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.
On July 4, we celebrated our independence and freedom. Then, the very next day, the right to legally smoke cigarettes in Wisconsin's small, independently-owned, corner taverns was revoked.
I hear it put this way every day, even from non-smokers. I don't smoke. Many of us think this was a good thing. Many of us deem it unfair. Personally, I say leave these spots alone. Some of these family-run places have seen their business impacted in a negative way. Some seem to have found loopholes. And some just don't comply with the law because nobody seems to know where the ticket is coming from, anyway.
None of this stopped me and my friends from our barhopping journey. And we heard some unique takes on the current situation at The Fairview Tap, Dusty's Place and The Narrow Lane.
The Fairview Tap
6712 W. Fairview Ave., (414) 771-2811
One year ago, when I first contributed to OnMilwaukee.com with the State Fair bar guide, many people asked me why I didn't write about the Fairview Tap.
One reason was that it wasn't within view of the park. I'll explain another reason later. I've also been getting the same question from people nearly every month since I began this pub crawl column. Why do they always ask, you may want to know? Well, I have quite the history here.
In 1968, Tom Varsos bought a building in the Bluemound Heights Neighborhood with three commercial business spaces on the ground floor and four apartments upstairs. One of the businesses was the LeeJon's Bar. In 1974, when my folks bought their first house the neighborhood, my dad brought me along with him to check it out. He said, "I wanted to see what my new neighborhood taverns were like and I brought you with me. This was the very first place we went to, but we didn't stay long because I didn't want you to be exposed to all the foul language." This is the very first bar I remember visiting as a kid.
At the stroke of midnight on June 29, 1991, I walked in with a group of my friends and enjoyed my first legal adult beverage. The bar was called AGES then, which stood for Abel, Gail & Erin's. This was Abel Monreal's second bar and he was truly one heck of a guy, very much a gentleman. His wonderful wife, Gail, was caring, charismatic and cool. And Erin, a pretty and super-sweet girl, is still a very close friend of mine today. Her husband, Aaron, is a good guy, too.
Today, Chris and Mike Varsos (Tom's sons) own the building and bar. Good guys. And they have been doing a phenomenal business for the last seven years and call their bar The Fairview Tap. They've done a good job cleaning up the building itself and the clientele. There are many regulars here, including real salt-of-the-earth people like Chucky, Ernie, Pam, Eddie, Darnell, Steve and Big Gurke.
Chris Varsos brought up the new corner bar bummer ban on smoking during our discursive discussion. He said, "My business is down 40 percent ... literally."
And what also gets his goat is that there are so many other bars not so far away where people are still smoking. He runs a clean place. He follows the rules. Unfortunately, doing the right thing has hurt him this time. He even knows of a bar (which he won't name) that has gotten 16 warnings. I tell ya, it really boggles my mind that the state warned us of this ban over a year ago, but hasn't figured out how to enforce it.
On a good note, the Fairview Tap isn't going anywhere. I should know this as well as anyone since I've been asking them to sell it to me for nearly seven years. That's pretty much why I never wanted to write about the place. I didn't want it to get too much exposure, because I feared that it would get even more busy and zoom out of my price range.
Also, since the Fairview Tap is located just off the 68th Street exit for State Fair Park, be sure to stop in either before or after the Fair this year. There is a huge parking lot in back and the neighborhood is safe.
4858 S. Packard Ave., (414) 482-3322
Dusty Graff has been tending bar for 41 years and she earns your respect the second you meet her. She was married at 15, a single mother at the age of 24 and chose to tend bar because the flexible schedule helped her spend time with her children while also earning a living to feed them. She raised seven children as a bartender who later became a bar owner.
The first bar she worked behind was at the Strachota Regent Bowling Lanes near 40th Street and North Avenue in Milwaukee. "The Strachota was a cop bar," she says, "and one time after hours a cop took his gun apart and then all a sudden passed out. I put it back together myself and still have it."
Dusty likes guns and carries a .32 Beretta in a holster on her hip behind the bar and told me, "It's on my side at all times -- even at the bank, even at the Cudahy Police Station." Wow.
Dusty also worked at The Blue Fox in Franklin (another cop bar) for nine years and spent time at a biker bar called George & Avis' on the South Side, where her customers included a powerful motorcycle club. She said the cops and the bikers all treated her with respect, so it's easy to see that Dusty is loved by many types of people. Minette "Satin Doll" Wilson is an old neighborhood friend, too.
The decor in Dusty's Place is retro cool. Four large round red lights hang over the bar. There's a similar blue light by the back door (near the new outdoor smoking veranda). There's a well-lit mirror ball over the jukebox and a Cadillac grill with yellow lights shining down over the back bar.
There is some red rope lighting back there, too. All this lighting is all right by me since lighting is the first thing I notice while walking into a place. It sets the mood.
Looking around the room, you also notice a bunch of Cadillac hubcaps lining the walls near the ceiling, a bunch of Elvis memorabilia and quite a few silver signatures written on her black beams. I asked about these signatures and she said that, aside from the locals, there are signatures from people from Kenya, Ireland, Egypt, Canada and Scotland. Then she went on to admit, "I always ask them 'how in the hell did you end up in Cudahy?'" I couldn't help but to laugh out loud.
As for the new smoking ban, Dusty surely is concerned. It has impacted her business a lot, "Because so many other bars aren't obeying the law and the cops hate this crap!"
It's hard to compete fairly with other bars that allow smoking. Sounds familiar. Dusty also says that, over the years, the neighborhood has changed so much that "The cops are busy enough with such things as robberies, drug raids and gang-related stuff."
Even one of her customers was gunned down while breaking up a fight at a gas station down the street. That's the type of crime that needs police attention.
I like Dusty's Place and I love her passion, charm and integrity. Meeting her was a true pleasure the very first time I went there for a post-work drink with my friend John Dye from Bryant's Cocktail Lounge. When I returned the second time and reintroduced myself regarding the story, she told me she remembered my smile. That was sincerely warming. Dusty is a one of a kind and you should meet her.
The Narrow Lane
5526 W. North Ave., (414) 447-9301
Howard Tice bought this building -- which has three addresses -- in 1994. The 5526 address is the bar, and the 5524 and 5522 addresses house Howard's Schiffman Moving & Storage Company. A veteran in the bar business, Howard previously owned The Holiday Resort on Long Lake and, before that, Fanny's Disco near 45th Street and Lisbon Avenue.
I asked Howard how the new smoking ban was affecting him and he said, "Not at all."
"Really?" I asked.
"Really," he said, "I just let them smoke next door. I even have a pool table back there. The attorney says it's OK, since its a different address."
He then pointed to a door where he knocked down a wall that lets customers burn a grit next door without even leaving the building. Actually, Howard plans to add a restaurant to the space currently housing the smoking lounge. "Then, when I get my restaurant license, I'll just knock down another wall," he said.
I love this guy. Howard is definitely one of the more progressive bar owners I've met ... and he (with the help of his attorney) seems to have found a little loophole for this whole new and somewhat confusing smoking ordinance. Good for him.
This place has a very generous, with a long happy hour. From 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., the deals are: $1 tappers, $2 domestic bottled beer, $3 imported bottle beer, $2 rail and $3 top-shelf cocktails. God Bless America.
Urban legend has it that The Narrow Lane took that name because at one time there was a bowling lane in the place. Not true, Howard says. "People kept calling to see if there was open bowling," he said. In truth, it was named that only because the room is very long and narrow.
However, this gets me thinking -- I wonder if I can find some other bars that once housed a bowling alley or two back in the day that actually had them removed or covered with carpeting, furniture or a stage. We'll just have to wait until next month to find out.