Bryant's Cocktail Lounge has re-opened.
We'll let that soak in for a minute.
Previous owner Debbie Malmberg, who took over in 2005 after the death of her father, Carl, closed the iconic Milwaukee lounge after 45 years of service at 1579 S. 9th St. On July 8, new owner John Dye flipped the switch on the red neon "Open" sign for the first time in nine months and welcomed eager guests in to experience the revival.
Much to Dye's credit, the South Side favorite appears exactly the same. Save for a major scrub down, Dye has kept the retro real with ultra low lighting, velvet walls, classic tunes, attentive service and signature drinks found nowhere else in the city.
"We've kept it as close to authentic as possible," says Dye, who worked at the Hi-Hat Lounge for eight years before buying Bryant's early this year. "We're trying to revive what it was like in the '70s when it first opened (in its current form)."
He's restored, cleaned and tuned the original McIntosh stereo system, which fills the room with the Rat Pack, jazz and old soul songs.
"It probably sounds nearly identical to how it sounded when it was installed in 1971," he says.
As for changes, a loyal Bryant's customer is likely to notice the new staff. Since most of the former employees retired or got new jobs, Dye says he went with the next best thing: seasoned Milwaukee bartenders with a genuine appreciation for the classics.
The new crew includes Evan Barnes, Dylan McConaghy and Chad Doll, lounge professionals who perform mixology magic on all the Bryant's originals, including some drinks that haven't been offered for the last 20 years.
Whether bellied up to the bar or sharing a candle-lit corner booth, you'll find the quintessential sipping selections like the Brain Buster, the Black Magic, the Briar Patch and The Rat Pack, a drink Dye describes plainly as, "everything The Rat Pack drank."
That's the kind of answer you get when inquiring about the ingredients in a Bryant's libation. Upon purchasing the bar, Dye inherited literally hundreds of cocktail recipes from the previous owners and although the staff frequently references the teeming recipe Rolodex sitting behind the bar, Dye says there are even more that never got filed.
Traditionally, Bryant's has never had a printed menu and customers are encouraged to order by preferred flavor. "There is a liqueur for just about any flavor and if there's not, John is working on it," says bartender Barnes.
If pineapple is your fruit du jour, the only other decision you're responsible for is whether you want it as an ice cream drink (complete with spoon) or a crushed-ice concoction in a hurricane glass, both of which are between $7 and $8. A bartender then whips it up in a blur, maintaining the ongoing content mystery. What you get is a very large, very sweet, very alcoholic drink with a tiny umbrella. At this point, does it really matter what's in it?
"There are still some secrets, even among us," says Barnes. "There are some recipes that only John knows."
What Dye does plan to offer is a small, rotating menu comprised of a few old favorites, a series of ice cream drinks and selections from "the old list."
This, he says will help keep things fresh.
"We want to keep the whole name-a-flavor system because that's part of the charm," he says. "But we also want to bring a new selection to those people who are too timid to name a flavor. Even I found myself coming here and always ordering the same thing over the years. I think it will help people explore new things."
The bar has only been open for a little over a week, but already Dye says the momentum is building. A few passers-by have stopped in because they noticed the lights on. Another group was driving by "just for old time's sake" when they saw the open sign illuminated and immediately pulled over.
Milwaukee was clearly at a loss.
"I thought it was a surprise when it closed," Dye admits. He'd been a frequent patron of the lounge since moving to Milwaukee eight years ago. "I really thought it was going to re-open again in a few months but it just didn't. Now I'm just happy it's open again, whether I had anything to do with it or not."
OnMilwaukee.com staff writer Julie Lawrence grew up in Wauwatosa and has lived her whole life in the Milwaukee area.
As any “word nerd” can attest, you never know when inspiration will strike, so from a very early age Julie has rarely been seen sans pen and little notebook. At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee it seemed only natural that she major in journalism. When OnMilwaukee.com offered her an avenue to combine her writing and the city she knows and loves in late 2004, she knew it was meant to be. Around the office, she answers to a plethora of nicknames, including “Lar,” (short for “Larry,” which is short for “Lawrence”) as well as the mysteriously-sourced “Bill Murray.”