If you are trying to build an instant classic bar in Milwaukee’s crowded corner tavern scene, you need to set yourself apart. Classic cocktails are great, but there are plenty of East Side bars that already get it.
Finks, 1875 N. Humboldt Ave., picks up where Redroom, which closed in 2012, left off.
And it has pinball.
Finks general manager Ian Cliffe says he knows he works somewhere that is special on both sides of the bar.
"You know that basement bar from the 1970s that we all hung out in, our grandparents' basement?" asks Cliffe. "When we started putting this place together that’s what it really ended up feeling like."
Finks’ charm is its basement nostalgia – without being overdone. Created by Scott Johnson and Leslie Montemurro, the small brick and stone building features a modest outdoor patio that’s just a block from the river. It has a comfortable happy hour with boast-worthy classic cocktails, and above all, pinball.
Says Cliffe, "It’s one of those things that’s gone against what most people would consider regular bar strategy. In the last year we’ve pulled out three booths. That’s 12 seats that we’ve just thrown out the window."
Cliffe says the response has been great, and customers appreciate the sacrifice of fewer seats for more pinball machines. Finks holds league tournaments, organized similarly to ones held at Blackbird in Bay View.
"I’m really proud to be tied with Blackbird when it comes to the number of ‘pins’ in a corner bar location," he says. "Without what they did for the community two years ago, we wouldn’t have been able to do what we did this year."
Michelle Badura and Jon Polfer, who organize the pinball leagues and tournaments at Finks – as well as Uptowner and Veggas in Riverwest – say they didn’t expect pinball to take off like it has in Milwaukee.
"We’re coming up on our year anniversary at Uptowner," says Badura. "I didn’t expect to have so many people into it right off the bat. But it’s been pretty consistent ever since we started at each tournament."
Badura and Polfer also publish Skillshot, a local pinball enthusiast magazine dedicated to helping other silver ball enthusiasts find machines and community. One of the things that appeals to pinball fans, in particular, is the challenge each machine presents, Polfer says.
"No two games play the same," he says. "They’re mass produced, and the tolerances are just wide enough that it creates differences like that in gameplay."
Says Cliffe, "As a player, it’s even more so the fact that I’d rather play a pinball machine that has some variables that I can’t control. You can sit and master Pac-Man. No matter how much you study pinball, you can still have a bad game."
For Finks in particular, having pinball in the bar is a way to connect with a community that is passionate and growing. The bar hosts its pinball tournament on the second Monday of every month.
Finks regularly switches out its roster, but currently features five pinball games: "Lord of the Rings," "Theatre of Magic," "South Park," "Whirlwind" and "Rollergames."
Says Cliffe, "It really has done wonders for us as far as being a draw and an attraction. We didn’t do a lot to make ourselves known right away. Last summer most people walked in and said, ‘Oh, I didn’t know this was a new bar, I didn’t know this wasn’t Redroom anymore.’ This summer people are coming in and saying, ‘Oh I’ve heard about Finks, I’m going to have an Old Fashioned and play pinball.’"