In some Milwaukee neighborhoods, nearly every corner is pegged with a small, local tavern catering to the surrounding community. As such, the connotation of the "dive bar" becomes a hazy one. Usually typified by outdated surroundings, cheap drinks and a crowd of regulars rounding the bar each and every night, "dive bar" has come to mean something specific yet something very vague.
Recently, a friend described their neighborhood bar saying, "It was a dive bar; literally someone took a dive off their bar stool around 8 p.m." Joined by another friend visiting from Europe, I began to wonder what kind of impression the dive bar makes on the foreign lens and more specifically, if I had to choose ones to visit, which dive bars surpass junky and jankety to become something iconic and treasured.
So what are Milwaukee's hidden gems?
Places like The Palomino or The Nomad set out to embody the dive bar feel; hoping to attract low key patrons, keen on cheap drinks and consequently sporting down home attitudes. But these aren't the neighborhood establishments that have survived decades of gentrification and without marketing, without altering the menu. Their "dive bar" sense, while enjoyable, is perhaps created more than intrinsically authentic.
The Swinging Door, popularized by the bike messenger culture of downtown business, sees a good deal of business but chooses to keep their old school style with old time values. Divided into two rooms, the walls are covered with photos of former customers from a bygone era, drinks are dirt cheap and red pleather wooden tables and chairs offer ample but basic seating.
Jamos hides just off Brady Street. Aside from the red glowing signing, everything about Jamos is dim, worn in and vintage. Weathered booths are complimented by old oil paintings and a selection of liquors meant for classic cocktails. Right down the street, Wolski's Tavern falls between row houses as a hole in the wall attracting low maintenance customers from around the area.
In the suburbs, the dive bar presence is not diminished. Places like Club Tap in Wauwatosa, The Village Pub in Shorewood and The Jock Stop in West Allis are iconic to the neighborhood and demand a nightly crowd not because they offer the latest in beverages or newest in Top 40 music but simply because they have sustained and survived for so long.
What's your criteria for a dive bar? Is there strickt categorization or do bars qualify on a place to place basis? Use the Talkback feature below to toast your local favorite.
OnMilwaukee.com staff writer Maureen Post grew up in Wauwatosa. A lover of international and urban culture, Maureen received a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
After living on the east side of Madison for several years, Maureen returned to Milwaukee in 2006.
After a brief stint of travel, Maureen joined OnMilwaukee.com as the city’s oldest intern and has been hooked ever since. Combining her three key infatuations, Milwaukee’s great music, incredible food and inspiring art (and yes, in that order), Maureen’s job just about fits her perfectly.
Residing in Bay View, Maureen vehemently believes the city can become fresh and new with a simple move across town.