If you had a chance to re-open the Brown Bottle Pub, located in Schlitz Park, which opened 76 years ago as the Schlitz Brewing Co. tasting room, could you do it without beer?
Executive chef Ben Hudson and his general manager Tony Keller aren’t foolish enough to try.
When the Brown Bottle Pub, 221 W. Galena St., swings its doors open again on Nov. 17 for lunch and happy hour -- dinner service begins on Dec. 1 -- it will feature a menu that nods at the venue’s beer-soaked roots.
"Be aware, if you don’t like beer, there’s a lot of beer in the recipes here," says Hudson, who studied and worked in Portland, Ore., before returning to Milwaukee where he’s worked the line at Bacchus. "We’re bringing Schlitz full force into the menu, into the bar, into this environment."
One of the signature items at the new Brown Bottle -- which preserves its old world charm, while gussying up the furniture and the lighting -- are Schlitz beer nuggets, little dough pillows served with a duo of dips.
"It’s a beer-infused pizza dough cut into nuggets, lightly fried and served with a beer-infused cheese sauce and a house made marinara," says Hudson. "This is one of our flagship items for bar bites, for late night snacks.
"I figure (we’ll) stick with some good choice beers, cheese, pizza dough."
But he’s quick to point out that not everything is fried and there’s not cheese and beer in everything.
"Cheese and beer’s a big influence on this menu, but not too much," he says. "We’re definitely trying to touch on light fare food. We want to put emphasis on healthy eating but also we are pub with history, so we can’t hide behind too many salads."
Six salads, a surprisingly light beer and cheese soup, a quartet of flatbreads on super crispy thin crusts and a quintet of burgers, including a veggie burger, join a range of sandwiches -- including an inventive and delicious kimchi reuben -- and some entrees like a salmon soba noodles bowl, herb spaetzel and roasted chicken breast.
Along with the veggie burger and the salads, there’s also a vegetarian flatbread. So, there’s a little something for most tastes. You can call it pub food, but definitely a lighter, more modern version.
"There’s kind of a soft touch on it," says Hudson. "It’s a very casual, approachable menu. We’re not taking it too far any which way. Keeping it old Milwaukee, somewhat classic. We’re going to stick with the history and heritage of this restaurant has, the clientele that has previously been here and then building with the younger professionals within this area."
The space itself still looks pretty much like the old Brown Bottle and that’s good. It’s a place rooted in history and it’d be a sin to tear it apart. Even Dean Cannestra knew that when he opened his Italian Libiamo restaurant in the space in 2005.
"The Brown Bottle was always here and was like a tourist stop for the brewery," says Gary Grunau, who owns the Schlitz Park complex.
Libiamo closed in 2012 and the building was vacant while a pair of adjacent structures were demolished last year to create a new plaza. When UMB Fund Services moved 300 employees into the building in July, the future of a new Brown Bottle was sealed, says Grunau.
"That’s when we got serious about re-opening the Brown Bottle," he says. "We basically kept the bones of it, kept the historic atmosphere of it, but we made it a little bit more contemporary in the lighting systems, in the plumbing systems, in the kitchen systems and everything else. So it’s taken about four or five months to remodel. There’s all new furnishings but it’s still got the historic theme."
Grunau hired Davians to operate the restaurant and it, in turn, hired Keller, who was the GM at Cafe Hollander in Tosa, and Hudson.
The restaurant will initially be open Monday-Friday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., but those hours will expand on Dec. 1 when dinner service is added.
"We look forward to many happy evenings in here again. It’s such a warm, comfortable place. We think it’s going to be a neat place to be in," says Grunau.
"We look for this being a neighborhood place; we’re a very strong neighborhood here at Schlitz and surrounding here with all the residential. And we also look for it to be a destination place. No matter who you talk to in town -- I’ve marveled about this over the last 30 years -- somebody either worked at Schlitz or had a relative that worked at Schlitz, but I can guarantee you today and even then, everybody’s been in the Brown Bottle."
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.