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.
We last left you in July wondering which taverns in town formerly housed working bowling alleys, but no longer do. We found a few on the North Side and a few on the South Side.
This most current pub crawl took us to two on the South Side, Monreal's Encore and Club 300. Staying true to school, we also hit a couple South Side corner classics, Not Nancy's and Just Mary's.
For the Winter edition, we will later dominate the North Side of town. So read on, and enjoy the South Side for now, my friends.
101 S. Dana Ct, (414) 257-0234
Monreal's Encore, known better as simple "The Encore," just celebrated 36 years in business this past September. Currently a Gentleman's Club, Nick "Big Nick" or "Nick Sr." Monreal originally opened this place offering live country music. fter a while, the live music just wasn't bringing the people in but the Saturday afternoon lingerie shows he was having sure were. Eventually, the lingerie shows graduated to topless dancing all week long and business got much, much, better.
Before it was The Encore, it was Inn Old Milwaukee. Before that, Charlie Chuklo's Island, which featured two bowling alleys which still rest beneath the carpeting along the south wall of the building.
I went from being Big Nick's bank teller at M&I Bank to his bartender at The Encore in 1991. Only 21 at the time, I learned a lot about how to pour drinks and deal with people from now longtime friend, Scott "Shane" Spangenberg. My folks weren't too big on the idea of this workplace change, but knew I'd be safe with Big Nick there.
Back then, there was just a small stage with a little round red light above it next to a 45 jukebox and a tape deck. It was truly a great late night spot that did amazing business.
One late night in '93, I was sitting with Big Nick having a few after work when he pointed to a tree he had dug out and replanted behind the bar in a large planter.
"Do you see that tree, David", he asked.
"Yes, I put my keys on one of the branches before every shift," I replied, smiling like the young and naive 23-year-old barkeep and college boy I was.
He then recited an old Spanish proverb which translated says, "Oh beautiful tree. Oh beautiful tree. How I rest within your comfort and your shade."
I thought it was pretty deep, went home to bed, and only a few hours later got a call that Big Nick had died of a heart attack. He was only 53. It was devestating to all of us who knew and worked for him because he was such an amazing, caring, loyal and powerful man who we all thought was invincible.
That was a long time ago, and since then Nick "Nick Jr." Monreal has taken over the operations.
Nick Jr. has remodeled much of the place, adding a new jukebox, sound system, DJ booth, furniture, stage and dressing room. He likes to keep the place fun, too. He's sponsored many bowling, beanbag, basketball, kickball, football and softball teams. There are also different theme parties throughout the year including a Halloween party, Christmas party and a Miss Encore Pageant where he puts out free food.
Speaking of food, he serves lunch Monday through Friday with a fish fry every Friday. Yes, a fish fry -- classic Milwaukee.
3460 E. Layton Ave. Cudahy (414) 483-4359
Often times on Monday nights in the winter, me, my brother Brian and buddy Butch bowl the buck-a-game special at Motion Plus Lanes in Cudahy. Motion Plus is next to Dusty's Place. And on my way home from Dusty's once, I popped in Club 300 to check it out. Little did I know, my friends Tommy and Jill Perlberg would be there with Greg Look, a guy I played softball with. It turned out that Greg Look's family had owned this former bowling alley.
Greg's grandparents, Jim and Helen bought the place in 1970 and Helen has been operating the place ever since. Third-generation siblings Greg and Crystal bartend there, also.
Greg tells me that growing up with this place in his family was a lot of fun. He remembers times when there was body bowling (ouch!) when he was a kid. When Cudahy High School lost the 1981 State Football Final, the after-game-party was held at Club 300. That evening, a few patrons decided to roll some bowling balls down Layton up the hill toward Packard Avenue. Apparently, a couple balls made it up and over the hill past Packard and nobody really knew what happened to them next. The other balls came rolling back at them. Too funny... but a bit dangerous one would think. I wouldn't know this from experience, but apparently alcohol makes people do certain things that they normally wouldn't.
In the early '90s, Greg's uncle Don ran the place for a bit but the bar couldn't fill the bowling leagues. The sport had seemed to have lost much of its popularity and the people who were still doing it went to the larger bowling centers. That's when the lanes disappeared for good, giving way to a banquet hall, which is available for receptions, showers, etc...
The bar is now simply a regular old bar that sponsors teams and has monthly cribbage and sheepshead tournaments. It has a warm friendly family feel and I like it because this is the kind of place where everybody seems to know everyone and feel welcome while there.
2178 S. 18th St. (414) 672-6102
One Saturday night I was out solo doing some tavern research and wanted to check out a couple places on the South Side. I hit two spots and didn't feel it at either one. When that so rarely happens, I just move on, chose not to bring the crew and simply do not write about them. Fair enough, right?
On this given evening, I had remembered that my old friend Mike Grammins used to tend bar at a place called Gym's Inn on 18th and Grant. I was nearby, went there but wasn't sure it was the same place since there was no sign and it was dark outside. Then, I pulled up to it and outside the place I recognized a guy my friend Jose' aka "The Chosen One" used to call "The Junk Yard Dog". Seeing the JYD there, I felt more comfortable and then stopped in for a brew.
A couple visits later I met the very engaging proprieter, Jim Kotowski, who also works for The City of Milwaukee's road crew.
Jim acquired the former Nancy's in 1995 after a rather unfriendly divorce from his ex-wife -- hence the name, Not Nancy's. Before Nancy's, it was Gym's Inn and before Gym's Inn, it was Bishops. Jim grew up three blocks from Bishops and remembers waiting outside in a line with his family for Friday fish fris there.
Jim got his feet wet in this business first bartending at his exfather-in-law's tavern, Zig & Shirl's. He later worked part-time in some bars in clubs and says it was a good way "to get a few free drinks and make a couple bucks."
I hear that.
Like many of the other exceptionally cool bar people I've met, Jim credits some former bosses for grooming him to eventually own his own spots. He thanks Ed Bomback from The Spot Lite and Tommy Michaels from The Camelot.
He also once owned another bar called Jimmy's Lost His Marbles (now Ducky's) on Euclid Street. A few of his aunts and uncles owned some now long-gone South Side spots called POCA and Pete & Olga's.
Fifteen years ago, Jim lost his vocal cords to cancer, but close friends, family and his now-wife, Susie, helped get him and his business back on its feet. He says that was a struggle back then, but today there is a different struggle. The economy, smoking ban and strict drunk-driving laws have turned his business south a bit. But like other cool places, Not Nancy's is trying to hang in there, and I firmly agree with Jim and Susie when they say to show support in places outside of your neighborhood. Leave your trepidation at home, I sure do.
I'm glad, too, that my crew tried this new-to-us neighborhood because we had a very nice time here. We, along with some of Jim's regulars, occupied all 16 barstools and the two beautiful booths. Sean, my Irish drinking juggernaut friend beat Andy from The Double Barrel Saloon in pool. I at first sat chatting with Erin Kolhep, whose childhood best friend coincidentally grew up across thhe street from the bar.
Later, I made my way by Cam from Lulu and Tom from Tonic when Jim joined us. I was happy to introduce him to the others within his industry who share the similar fun and struggles within this industry. We're all in this together and it's our duty to support one another.
Especially cool cats like Jim.
5600 W. Lincoln Ave. (414) 327-2530
Mary Ell opened the former Thirst Aide Station in July 2009 after tending bar there for nine years. Before the Thirst Aide Station, this 15-stool (capacity: 25) place was Misbehavin and before that, Malak's.
Before working in this building, Mary's service industry experience also included Tap City, Captain's, Kelly's Bleacher's and The Main Gate. It was while she was working at the Main Gate I re-met Mary. A long time ago, I went to St. Anthony of Padua grade school with her children Art and Tammy. I had a big crush on Tammy back in the day, but she liked Joe Ribecky (who later bartended and owned Hotel Grafton), instead.
I asked Mary about the story behind the name, Just Mary's, but she really didn't want to get into it. All she would declare was, "My husband suggested it."
Just Marry's offers a nice happy hour, Monday through Thursday, from 3-6 p.m. giving you a pull tab for each drink you order. The tabs pulled read either 50 cents, half-price or full-price. Every Monday night you can get a pitcher of beer and a Balistreris Brothers pizza for ten bucks. Good deal.
She also sponsors softball, pool, darts and bowling teams here.
We were barely able to fit our crew of 21 into this immaculately clean place, but we did have a lot of fun sitting at the bar, playing darts, shooting pool and playing the jukebox here. A return visit is definately in order.
Mary, my friend, thank you for the pleasant time.