February is "Bar Month" at OnMilwaukee.com, and we'll serve up more than a six pack a week of bar articles all month long. Look for bartender profiles, drink recipes, revamped bar guides and more!
To separate a good bar from a great bar, in many ways, the tangible factors of any successful business can be applied: Service, selection, location, prices, etc.
If you're a future bar owner (or business owner, for that matter), you'd be well-advised to consider those in planning your pub.
But what about the intangibles? As we wrap up the first ever OnMilwaukee.com Bar Month, our staff took a moment reflect on the qualities that grace our favorite watering holes. As usual, please add your own using the Talkbacks below:
Bartenders: The folks behind the bar are the stars of the show, and the brighter they shine, the better the experience. We’re not asking for fancy bottle juggling or an endless supply of jokes, but a friendly demeanor and prompt service go a long way. That said: People, tip your good bartenders a dollar per drink, OK?
Clean bathrooms: Since everyone has to eventually "break the seal," having a clean, well-stocked spot to do so is a must. Vomit, urine, sanitary supplies, wet toilet paper on the floor and standing water shouldn’t be visible in any bar bathroom.
Community involvement: One of the easiest ways for bars to encourage repeat customers is to sponsor teams in softball, volleyball, kickball, bowling or dart leagues. The teams stop in to have a cocktail to celebrate victory or drown defeat. The teams then add to the ambience of the bar. Shrewd bar owners, like Chris Leffler at Leff's Lucky Town, keep the competition going by having teams compete in contests to see which will buy the most pitchers. Team spirit can add to ambience at bars, but it's also important that the bar be involved in charitable events and sponsor fun things like golf outings, tailgate parties and other endeavors to foster camaraderie among the clientele.
Décor: Whether you're going for upscale, sports bar, kitschy or Irish, pick a theme and go for it. And sometimes, resist the urge to add that extra frame on the wall. Take Paddy's Irish Pub … it started out small and homey but grew into the House on the Rock of Irish bars. Sometimes décor can go overboard.
Easy access to water: Having a free-standing water cooler with serve-yourself cups or glasses in your bar saves waiting time for both the thirsty and the thirst-quenchers (aka bartenders). Many coffee shops do it, why can’t more bars?
History: You can't help the fact that your bar wasn't opened 100 years ago, but in Milwaukee, so many taverns are housed in buildings with some history. Don't fight the history of your bar, embrace it. It brings a sense of continuity between the generations and is one of the reasons Milwaukee's drinking culture is so special. We're called Cream City for more than just our beer.
Interesting clientele: In the absence of things like a theme or a good selection of live music, a good bar can become a great bar thanks to its interesting clientele. Perfect example is in the heart of Bay View. The Palm Tavern ain't much to look at. There's no real theme and there are no hip bands. But you know that every time you go there, you can strike up a conversation with anyone in blabbing distance and you'll have a good time.
Jukebox/music: It's hard to consider a bar to be your "favorite" if they don't occasionally play some of your favorite songs. Jukeboxes create an interesting ambience. Did you ever notice that when you go to your favorite spot that you tend to hear the same songs during the night? Is that because the same people play the songs or the bar attracts different people with similar tastes? Many bars are now using iPods to provide the soundtrack, which can be good or bad, depending on the playlists.
There is one thing that can make or break a jukebox or iPod playlist -- and that is volume. Too many bars crank music to a level that makes conversation difficult. There is nothing wrong with jacking the volume at a peak time in the evening, but music should provide ambience, not a reason for shouting.
An example of a great jukebox is Vitucci's. A great stereo CD collection? Wolski's.
Other things to do: Sitting around at a bar can get old after a while, so diversions such as pool, darts, Golden Tee or shuffle board are a always a welcome addition. Games also work well as tools to ease the tension of a first date.
Smokiness: Even smokers don't like sitting in overly smoky bars. Here's a good barometer: if you reek like ashtray the next morning, even if you just had one drink, the bar is too smoky. Everyone appreciates a bar's investment in a quality "smoke eater."
Snacks/Food: Having something good to eat while sitting around with friends is always a plus, whether it's free popcorn and peanuts or a menu that clientele can order from. It's perfect for those that need something in their stomaches to soak up all alcohol they're consuming or something extra that can add to a night of bar hopping.
Theme: A bar can benefit from a good theme, like, say, sports (soccer, baseball, Packers bar) or location (Caribbean, European). Good examples of this are Trocadero -- whose French theme exhibits itself in the small newsstand, zinc bar and faux Metro passageway connecting the dining room -- and Carleton Grange, a soccer pub that is tastefully appointed. Too much theme is perhaps worse than anything, however (see décor). For example Hooter's and that Appleton bar where it's Christmas all year 'round.