One-syllable bars and clubs and chic restaurants may come and go through downtown like changing fashions, but what really makes Milwaukee special are the places that endure; small neighborhood joints that serve the workers who build the city and folks in the neighborhood who just want to relax with a beer, some friendly faces and a baseball game on the TV.
Gard's, 7170 W. Burleigh St., is one of these places. Entering the triangular corner tavern is a bit like stepping back in time. Wave the smoke away and you'll see a lovely vintage tap on the left side and a small dining room to the right.
The Lannon stone exterior definitely encases a gem. In both rooms there are Lannon stone walls that reflect the housing stock in this northwest side neighborhood and the building's own facade.
The place has been Gard's for 12 years, but had a string of owners before that. The ship is currently helmed by Dennis Gard and his daughter Denise Fonder.
"We've always been together," says Fonder. "He decided to do this and called me and told me to quit my job. 'I need some help.'"
Fonder says her father always dreamed of owning a tavern, so her decision to help him wasn't a hard one.
"Well, it's my dad. He always wanted a bar, so that was OK. But I was a little reluctant when I saw the restaurant. Neither of us had restaurant experience."
Although it initially was open all day and night, every day of the week, the restaurant now serves lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday and fish fry on Friday, from 4 to 10 p.m.
Friday nights, Gard's serves one of the city's best fish fries in its maritime-themed dining room. Locals pack the room to choose from a wide array of fish and seafood – and steak and ribs – choices. There's shrimp, scallops, lobster and crab, but most will opt for the baby perch, which is Gard's house fry.
For an astonishingly low price, a plate will arrive at your table and even the heartiest diner will struggle to clear that plate. The potato pancakes are heavenly; crisp and brown on the outside, warm and fluffy inside.
"We used to be full-blown there. It got to the point where I was losing my life," Fonder says, noting that she cut back the restaurant hours to have children, too. Now that they're ready to go to school full-time, she's pondering expanding the eatery's hours again.
In the meantime, her dad is the family's regular on-site presence.
"He's always there in the captain's chair," she jokes. "It's what he always wanted to do. He's a bar guy."
On Saturdays, the karaoke machine gets fired up and patrons try their hands at everything from Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart" to Elvis Presley and more contemporary fare. If no one gets up, the karaoke operator - yes that low-key guy sitting in the corner – does his best impersonations and is so mellow you'll hardly realize he's singing at all.
Fonder says Gard's didn't inherit much of a following from previous owners. So they had to create one themselves.
"We've built our own clientele with softball leagues, the kickball league – that was a lot of fun, I hope they come back this year. And Happy Hour."
Happy Hour runs Tuesday through Friday from 3 to 6 p.m. and Saturdays from noon to 4 p.m. There are specials on drinks and on burgers and a satisfyingly huge hot dog.
"I really enjoy Gard's," says neighborhood resident Dick Doucette. "That classic neighborhood-based nightclub feel, vintage 1968, with its colorful assortment of regular patrons. There are not many similar establishments left, and none being built to replace them.
"When was the last time you visited a nightclub, where the 70-something year old owner can be found sitting on his favorite stool, every time you walk in?"
Gard's doesn't have a Web site, but, hey, there is a phone: (414) 442-4280.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.