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Is it a bar serving food or a restaurant serving liquor? A question without a solid answer, there’s good reason to waffle over the fuzzy stipulations separating restaurants and bars.
But if an establishment mixes cocktails well into late night hours and pulls drafts for a regular drinking crowd, by all standards there’s good reason to categorize it as a bar even if it is filling your belly while refreshing your glass.
From greasy grub to full "book-style menus," Milwaukee’s bar food is diverse and plentiful. In the last 10 years, full in-house kitchens or make-shift food options have come to be expected at bars; permitting drinkers to savor in a copious variety of menu styles, culinary blends and late-night service hours.
However, with all the new options available in the few years, the term "bar food" lacks the precise designation it once carried. "Bar food" is now a broad descriptor for a dining segment becoming more and more varied.
So, to clarify this ever important distinction, here’s a little breakdown to steer you through the maze of beefy burgers, scrumptious salads and faux-fried appetizers each owning a position on the "bar food" menu.
Classic Greasy Grub
Traditionally, "Bar food" is the classic burger and fries.
And to some extent, when you call on a "bar food" meal, it’s what you should be expecting. The short, limited menu of burgers, fries, chicken sandwiches and a Friday fish fry are commonplace in smaller towns and can still be found in a handful of Milwaukee establishments.
Sobelman’s Bar and Grill, Miss Katie’s Diner and Steve’s on Bluemound each serve a limited menu focused on deep fried eats and meaty entrees.
"I’ve had the majority of the menu for the full 10 years I’ve been in business. We do have more appetizers than we did 10 years ago when I opened but that’s because the business has grown and we can offer more," says Dave Sobelman, owner of Sobelman’s Bar and Grill, 1900 W. St. Paul Ave.
Sobelman’s is a successful purveyor of a dying breed. The disappearance of solely greasy grub is the outcome of not increased demand of food but an increased demand for selection. Bars serving classic burgers and fries have been forced to up the number of menu options explicitly to please an ever diversifying patronage.
"I’ve never felt a pressure to add more options. Some places offer everything from steaks to lamb to ethnic foods and salads; when you do that many things, some of your product suffers and you don’t really master one thing. I don’t want to do anything half-assed. I tried to do Reuben’s but when I realized I couldn’t, they were off the menu in two weeks. If I can’t do it right, I don’t want to do it," Sobelman says.
The full-option menu
Bars, once serving only greasy grub have evolved to offer pages upon pages of options for diners.
This category of bar food is different from others precisely because it encompasses all the others. Places like Hooligan’s Bar and Grill, Leff’s Luckytown and Flannery’s Bar and Grill offer the standard burgers and fries but have created long menus to include salads, sandwiches, soups, appetizers and wraps.
"We want to try to appease everybody. 17-20 years ago we only served hot dogs but then people wanted more selection. We are probably one of the first places still around to do a full, long menu," says Mark Buesing, manager at Hooligan’s Bar and Grill, 2017 E. North Ave.
These spots aim to please them all; menus typically feature a mixture of Mexican and American entrees, healthier options and specialized in-house tweaks for customary wings, mozzarella marinara and chicken breast sandwiches.
"The owners created our current menu and it’s kind of to please a variety of different people; this way we can cover the spectrum of what everybody wants. It’s honestly scaled down from what we used to have and given the economy, it’s been helpful to remove items that aren’t selling so hot," says Missy Birkholz, manager of Flannery’s Bar and Grill, 425 E. Wells St.
One menu item: frozen pizza
When the menu is scaled completely back but food isn’t cut out entirely, you find the single menu item of frozen pizza. Places like Foundation, Art Bar and Up and Under, each without a full kitchen, "specialize" in frozen pizza straight from the package to the pizza oven to your bar top.
"Our pizzas come from Dino’s in Racine; they sell more of our signature "Foundation" pizza than any other pizza. It’s a zesty garlic, romano and mozzarella cheese with herbs. We’ve found we don’t really need more food than that," says Ron Schneider, bartender at Foundation, 2718 N. Bremen St.
Specialized bar cuisine
Bars with themes: Irish, British, Chinese rightfully tip their menu toward the applicable ethnic influence.
The rise of vegetarian and vegan options in the last couple of years also brings a specialty to the bar food culture. The Palomino and Stonefly Brewery both contentiously consider the vegetarian drinker and offer meat substitutions thus bridging the gap between grease cravers and meatless eaters.
Despite keeping the same objective in mind, these two bars do things a bit differently. Stonefly offers a menu chocked full of fresh ingredients, healthy options and grease free foods.
Conversely, Palomino offers everything fried from unusual pickles and faux-wings to classic onions strings and fish fry. Oh, but there’s pure bar food comfort in those tator tots.
"We started serving food about two years. We’re located in Riverwest so there’s a great demand for vegan and vegetarian options. We try to keep an upscale menu; it’s basically we’re just giving the people what they want," says Jamie Franzen, kitchen manager at Stonefly Brewery, 735 E. Center St.
The "bar food" culture -- here to stay
Regardless of how you serve it up, bar food is an aspect of dining culture here to stay.
For service industry employees, second shift workers or drinkers with late night munchies, the "late night menu" is golden. Weekly specials like Wicked Hop’s "Burger Madness," Slim’s "$2 tacos," and Elsa’s "Gary Stein Chicken Monday menu" are weekly rituals for hoards of diners looking for a meal on the cheap.
"I’ve known that if you can get a person in and out of a bar for $10 -- beer or soda, burger and tip -- it’s a good deal. And it’s a really good idea right now," Sobelman says.
OnMilwaukee.com staff writer Maureen Post grew up in Wauwatosa. A lover of international and urban culture, Maureen received a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
After living on the east side of Madison for several years, Maureen returned to Milwaukee in 2006.
After a brief stint of travel, Maureen joined OnMilwaukee.com as the city’s oldest intern and has been hooked ever since. Combining her three key infatuations, Milwaukee’s great music, incredible food and inspiring art (and yes, in that order), Maureen’s job just about fits her perfectly.
Residing in Bay View, Maureen vehemently believes the city can become fresh and new with a simple move across town.