By Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor Published Oct 24, 2011 at 9:01 AM

Does Milwaukee need another hamburger joint? What if it includes karaoke, racy bingo and free drag shows?

Welcome to Hamburger Mary's, the only national restaurant chain with a gay identity. From the garishly painted purple exterior to the deep fried menu and the extraordinary entertainment, Mary's is way over the top.

In a delicious bit of irony, the new Milwaukee Mary's outpost is in a remodeled Bay View building that formerly housed an Omega burger and frozen custard fast food restaurant. Talk about a makeover.

Hamburger Mary's was born in San Francisco in 1972. As a chain, it has expanded and contracted since then.

"Mary's has been on a roller coaster ride for 40 years," says Ashley Wright, who with his twin brother Brandon owns the franchise for a Chicago restaurant as well as Milwaukee's. Several years ago they also acquired 50% of the corporate company.

The chain is now on the way back up. The Bay View outlet, which had a soft opening a few weeks ago, is currently No. 10 in the group. A new St. Louis restaurant scheduled to open soon will be the 11th.

Wright says Mary's is a specialty destination business that never opens more than one location in a city. "It is campy and silly. We have fun."

That doesn't mean the food is slighted, he adds. Mary takes her cooking very seriously.

Some menu items would make a cardiologist wince. Among the appetizers, mac 'n' cheese fritters ($6) are breaded, deep fried and served with barbecue sauce. A beer and cheese dip ($7) is accompanied by a deep fried soft pretzel.

Brittney Fried Spears ($5.50) are deep fried pickle spears.

Four entree salads include Crispy Caramel Chicken ($10), a mix of greens, tomatoes, bacon, croutons, shredded cheese and fried chicken coated with a caramel sauce. The entire salad is tossed with ranch dressing.

For dessert, you can try three deep fried Twinkies, topped with raspberry sauce and whipped cream ($5).

But there are ways to eat healthy at Mary's. All of the burgers are a half pound, and beef can be swapped out for ground turkey, free range chicken breast or a black bean patty at no extra charge. A lettuce cup can be substituted for the standard brioche or multigrain bun.

A wide range of loaded burgers are on the menu. The Oktoberfest ($12) features bratwurst ground into the beef patty. Sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and spicy brown mustard are added, and the creation is served on a pretzel roll.

Buffy the Burger Slayer ($10.50) features a red wine sauce, Swiss cheese, garlic aioli and a toasted garlic bun. The Gouda Morning Burger ($12) includes gouda cheese, bacon, a fried egg, spinach and honey mustard. Each burger comes with a side.

A selection of 10 sandwiches, also accompanied by a side, runs the gamut from cranberry chicken salad ($9) and a garden hummus wrap ($8.75) to a meatloaf sammy and a buffalo chicken wrap (both $9.50). Entrees include fish and chips ($12.50) and smoked kielbasa with sauerkraut, mashed potatoes, a deep fried soft pretzel and stone ground mustard ($12).

Although Mary's small bar stocks a few wines, beer and cocktails are emphasized. Nine Wisconsin brews are on tap. Mojitos, margaritas and martinis with names like the Charo and Lady Marmalade are priced from $6 to $9. Non-alcoholic milk shakes are also available.

Everything on the menu is served for lunch and dinner. The kitchen offers an abbreviated menu after 10 p.m. The restaurant opens at 10 a.m. Saturday and Sunday – an hour earlier than weekdays – to serve brunch.

Hamburger Mary's is heavily into kitsch. An assortment of garage-sale quality chandeliers, including one made out of wine glasses, hangs from the ceiling.

The old Omega frozen custard tables have been decoupaged into tributes to Cher, Madonna, Elvis, Audrey Hepburn and Betty Boop. High-heeled shoes are prominent in the eclectic decorating scheme, and customers' checks are presented to tables inside women's shoes.

A small stage has been built in the restaurant to accommodate the Saturday night drag shows – "Dining with the Divas" – scheduled to begin after the Nov. 4 grand opening. There are no plans to charge a cover for entertainment.

Wednesday night bingo will be hosted by a drag queen, and the proceeds will go to a different local charity every week. "It's definitely not your grandma's church bingo. It's a little risque," Wright says.

Trivia contests are scheduled for Thursdays, and karaoke – it's called Mary-oke – will be featured on Fridays.

The dining room can seat about 100, and a new patio that has been constructed on part of the old Omega drive-thru can handle another 40. Outdoor heaters have been ordered for the patio.

Many customers, especially those who dine during the day, are likely to not notice Mary's gay vibe. Wright says from its beginnings in San Francisco, the chain has always endeavored to be a bridge between the gay and straight worlds. Not all of Mary's franchisees are gay.

"We certainly appeal to the LGBT community, but we are also a part of the broader community. We don't think of ourselves as a gay restaurant," he says.

Mary and the crew hang out at 2130 S. Kinnickinnic Ave.

Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor

Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.

During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.

Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.