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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Monday, July 28, 2014

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In Bars & Clubs

When he's not tending bar, Tom Momberg is working on his journalism chops.

Featured bartender: This Is It's Tom Momberg


"Bar Month" at OnMilwaukee.com is back for another round – brought to you by Aperol, Pinnacle, Jameson, Fireball, Red Stag and Avion. The whole month of February, we're serving up intoxicatingly fun articles on bars and clubs – including guides, the latest trends, bar reviews and more. Grab a designated driver and dive in!

It wasn't a usual Monday night at This Is It, 418 E. Wells. St., when I popped in for a featured bartender interview. I expected it to be fairly dead, with maybe a scattering of barflies grabbing a quick drink to close out a rainy Monday.

Much to my surprise, however, most of the seats at the bar were filled. Apparently, the crowd was there for the new episode of "RuPaul's Drag Race" – shown on both of the bar's two TVs – and the ensuing drink specials.

Thankfully, bartender Tom Momberg found some time to take questions about working at a gay bar, drinks, motorcycles and killing off the bar's hideous carpet – found on both the ground and the walls.

OnMilwaukee.com: Are you a Milwaukee native?

Tom Momberg: Yeah, I am. I was born here. I grew up a little bit on the East Coast in Winston-Salem; that's where a lot of family still lives. But my parents ultimately came back here, and I went to high school in Oak Creek and went straight into UWM from there.

OMC: And you're a journalism senior at UWM?

TM: Actually a double major in journalism and philosophy with a broadcast focus. I'll be graduating in December.

OMC: Congratulations. What is the goal with all of that?

TM: I want to write. I want to travel. I want to see new faces. I just think that bartending and journalism a lot of times go hand in hand. It's the interpersonal skills that people gain that are universally nice. I just love people, and I want to continue my life. I don't want to stay in Milwaukee forever.

OMC: If you could pick one place that you could go, where would it be?

TM: Scotland. I'd love to tour some distilleries.

OMC: What journalist do you want to strive to be like?

TM: Well, I can tell you that I've read pretty much everything by Hunter S. Thompson. Maybe a bad example of a role model, but I really respect his writing and his voice.

OMC: So you say bartending and journalism go hand in hand. Would you say this job has been more informative than some of your classes?

TM: I guess in finding a way to connect to someone and keeping that through a conversation. I think that's important in journalism, your image and your pathos appeal, as you might say. I wouldn't say that I've learned more from doing this – I mean, it's a gay bar.

Even growing up, I was never really all that comfortable. I am gay, and it took me a while to come out. All of my friends were straight, but it was always fun finding a way to relate to people and entertaining different notions that you share in common.

OMC: Do you notice or tell when straight people come in?

TM: Sometimes it's pretty noticeable, but the fun thing about the bar is that it's really inclusive toward anybody. I mean, we have drag queens come in here every once and a while, but it's not a drag bar. That's what I like about it; it's not completely over the edge. We accept everyone. By the nature of our location, we'll get a lot of service people from Louise's and Rock Bottom Brewery after they get off of their shifts – gay, straight, doesn't matter.

OMC: Does it ever annoy you when straight people come in as tourists essentially?

TM: Definitely not. I think some people feel a bit out of their comfort zone, but we do a good job of trying to get people interacting and including them in conversations.

OMC: Is it hard to convince straight people that this isn't a stereotypical gay bar?

TM: I don't know if I've ever had to really convince anyone. I think you just have to be here to experience it. I mean, we've had some weird crowds; it happens … quite a bit, but it's a constant influx of different people.

OMC: What's the weirdest crowd you can think of?

TM: Oh, we've had just messes. At bar close last week, we had to carry a drag queen out of here with her heels off because she was passed out over the bar. And I wouldn't have served her had I known she was that bad already, but with all of the makeup, it's hard to tell!

OMC: So besides journalism, what are your hobbies?

TM: Well, I love the outdoors. I'm a backpacker, camper, rock climber and a survivalist. I just love being outside, going on extended hiking trips. I'm a hunter. I really love guns. I grew up with my dad, and he influenced me with a lot of those things. He got me riding motorcycles at a really young age. I actually sold my car this last fall, so now I've got two motorcycles but not a car.

OMC: What are the two models?

TM: They're older bikes. I've got an old café-style racer, a Suzuki GS550, and I also own a Kawasaki GPz750, which was a premier sports bike for its time in the '80s.

OMC: That was all like brain surgery to me. I've never had the stones to get on a motorcycle.

TM: I mean, my dad taught me how to drive stick shift when I was like 10, and I had ridden on ATVs and dirt bikes prior to that. Once I got on a bike, it just kind of felt like a second home. When I hop on a bike, I get away from my parents and my significant other, and just put it all behind me.

OMC: Do you get hit on a lot here?

TM: Surprisingly, women hit on me here just as much as men. I find that astonishing. I'm just always like, "You know this is a gay bar," and they're like, "Yeah, but I didn't think you're gay!" But it's fun.

OMC: What is your favorite drink to make for others?

TM: I can make a lot of things. I probably make more extravagant drinks for myself. My favorite drink is the one I'm drinking right now: a rye Manhattan. I'm a whiskey guy … and beer.

OMC: If you were showing off, what drink would you make?

TM: I would make a James Bond martini. We don't have Gordon's here, so that makes it difficult. But Stoli is better than Gordon's. What I always like to suggest to people with my favorite drink to make as a martini – a vodka or gin martini – is I like to swirl the glass with some good grade scotch. You swirl the glass and then empty it. It just leaves that little bit of a smoky heat aftertaste on a gin martini, but it's not overpowering.

OMC: How long have you been bartending?

TM: Four months.

OMC: Really?

TM: I grew up pouring my dad drinks when I was 6, as bad as that sounds.

OMC: What was the biggest learning curve for starting bartending?

TM: There was no learning curve. For me, working in a restaurant was a lot more challenging – putting things together at a fast pace, making sure everything goes out in order. But what I felt was lacking in the kitchen was the kind of social experiences that I get out here. I mean, we're probably the busiest gay bar Sunday through Thursday night.

OMC: Why do you think that is?

TM: Surprisingly, despite this crappy atmosphere, people really like this place.

OMC: What would you do to remodel this place?

TM: Where do I start? First of all, there's about eight feet of space between this drop ceiling and the Bar Association's floor. So I would raise that up. Definitely take out the carpet and the carpeted walls.

OMC: How about the front entrance? Because it's pretty hidden, and you have to kind of seek this place out. Is that a part of the allure?

TM: I think so. Actually, there used to not be a front door here. I mean, now we have a flag outside as our sign and the colored brick to identify where we are. But a lot of people like the fact that we're like a little hidden gem here in Milwaukee.


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