Milwaukee's not only known for its beers and independently owned bars, but also its food and and friendly neighborhood restaurants. And just our luck, many of these restaurants have some amazing little bars inside them.
As a matter of fact, some of the bars are so cool and comfortable that they have regular patrons like any other place that serves adult beverages. Recently, my crew and I visited four such places. We stopped at Hector's (Tosa), Pitch's, The Swingin' Door Exchange and Bunker's.
7118 W. State St., Wauwatosa, (414) 258-5600
Rob Messinger opened Hector's in June 1989 and the place has been absolutely killin' it ever since. The building formerly housed Cox's Blind Tiger and also The Back Porch. When Rob took over, he added an extensive Mexican menu and made the bar area ridiculously fun and festive. It helps to have super-fun barkeeps to keep the fiesta going, too. We were graced with Pilar O'Heron and Dan "DVR" Van Roy behind the bar, who have amazing chemistry back there together. I don't think I've seen such a dynamic restaurant bartending team since witnessing the brilliance of Larry Marseo and Patrick Devitt working the wood at Steakhouse 100.
When Pilar and DVR pour you a shot of tequila, they offer you a Sangrita Bloody Mary mix chaser, which was invented by Jose Claudio (a Hector's barkeep for 21 years now). This reminds me of John from La Merenda's whiskey chaser for his whiskey on the rocks, which he refers to as a "kickstand." DVR, by the way, recently lost a very close contest by barely getting pegged out against retired barkeep Dave Sauceda (Armadillo Grill, Manor House, OD's) in the Third Annual Barhopping with College Dave & Friends Cribbage Tournament. Congrats, Dave.
Before owning Hector's, Rob Messinger worked as the bar manager at The Brown Bottle. Rob's current GM Jill Tews hired him there back then. She says, "Rob was a very conscientious employee, but that's when he had just returned from Australia, and he was trying to put the Beatles back together." I could only reply with, "What? Really? That sounds like a whole story on its own."
Hector's in Tosa not only has an interesting owner, but has some interesting regular customers, too. Robin Yount comes here. Roosevelt "Freeway" McCarter comes here. A gentleman named Rob Keller also comes here and I asked him what initially brought him to Hector's. He smirked and said, "Leff's was too crowded and I don't like to meet girls." Funny, Mr. Keller. The first time I went to Hector's, Leff's was called Nicky's, and that place was never too crowded. I have to admit, in recent years I've witnessed both Leff's and Hector's too crowded to get in. And for them, that's a good problem to have.
Pitch's Lounge & Restaurant
1801 N. Humboldt Ave., (414) 272-9313
Pitch's was opened in 1942 by current proprietor "Peter Pitch" Picciurro, Sr.'s parents, John and Katherine Picciurro. Prior to that, in the late mid-to-late-1930s, they owned Pitch's Past Time Tap, which was across the street. Peter Sr. owned a vending machine business for about 15 years, but when his father passed in '66, he stepped in to run the restaurant.
There is a lot of history here. As a matter of fact, two different couples recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary here because this is where they met. Also, quite a few other restaurant/bar proprietors have been coming here for many years: Mitchell Wakefield (Tess), Bobby Champion (Champions), Dennis Librizzi (Libby's), Shelly Sincere (Swingin' Door Exchange) and Jim Balistreri (Balistreri's Italian American Restaurante & Balistreri's Bluemound Inn) to name a few. Jim Balistreri (my boss) told me, "I've been going there forever – since I was 18. It's wonderful." Vince Lombardi used to come here, too.
The night we were there, all of the stars aligned perfectly as our group grew from some of our fellow service industry peeps meeting us there for a short visit: Tom Julio, Bree Rose, Jason Sominik, Andy Gebhardt (the b-day boy) and "Mario Knuckles" Balistreri. For the rest of us though, we had Crystal Szabo driving her shuttle and we sincerely thank her.
What else was perfect too is that the bar already had a decent crowd, with Peter Sr. there working the room. Behind the bar was his (now single) son Jimmy ("Jimmy Pitch") and longtime family bartender Richie. Richie is one of those silver fox barkeeps that always keeps his cool and looks cool doing it. Another one like him on the East Side would be Jim Biava right down the street over at Mimma's.
I must also say that nobody in our group sincerely wanted to leave this place because it has such a good vibe, and for being an older place, so much life. The decor on the ceiling is fascinating, too. When a couple people from our group asked Peter Sr. about it, he was more than willing to talk about the place like the perfect gentleman that he certainly is. Peter Sr., Jimmy and Richie couldn't have been any more accommodating, and I know we will all return soon.
219 E. Michigan St., (414) 276-8150
The Swingin' Door Exchange, formerly The Swingin' Door, rests comfortably on the ground floor of the Grain Exchange Building in downtown Milwaukee. Shelly Sincere and Casey Swan recently took this place over from Michael Murphy, who had been there 43 years, and I'm thankful that they haven't made many aesthetic changes. The place is beautiful.
Before Shelly and Casey landed upon this golden opportunity, they worked at Slim's on 1st and Florida, which currently houses O'Lydia's. I don't think that you can pay for a better education in this industry than learning from Slim McGinn. Slim has been in this industry since the mid-'70s, and still does very well at his restaurant in Brookfield with his wife Jane and manager Julie "Boom Boom" Baker. They also did a short interim stint over at Franky Creed's Newport. Frank's another student of Slim and does very well at his perfect little place over in buoyant Bay View by the brilliant Burnheart's bar.
The Swingin' Door exchange has gorgeous woodwork, beautiful stained glass windows, and a bar that I found to be extremely comfortable. As a matter of fact, I haven't had this much fun while feeling so at home since digging on some Thunderclap Newman with my guys Jumbo and Buddha over at McGill's (where my guy Jim Smerud slings savory saloon-style soup, a.k.a. Seagram's VO).
Something else I've noticed is the excellent service here. All the barkeeps are fun, warm and accommodating similar to the famous Peter Zhang around the corner over at Kiku. Have you ever heard of him? When you walk into the Swingin' Door Exchange's front door, you are always greeted and treated with respect. We had a rather large group here that night, and the miraculously mustached bartender, Josh, was completely on top of his game and handled us with care.
So, the next time you're in the Downtown area, do yourself a favor and stop in here. I guarantee that you'll love the place, the people and the privacy of being in a neat little cozy spot in the middle of the big city.
7420 W. Greenfield Ave., West Allis, (414) 258-1982
Bunker's was the final stop on our tour, and it was perfect because owners Scotty Bunker and Cheryl Stefaniac gave us some red carpet treatment by having an awesome spread of their delicious appetizers waiting for us. This definitely reflects the kindness and generosity of the two. Only one other proprietor has hooked us up so generously with food, and that was Danny McGuire at McGuire's Bar, also in West Allis.
Arriving there a bit later in the evening when the dinner crowd had come and gone had made things all the more fun. The classic '70s disco music was turned up a notch and the revolving mirror ball in the middle of the room was in full use. I am not kidding about the mirror ball, by the way. There are also a bunch of vintage black and white framed photos of movie stars from the '70s gracing the west dining room wall.
Scott Bunker has quite the experience in this business. He owned Bunker's Mainstreet (now Paulie's) about a mile west on Greenfield Avenue from 1982 to 2000. Prior to opening this most recent place here in December '07, he bartended for a while over at Jackson Grill. He attributes learning a lot from fellow Jackson Grill bartender, Michael.
Before evolving into Bunker's, this building actually housed a Liberty Tax Service. Scott and Cheryl had the place completely gutted and remodeled. I can only imagine how expensive it would be to add a brand new kitchen and a bar with tables and chairs to a gutted storefront. Well, their investment is paying off because they are doing a great business.
On the weekends they sometimes have life bands. One time I saw Diamonds & Martinis, featuring Jim Best from Dandelion Wine and Wolverine. It was not only entertaining, but intimate, too. The vibe was nice and the crowd was captive.
So stop in Bunker's soon to check it out. You'll get a kick out of it. And if you stop in soon enough, you'll see some campaign signs on the windows which promote Scott Bunker running for District 2 Alderman in West Allis. If I lived in West Allis, he'd have my vote.