After a quiet soft opening last week, the historic Brown Bottle has officially reopened its doors to the public at 221 W. Galena St. in the Schlitz Park complex.
Guests who pay a visit for lunch or dinner will find not only a refreshed drink list, but a food menu that offers a nod to history while catering to the modern diner with a wide variety of dishes, including vegetarian and gluten-free options. And yes, there's a Friday night fish fry, complete with Schlitz-battered fish and housemade potato pancakes.
A fascinating history
The restaurant, which celebrated its 80th anniversary in 2018, has a history that dates back to 1938 when it served as a gathering place and tasting room for visitors who came to tour Schlitz, the brewery that “made Milwaukee famous.”
Schlitz was founded in 1849, following closely on the heels of the just Pabst Brewery, which opened its doors in 1836. In its heyday, Schlitz was the biggest beer distributor in the country. But, as the decades passed, multiple union strikes and changes made to the beer’s decades-old recipe, caused the brewery to fall from its former grace.
In 1982, when Stroh Brewing purchased Schlitz, the venue reopened as a tavern and restaurant called Brown Bottle, which operated without interruption for 20 years.
Interestingly, the restaurant was named to pay homage to one of Schlitz’s contributions to brewing history: the brown bottle. Traditionally, beer had been bottled in clear glass. But Schlitz decided to set their beer apart, bottling it in brown-stained glass. Not only was it a market differentiator, it preserved the beer inside the bottle by protecting it from exposure to light, a factor which gave it a longer shelf life. Following Schlitz’s bold move, brown bottles became the industry standard.
Between 2004 and 2012, the tavern was rebranded as Libiamo, an Italian restaurant. But in 2014, it was reclaimed and brought back to life as part of Schlitz Park’s Stock-House renovation. From there, it operated for five more years before closing in March of 2019.
Now, the restaurant is being brought back to life by F Street Hospitality (operators of Pizza Man, Bottle House 42 and Timmer’s Resort in West Bend), who hope to bring new life to the space in 2021.
What to expect
Among the charms of Brown Bottle is its speakeasy-like setting. Located just off of Galena Street, it’s tucked away off of Martin Luther King Drive, making it feel like a hidden gem waiting to be discovered.
Inside, the bar and restaurant’s decor hearken to the past with details like antler-laden chandeliers, rustic wooden paneling, unique stained glass and a classic old school bar. Meanwhile, there’s also plenty of outdoor seating on the restaurant’s paved patio overlooking the historic Schlitz complex.
“We chose to do very few renovations and updates to the building,” notes Kaelyn Cervero, vice president of F Street Hospitality. “Part of its charm is the history shown here, including the original wooden wall and door carvings, the bar, and pictures of celebrities who visited the brewery throughout the decades.”
At the bar, guests will still find Schlitz beer on tap, and the old Schlitz logo appears in various places throughout the bar. But they will also find an impressive cocktail menu featuring both classic cocktails and creative riffs, all made with housemade syrups and locally made bitters.
Guests will also find lots of “brown bottles,” thanks to the venue’s growing whiskey collection.
Meanwhile, the food menu pays homage to the décor and heritage in the space, while catering to the modern diner with a mix of light appetizers, filling entrees and a slew of gluten-free and vegetarian options.
Among the options, guests will find starters like crispy brussels sprouts seasoned with herbs, local honey, shishito peppers and crushed cashews ($8); wild boar meatballs with guajillo tomato sauce, pepitas and manchego cheese ($10); and mussels prepared with Scotch and leek cream sauce doppled with fennel, tarragon and double smoked bacon ($17).
Salads include seasonal selections like bibb lettuce with peaches, guanciale and miso vinaigrette ($12); and a brussels sprout Caesar salad with romaine, shaved brussels sprouts, crostini and creamy garlic dressing ($10).
Among the sandwiches is a crispy mushroom reuben with roasted cremini and oyster mushrooms, gruyere, housemade brussels-kraut and Russian dressing ($12); an Excalope salmon sandwich with grilled salmon, boursin, pickled onions, tomato and arugula ($15) and two burgers including the Manchego burger topped with manchego, serrano tomato jam, caramelized onions, charred green onion aioli and bibb lettuce ($14).
Entrees include hangar steak with chimichurri, seasonal vegetables and smashed Yukon potatoes ($27); scallops with sweet corn succotash, spicy tomato sauce, guanciale and arugula ($34); and a heritage bone-in double pork chop served atop creamy polenta with roasted mushrooms, black garlic and brussels sprouts ($29).
And yes, the Brown Bottle Friday Fish fry is back featuring Schlitz battered perch or cod served alongside house made potato pancakes and applesauce ($16). View the full menu at brownbottlewi.com.
Brown Bottle is open Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Happy hour takes place on weekdays from 3 to 6 p.m., featuring $6 sangria and select wines. Free parking is available in the lot adjacent to the restaurant along Galena Street.
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.