and sometimes Delaney has to gingerly remind couples that they're on display.
"We're big advocates of cuddling here," she says. "But sometimes cocktails create a 'magic screen' and couples think they're the only two people in the world and forget that we can see them feeling each other up."
During those times, Delaney says she walks by, checks in and "makes her presence known" which usually works.
To an extent, Delaney – who has a theater degree and is a founding member and media director of Ex-Fabula Storytelling Slams – is playing a part when she works at Bryant's. She finds fun, sometimes fancy, black clothing to wear at thrift stores and says her personality is determined by the table. If it's a feisty group that wants to interact, she'll sass it up, but if a couple is on an intimate date, she dials it back.
"Sometimes, I feel like I work at Ed Debevic's," she says. "This is a job that requires you to really, really like people. And I do."
Great owner. Amazing staff. A Milwaukee treasure.
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