If your definition of bar food consists of greasy burgers, frozen pizzas and a deep fryer dishing up battered cheese curds, well, you won't have much problem finding dinner in Milwaukee.
But if you're looking for something different, perhaps even healthy, to go with your High Life, several area bars offer options that range from vegan to eclectic to gourmet.
Still, with new options springing up all over, it's the old-standbys that sometimes actually sell the best. But there's an evolution of bar food taking place in Brew City; that is, bar owners who find that customers want better-than-average fare when they're tying one on.
Take Scott Johnson's Palomino, 2491 S. Superior St., in Bay View. The popular corner bar serves up greasy fare like chicken fried steak and deep-fried pickles that'll coat your stomach during a long night on the town. But it also offers vegan riblets, hushpuppies and po' boy sandwiches -- not the kind of food you imagine gobbling down while watching a Packers game.
"We tried to do something a little bit new, but not too new," says Johnson. "There's this pull between wanting to be super creative, crazy, totally out there, and selling food items that will actually sell."
Then there's The Wicked Hop, 345 N. Broadway, which must compete with an ever-increasingly sophisticated Dowtown bar scene. Situated on the north end of the Historic Third Ward, owner Myles O'Neil says he understands the need to differentiate himself from the competition by offering a diverse menu, including wraps, salads and fire-grilled Angus beef burgers.
"We're not a corner bar in the traditional sense. Being in the Third Ward, it changes the dimensions a bit about what do with the menu," says O'Neil. "We gravitated toward something that is relatively simple, but provocative, as well."
Or you could go an entirely different route with 4th Base, a gourmet (yes, gourmet) sports bar at 5117 W. National Ave. in West Milwaukee. There, you won't even find a menu. You simply request anything you can imagine, made to order. That includes steak or lobster, a gigantic farmer's omelet or a simple burger and fries before heading to nearby Miller Park.
"There's a menu, it's just not printed," says owner Daryl Scholl. "Whatever we've got, we'll make for you. It just sort of evolved. We just started adding different items, and we thought if we had to print a menu, it would be endless, because it would be as long as your imagination."
4th Base, which Scholl opened in 1980, has perhaps unfairly earned a reputation by some as being outrageously expensive. But that may be because, without a menu, people forget to ask what an item costs. That, and they're usually enjoying several well-made cocktails with their meal -- which naturally drives up the cost of the bill.
A top-quality 8-oz. filet of beef, for example, costs $22. "Everything has a set price," says Scholl. "But to alleviate that sort of question coming up at all, I should probably come out with a menu, to be honest with you."
"Yeah, but a lot of people don't like that, either," says Johnson.
"Of course it would've been easier, absolutely," says O'Neil. "I don't know if we would stand out above the crowd as much."
Says Scholl, "I think there's a wide rainbow of expectations, and there are places that fill the expectations of all people. A lot of people expect poppers and burgers, and there are places that do that well."
Planning the perfect bar menu
Neither Johnson nor O'Neil say they gave much thought to pairing specific foods to their drinking patrons.
"When I'm planning a menu (I) just think about the setting and what people are thinking about eating in general and right now. That's why you see macaroni and cheese and sliders on every menu from bar food to wine bars," says Johnson.
Says O'Neil, "We just brought on a new entrée called the 'Black Magic Marinated Bistro Steak.' It's a hanger steak marinated in Guinness beer and finished with a Guinness-inspired demi-glace. It's food and drink, I suppose, but you'd have to eat a lot of them to get a buzz."
Johnson, whose menus run the gamut, says he doesn't necessarily see a trend moving toward more healthy bar food, but his vegan and vegetarian food have been extremely popular.
"Vegan stuff has worked really well for us, and we had no idea that it would take off as much," he says. "I'm not a vegan -- we really did it because many of our employees are vegans, and they were begging us to do it. I was skeptical, but if it works, we'll keep it."
Back to basics?
Considering the scope of his menu, it's ironic that Johnson's most popular item at the Palomino is the chicken sandwich, though the hushpuppies -- he doesn't know of another bar that sells them -- does really well, too.
Says Johnson, "We would love it if we could sell more ribs or vegan riblets or chicken fried steak -- that's what we anticipated -- but we sell a lot more burgers and chicken sandwiches.
"It's funny because people will say, 'I totally love your fried chicken and I always get it,' but we sell like three or four orders a week. It's true, it's really good, but we don't sell that much of it."
Same goes for 4th Base, where with a nearly endless menu, people could eat anything -- but it's the burgers that are still the big draw.
"Our signature meal is burgers and fries," says Scholl. "They're good. For $6.50 for a cheeseburger and $4 for a basket of fries, you can have a nice meal."
O'Neil says he tries to strike a balance between the different genres of cuisine.
"We've got a lot of restaurants that cater to a higher crowd of eating," says O'Neil. "Our niche is right in the middle. We try to decorate it a little with our service and try to be a little funkier and more down to earth.
"We added a spicy bean veggie burger, but our real bread winner are burgers, nachos and provolone sticks, beer battered and deep fried.
"You can have your half-pound Angus cheeseburger and eat it, too," he says.
Andy is the founder and co-owner of OnMilwaukee.com. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.
Before launching OnMilwaukee.com in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.
Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.