Celebrating summer with a pub crawl makes as much sense to me as bouncing from stage to stage at Summerfest and visiting the many small swill-serving spots within State Fair Park.
At the Fair, I absolutely love going to visit "Buddha" at Robert's, "Boom Boom" and "Kirby" over at McGinn's, and "Jumbo" and "Bingo" over at Saz's. Then, if I have room enough for one more, I stop over by Nelson "The Migrant Worker" at Major Goolsby's.
Summer makes us want to move. Summer makes us want to live! Well, my crew and I sure lived it up this past July while we conquered The Wonder Bar, Wildenberg's Evergreen Tavern, The Dog House and The Bitter End.
Also, I want to congratulate Liz Thorson for (again) defeating a field of 16 at the Second Annual Barhopping with College Dave and Friends Bocce Ball Tournament and thank the 30 peeps who showed up at the second Barhopping CD release party at Mike's A Little Bit Country. If you've never met Mike or haven't been to Mike's on a Friday afternoon, you are missing out on the best barkeep this city currently has other than maybe Dennis Palmisano at Miss Katie's or Katie Rose at Burnheart's and Bryant's.
And now, on to the crawl ...
The Wonder Bar
5520 W. Vliet St., (414) 257-9112
I've wanted to write about this place for a while because it's close to home and I know I can always enjoy a cold brew with one of the many O'Donogue clan members or other nice people that come here. But, my very first fond memory of The Wonder Bar's building dates back to my teens when a friend, "Dirt," went inside to buy a case of beer (back when you could do that legally at bars before midnight ... if you were of age or at least looked like it). What "Dirt" didn't know though, is that our basketball coaches were there, sitting at the bar, when he walked in. Whoops. He saw them at the other end of the bar and just kind of discreetly ducked down a little bit. This story still gets a lot of mileage because the coaches never even noticed him and he was still able to purchase the case (even though he was only 18).
In recent years, I'd pop in to play the CD jukebox, specifically to hear the Who's "Quadrophenia" and just kind of follow along with it's story and pretty much just loose myself in it for a while. There's an Internet jukebox now, but "Quadrophenia" can still be downloaded. It just costs a bit more.
George Voell bought The Wonder Bar in 2002. Before it was The Wonder Bar, it was The Four Walls, owned by Jerry Wall (uncle to Paul Wall from local bands Trolley and The Exotics). And way back in 1896, this bar was merely a small store. As a matter of fact, when St. Sebastian's Church was being built nearby, Catholic Mass was held in this building even though there was no heat or running water. This tells me the bar must be blessed.
George is blessed, too. One of his other talents is that of a culinary artist. He was the personal chef to Rembert Weakland for the Catholic Archdiocese. He was also the very first executive chef at The Milwaukee Ale House. Many of his creations remain on the menu today. And George also cooked along side of local well-known local chefs Michael Book, Andy Tenaglia and Ron Koschnick at Milwaukee County Stadium
Coincidentally, all four of these guys are Pius XI High School graduates, as are other locally known chefs Kevin Sloan, Joe Muench and Joe Gross.
A patio recently opened outside and it's pretty amazing because it's half-covered and half open. It's really the perfect patio to have since our Wisconsin weather is so unpredictable and you never know when a quick rain storm may creep up on you. It's so comfortable, too, that you almost get the feeling that your sitting in your own home backyard.
Our group sure felt at home here and it's part because of the place being so cool and part because of George's hospitality. This is without a doubt a place that I recommend and I hope you check it out. Also, take advantage of the free peanuts and don't be afraid to throw the shells on the floor.
Wildenberg's Evergreen Tavern
3774 S. 27th St. (414) 281-8010
Bill Rouleau from Rush-Mor Records told me about this unique former mansion perched in the middle of a trailer park that's also a tavern and a five-room hotel. And I find it only fitting to include it in my pub crawl because it's a real hotel with a bar and not just a bar using a hotel name like Hotel Foster, The Hamilton or The Belmont.
The first time I was was here was for research with my bad-ass barber buddy, Big Frank, from Jose's Barbershop in beautiful Bay View. Frank and I go back a long time and I knew he was the right guy to take because he was familiar with a neighborhood and I'd be safe with him. You see, the place is a bit eerie at first if you've never been inside before. I highly doubt any Goldilocks-like figure would ever dream of breaking into this spot.
When Frank and I walked in and sat down, he said "these people probably think we're cops, Dave."
"If they do, so what," I replied. "And it probably doesn't help that I'm drinking an NA beer."
After a couple laughs, within a couple minutes we engaged in some conversation with the barkeep and a couple of his customers and everything was fine. Everybody got along well and we felt like we were at someone's house party. Of course, that may be partially true since some people do live here. I think I want to live here.
Urban myth says that some of Al Capone's men would sometimes stay here during their trips between Milwaukee and Chicago, back when U.S. 41, which used to run along South 27th Street, was the main route between the two cities. Other stories about the place include a ghost or two. I love it.
The building was constructed in 1843 and today its owner's is Eleanore Wildenberg-Klug. Her daughter, Diane Klug, manages the operations. I met Diane the night of our pub crawl and not only was she full of historical information, but also genuine kindness. I've always believed that the owner or manager of a bar has a direct effect on the personality of the place. Everyone here was very nice, and that is a reflection of Diane's personality.
One of the things that Diane told me is that her grandfather bought this former mansion in 1947 and made it the way it is today. She also said that he grew the business by operating it as a hotel and running the trailer park which surrounds it.
What baffled my crew and myself the most was that when you're there, you forget that you're in Milwaukee. It's like its in it's own little world in the wild west. Then, as you leave the building, and walk through the parking lot, you see 27th Street and St. Luke's Hospital toward the north. Then, when you realize exactly where you are, well – it's a bit surreal.
The consequence of my two encounters here is that I can't wait until I'm on that side of town again so I can stop back. My cousin Lisa, Uncle Tom and Aunt Janie randomly stopped here about 25 years ago, still remember their experience and thought it was simply an awesome, unique place. It is truly a one-of-a-kind kind of place and that's reason for you to check it out, too.
You've got nothing to fear but fear itself. Seriously.
1641 S. 68th St., (414) 302-1681
The first time I came here with my then-girlfriend, we were very impressed with its cleanliness and the kindness and charisma of Crazy Mary, the bartender. Not as much a fan of the neighborhood dive as I am, the girlfriend said she actually liked the place and felt very comfortable. I, on the other hand, only really need and open sign, some electricity and running water to be satisfied most of the time. Oh yeah, some cold Miller Lite helps too. As we were leaving she said, "Dave, you've been in dog house before. Now you can say you were at The Dog House."
Janice Fazen opened this bar, which previously housed The Bullpen and The Moonlighter, on March 1 of this year, and I can't believe I've never been here before – especially since my cousin Randy used to live about six houses away with his then-girlfriend.
In recent years, Janice has kept her feet wet behind the bar at a few neighboring joints but back when I first met her in 1991, she owned The Faze Inn on Hawley Road across the street from what's now the Double Barrel Saloon. She owned the Faze Inn from '89 to '94 and I can still remember stopping there and dropping off bags of money to my then-boss "Big Nick" on my way to Marquette, sometimes in the very early morning. On those mornings, I'd also sit and enjoy a cup of coffee with "Big Nick" and his friend Ernie. It seems like forever ago for me, but Janice still remembers it as if it were yesterday.
Today, Janice runs a very nice little bar. And this nice little bar was our third stop of the evening. I'm assuming it was the crew's best stop of the evening. We were well lubricated and Crazy Mary behind the bar couldn't have been more fun and accommodating. They even had a spread of food there for us. That hit the spot at the most perfect time. Crazy Mary, by the way, has also worked at Capt'n Nick's, Tap City and Kokopelly's; all in wonderful West Allis.
The time we spent at The Dog House was also perfect in other ways. We shot pool, spun the wheel, played the jukebox, ate the food and drank the brew that was offered. The only problem was that we were running out of time and endurance. And we had one more stop not too far away at The Bitter End.
The Bitter End
604 S. 64th St., (414) 475-5828
What blows my mind is that sometimes someone will come into a tavern they just bought, turn on a neon "open" sign and expect to automatically get rich. These people really need to understand that they need to change and most likely upgrade many different things inside these old cesspools of poverty.
Well, when Rick and his then-domestic partner Caroline bought the former J&B's and turned it into the Ugly Mug, they did the many things that very badly needed to be done and changed. They threw out a few shady folks and they remodeled, rearranged and repainted the entire place to make it more modern. The only thing they didn't do is add another back bar in what's now the game room (even though there was talk of doing so).
Then, Rick and Caroline broke up and Rick was out. But shortly there after, Rick was back in with his business partner, Doug, and Caroline was out. Rick and Doug also already owned The Alibi together, and they've already made improvements on the new former Ugly Mug. They changed the name to The Bitter End, bought all new bar stools, changed the color scheme of the place inside and out and remodeled a side room which is complete with bathrooms and a kitchen for small private parties and patron overflow.
I really have to give Rick a lot of credit for turning something not so special into something real. I remember about eight years ago when I was a bit down on my luck I stopped in the old J&B's for some silence and solace. And man, that one visit was enough because it was so depressing and outdated.
But now, things are much different with the new name, new vibe and new life. There's also a new pub fare menu which they boast having Milwaukee's Best Burger. I've had some of their food and I have to admit that its pretty darn good as far as bar food goes. They run many food specials throughout the week, too.
When my crew arrived, the first thing I heard was "look at this place; it's amazing" from Tonic Tavern's Tom Julio. And I'm glad he said that because it actually did remind me of how cool this place even looks from the outside. It was his first time there and sometimes people don't appreciate things or places as much as they should when they see them more often than not.
At that time of the night, we were only down to about six or so people because we were running late and some peeps had to get home. However, that didn't really matter for the bar's business because the place was pretty much full and very much full of energy.
They do a good business, and I'm happy for them.