Editors' note: This is another installment in a series written by Dave Mikolajek, a longtime bartender and friend of OnMilwaukee.com. Once a month, Mikolajek -- aka "College Dave" -- gathers a group of friends and embarks on an evening pub crawl to three local establishments, focusing much of his attention on smaller places that are a bit "off the radar" and don't get a lot of attention.
Some of my oldest and fondest memories as a kid were what my parents called "Daddy-and-David Day." It was a weekend afternoon dedicated to me and my dad just hanging out together while I was between the ages of four and about nine.
Usually, we'd begin by doing something productive like getting a haircut or hitting up the hardware store. Then, we'd stop by one of my dad's buddy's houses and watch "This Week in Baseball" or something else sports-related. Then, we'd invariably end up visiting a small neighborhood corner tavern -- the kind of place that could only fit about 25 people comfortably -- for a "couple." Dad's "couple" included a glass of Pabst and an ounce of Beam in a shot glass. My couple included a glass of Coke and an ounce of hot cashews in a paper cup from the Nut Hut machine.
This most recent pub crawl is dedicated to the small, corner taverns; places that remind me of the "Daddy-David days." The three places that we visited and whose culture we absorbed have legal capacity limits of 25. We breathed the air, drank the beverages, and danced to the music at the Squirrel Cage, Schultz's, and Chilly Willy's.
2402 N. Dousman St.
There's something about a passing by a tavern with a fun or unique name that puts a smirk on my face. Call me weird, but it makes me want to stop in, check it out and have a cold brew (or a scotch on the rocks if I'm really feeling sorry for myself that day). Leff's Lucky Town, The Palomino, and Butch's Liar's Club are a few. Squirrel Cage is one, too.
Owner and operator, Rich Heming has owned this living room-like den since 1977 in the Riverwest neighborhood known as The Gold Coast. Before Rich took this business over from his girlfriend's folks, it went by the name BJ Tap.
The first time I entered the Squirrel Cage, I did so somewhat blindly. I mean, I knew nothing about the place at all except for the fact that my friend "60-watt" Sarah liked to chill there every once in a while. Then I later found out one of my cook buddies from the Parkway Pub would sip a 7&7 there from time to time. That's all I really had to go on. I trust their judgement.
One Thursday, right around happy hour, I ventured inside. After all, I was intrigued by the name. I opened the door and I heard, "College Dave! What are you doing here?" bellowed by my friend Willy Ortiz from Club 99.
I told him the name caught my attention, I like small bars (obviously) and I like most places in general that will serve me an adult beverage. I mentioned that I'd like to write about the place and meet the owner, so he introduced me to Rick, a really nice guy, and Pub Crawl Stop No. 1 was locked.
The crew came in strong with 17 people. Not counting that my friend Phil, who met us there along with my girlfriend's co-worker/friend Molly and her fiance, Mark, who happens to play softball for the bar. Friendships were made, billiards were played and I commandeered the jukebox for some old U2, The Animals and a Led Zeppelin song for Mario Balistreri, who was celebrating his birthday.
Before we left, I just had to ask Rich where he got the name "Squirrel Cage." He told me that prior to naming the place, they would just sit at the bar with the door propped open. Squirrels would constantly run in. The squirrels would make themselves at home and they pretty much befriended them like pets. Hence the name, Squirrel Cage. Unique. Also, thank you, Rich, for the t-shirt. I proudly wore it the next day.
2901 S. 11th St.
If you're down on your luck, bent out of shape and your chips are down -- Schultz's is your place. Bob Szulczewski only charges 75 cents for a tap of Blatz, $2.25 for a rail drink and $2.50 for a call. For some dumb reason, I asked him how much a martini cost. He told me they really don't get asked to make martinis there.
Bob opened up the former JG's in 1979. The neighborhood has changed a bit, but in the time he's been there, he's only had to call the local authorities once (because of a robbery). "I guess thats why I'll never get rich," he says, "because I don't put up with any crap. We take care of our own problems here." I like that.
The first time I went to Schultz's was with my guy, Action Dan. We stopped there because there was an hour and a half wait at Bay View Bowl and we didn't feel like just sitting around. Plus, we were hungry and wanted to find a place to eat. We drove by Schultz's and I remembered that Maria from 5 Star Bar told me about the place. We went in, met Bobby the bartender, and had a couple small drafts while figuring out where to eat. It turns out Bobby went to Pulaski High School with my cousin, Randy. Bobby is a nice guy. We became buds.
The second time I went to Schultz's, I met another nice barkeep. I can't remember his name, but I do remember him openly cleaning out his lungs with a tube attached to his trach on one end, and on the other end attached to a small portable machine. He pressed a button and all I could hear was some odd sound from the machine. Whoa! I had to ask, "What did you just do?" He said, "I have pneumonia and I have to clean out my lungs." Holy cow. He later told me with a half-smile, "It sucks -- literally."
Like his bartenders, Bob Szulczewski couldn't be a nicer guy. I introduced him to my South Side friend Jill (Bieszk) Perlberg and within about a minute they realized that Bob not only knows Jill's dad, Danny, but Jill's grandfather used to cut Bob's hair when he was a kid. Good proof that the grandchildren are indeed coming back as customers.
Chilly Willy's Saloon
3301 W. Grant St.
My cousin (and former Club Tap barkeep) Dr. Meghan and I had a delicious lunch at El Senorial one Saturday afternoon under the advisement of Jose' "The Barber Extraordinaire" Ortiz (aka "Amado" or "The Samurai."
We got a bit lost driving down S. 31st St. afterward, so we turned west on Grant St. That's when I saw the sign for Chilly Willy's Saloon. "Lets check this place out Meegs," I said. "Of course you want to check this place out, College -- OK." So we went in, liked it and stayed an hour drinking Bloody's, shooting stick and cranking tunes. Fun.
About a week later, Meghan & I were walking out of Balistreri's in ‘Tosa and ran into my friend Jody and her friend. "Jody baby, what's the haps?" I asked while giving her a hug. "Not too much, College. My friend I are going to her boyfriend's bar called Chilly Willy's."
Meghan and I looked at each other, smiled, then looked back at Jody as if we could read her mind. "What?," Jody asked, looking perplexed.
"We were just there six days ago," I told her. "Of course you were, College!" she said, laughing aloud. So, the four of us went to Chilly Willy's that night. We had a blast and I got to meet the owner, Dave Olson.
Dave bought the former White Horse Saloon in 2004 and says, "The bar was originally built where the garage is in 1917 and only had eight bar stools. It was called Scumski's. After that, they moved the bar here and it was later called Porky's.
"As a matter of fact, back in the day, Porky's would play Schultz's in softball every New Year's Day. The losing team closed their place for the day and their barkeeps had to work the wood at the winning team's bar. For some reason, Porky's always won." Good story.
Dave loves his customers and likes to talk about them in relation to what he has hanging on his walls. He says, "The 'bric-a-brac' & 'chachkha' on the walls matches the personalities of the misfits who come here." I can see a little of that, since some of Dave's regulars were there the night we arrived with our group: John, an intelligent 60-something from the neighborhood. And Donny, a skinny, heavily bearded man seemingly stoned to the bajeezus. It was interesting.
Well, this was our third and last stop of the evening and we had a hoot. Especially, after Sean O'Byrne bought a round of shots for the entire bar. (Thanks, Sean.) Usually we spend an hour at each place, but we spent 2-plus hours here, easily. Danny McGuire (McGuire's) met us here. So did Andy Kochanski (Concertina Bar). Apparently Andy used to deliver papers to this place when he was a kid. In all, it was a lot of fun and we kept on gaining a crowd along the way. It's fun when you are a part of a group of 23 when the place only fits 25.
For the record, Chilly Willy's Saloon is officially in my top three favorite old-school Milwaukee taverns.