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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, July 24, 2014

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National Liquor Bar overflows with authenticity


The National Liquor Bar on 26th and National, in the shadow of the Mitchell Park Domes, is, and has been for decades, a perfect example of unfiltered Milwaukee. Under the large retro-Americana sign of a bottle pouring relief, you may relax in one of the most unforced, authentic, pure neighborhood bars in the city. You can drink and do nothing for a considerable while, and get out with only slight damage done to your wallet.

On a recent Friday night, we found The National Liquor Bar to be an oasis from all stress. The jukebox is to die for -- we listened to Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Webb Pierce, Roy Orbison, George Jones, Bruce Springsteen, and, to shift gears, Stevie Nicks, of all people, while watching the Brewers on one of the seven overhead color televisions. This music had the desired, unwinding effect at the end of a work week. We observed black, white and Latino patrons, all of whom were middle-aged or older, in particularly jolly, boisterous moods, coexisting as harmoniously as the Budweiser and Miller products on tap -- for prices ranging from $1 to $2.

Bottled beers cost a mere $2.25. Glasses of Jack Daniels, Jim Beam, J & B Scotch, and, for the yuppie stragglers, Chivas Regal and Canadian Club, were all available, at prices ranging from $2 to $3.75.

To the intonations of Mr. Haggard we lit up Dutch Masters cigars, available at the bar, and ordered up jalapeno poppers and mozzarella sticks. We could have ordered hamburgers, brats, onion rings, chili dogs, popcorn and more. The poppers and cheese sticks were entirely satisfactory.

The bar is spacious, well-populated but not dense, and apparently well-ventilated enough, so it was not smoky or acrid despite the presence of half a dozen smokers. We drank Michelob and chatted with the barmaid, who informed us, inaccurately, that the bar is "over 100 years old."

It is not that old. Owner Mike Cmeyla informed us that the building was built in 1939, and he has owned it since 1981.

Above The National Liquor Bar is what looks like an old-fashioned tin ceiling. Upon close inspection, we discovered it's made of concrete. Still, with the impression of tin, and with the blonde wood paneling on most of the walls of the bar, the ambience is a bit like a saloon from old Milwaukee.

Back again on a Sunday afternoon, we found faces familiar from Friday night glued to the Packers game. Again, the patrons were boisterous, punctuating conversations with much joking and laughter.

The dress code is non-existent. The standards of decorum require that you slow down and relax. The bar is a long and large circle around the barmaids, who were hustling beneath the televisions, stopping to glance up themselves at the football action, cigarettes dangling from their mouths. To the left is a short-order kitchen, source of the bar food, and further down from there is a liquor store contained within the bar, where you can buy six-packs and bottles, also cigarettes.

When we went out to the convenient rear parking lot, as we got into our car, we heard one last loud burst of laughter coming from the bar. The regulars were thoroughly gladdened.

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