The story of Goldilocks is pretty well known. A little blond girl breaks into a house owned by a family of anthropomorphic bears and proceeds to jack up their chairs, porridge and beds while they're out doing, I don't know, bear stuff.
Now, instead of being a cute little fairy tale girl with no respect for property, what if Goldilocks had some sense and happened to be just a little bit of a lush? Well, that'd be me.
In similar enterprising fashion, I've decided to explore every bar, pub, lounge and dive Milwaukee has to offer – in sets of three, just to be cute. The only difference is, I'm too much of a taste chameleon to ever find one that's "just right."
The structure is simple: each installment will feature a trio of bars, grouped together by whatever uniting characteristic I come up with. I'll go out and report back on the highs and lows of the drinks, bartenders, bathrooms ... whatever catches my eye.
To kick this adventure off right, I figured it was only fitting to embark with a toast. Thus, I decided to fancy things up with stops at Balzac, Cuvee and Indulge.
Balzac, 1716 N. Arlington Pl.
My "magical sidekick" Jessie (her words, not mine) and I got things started on the East Side with an afternoon drink at Balzac, 1716 N. Arlington Place. I won't lie – most of the way there we were making jokes about the wine bar's name, which, for the record, is an homage to French writer Honore de Balzac. Coincidentally, it's also the name of a horror-punk band out of Japan – I got this lovely tidbit of trivia after asking the bartender why the bar computer had a Hello Kitty screensaver. I always suspected that cat had a dark side.
Their sinister musical counterpart was as dark as Balzac got, though. During the time it took Jessie and I to finish our wine (a German Riesling and pinot grigio, respectively, if you were curious) the place slowly filled with a healthy crowd of chatty regulars taking advantage of some early dining and the happy hour special – half off everything except wine bottles. Balzac calls it the Best East Side Happy Hour, which may or may not be true, but 50 percent off is pretty fantastic either way, considering the impressive wine and liquor selection.
Before we continued on our inaugural adventure, I couldn't help but gaze wistfully back at the patio, which looked just as upscale/relaxing as the bar itself. Drinking inside was a fine consolation prize, though, since a) there was air conditioning, and b) the indoor décor was just as nice (and included a chandelier). Plus, it included carpeting, something I didn't even register until I realized my bar chair wasn't making a hideous dragging-over-hardwood noise when I scooted it out to leave. I don't like bars less for not keeping chair noise in check, but I'm always a fan of details that help me avoid being a distracticus rex to other people.
Indulge, 708 N. Milwaukee St.
Further south, Indulge on Milwaukee Street, greeted us with a completely different atmosphere. For starters, I walked in and immediately felt underdressed. It was nothing a nicer shirt wouldn't fix and it didn't get me any weird looks, but t-shirts can't hold their own here.
Rather unassuming from the street, Indulge's interior is swimming in elegance, from the dark wood furniture and candle lighting to their ample wine selection and decadent chocolates, cheeses and meats.
My own reservations about feeling out of place aside, everything about the bar was welcoming. Our server/bartender was friendly, but the menu was downright flattering. Instead of simply listing the bar's offerings, it lists off each wine with enough detail to allow anyone ordering to not only pinpoint the perfect drink, but also feel like a pro while doing it. On top of that, each wine category has its own saucy designation – "flirty" Rieslings or pinots, for example, or "voluptuous" cabernet sauvignons and merlots.
I tweaked my "one and done" rule to include ordering a blueberry tea chocolate truffle with my almond prosecco, both of which tasted like absolute heaven (not 100 percent accurate given that I've never actually licked the pearly gates, but I think it's a fair approximation).
The only real letdown of the second leg of our bar trio was the backroom bathroom. A place with such an intimate aesthetic ought to have a setup that doesn't include fluorescent lighting and a "peeing in a gas station restroom" vibe, as Jessie so aptly observed. It totally took us both out of the ambience, and made it really hard to see my way back through the bar while my eyes were readjusting to the low lighting.
Cuvee, 177 N. Broadway
Adjusting to daylight after leaving Indulge was easier, since it was getting later as Jessie and I made our way to the Third Ward for our finale stop at Cuvee. Finding the well-known champagne lounge might pose a little trouble for the uninitiated since signage is kind of modest, but it's not hard to find if you're looking for it.
Located on the third floor of 177 N. Broadway, Cuvee does a lot of private wedding work, so Jessie and I were lucky we decided to go on a weekday. Anyone who gets it into their head to swing by should definitely check ahead, though, so you don't wind up wedding crashing, which isn't nearly as entertaining as Hollywood makes it look.
Another perk of weekday night drinking is the specials. People (myself previously included) have a misconception that hoity-toity upscale places like wine and champagne bars charge the equivalent of a person's first-born son just to get a nice moscato. Not at all true. They're not your $2 Miller Lites, but glasses average around $8-$10. And, they're meant to be enjoyed, not dumped into a beer bong, so it's not like you're ordering a refill every 15 minutes.
Cuvee didn't have any posted specials, but a quick inquiry with the bartender got us a list of house-made champagne cocktails on special that were a steal. My choice, the Belle Fleur, had a candied hibiscus in the base of the glass. After checking with the bartender that it was in fact edible, I pulled off a petal and decided that eating flowers wasn't for me. I don't know if Jessie liked it or just didn't want to waste it, but the rest went to her.
Another bonus of off-hour drinking is fewer crowds. After ordering at the bar, we migrated windowside to one of the loungier, cushioned side booths. The view over Broadway isn't stellar, but the wall of windows provides great natural lighting. A balance between Balzac's cool casual atmosphere and the elegant feel of Indulge, Cuvee was upscale yet comfortable – like drinking at your rich friend's loft apartment. Like a lot of the Ward, the open space prominently factors exposed Cream City brick into their concept.
As an added touch, the bar also offers order-in service from Rustico and SPiN in addition to their own artisan trays. Needless to say, I couldn't pass that up, so we stayed for another round, bellinis, and ordered up a Margherita pizza to cap off a "fairy tale" (I had to, and I'm not sorry) evening.
If you've made it this far, congratulations. Interested in future Goldilocks and the Three Bars adventures? Stay tuned here, or follow me on Twitter @Eenergee for real-time pictures and commentary. And if you want me to drink at your favorite bar, that's what Talkbacks and @Mentions are for.
Well done. I especially appreciate the restroom review.
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