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Step into Kochanski’s Concertina Beer Hall at 1920 S 37th St. and it’s like taking a step back in time.
The bar, which was built in 1900 is among a dying breed of old-school, neighborhood Milwaukee corner taverns, each of which contributes in its own unique way to the preservation of the Cream City's cultural history.
"I tell people this is a genuine time machine bar," notes owner Andy Kochanski, who purchased the bar from Art Altenburg a decade ago. "You can’t create this. This is old school Milwaukee."
Like so many bars built around the turn of the 20th century, Kochanski’s has a colorful history. In the early 1900’s it served as a rooming house (and relatedly, a brothel) where agricultural workers who tended to the celery fields that surrounded the building took up residence.
During that same period of time, it also served as a hub and office space for local unions. Over the years, the building housed multiple venues, including the Parakeet Tap Tavern, before opening as Art Altenburg’s Concertina Bar in 1982, a spot which became a haven for folks who enjoyed a night of beer, friends and polka dancing.
"I remember even before I bought the bar, I thought this place was pretty cool," says Kochanski. "It was to the point where I would never come here, unless I was bringing an Art’s virgin … or a bunch of them. It was fun to see the look on peoples’ faces when you’d take them through the door and there were these old timers playing polka."
About that polka
And polka and accordions still rule supreme at the bar, which sports a number of them in various places throughout the bar. Five concertinas came with the property, notes Kochanski, but there are a growing number, many of which guests have donated to the bar throughout the years.
In kind, he maintains a good deal of the traditions on which Arts was founded, including hosting a Wednesday night polka jam during which old-timers and new come out to play their concertinas, Slovenian button boxes and accordions.
"Come down and experience what these guys have established," says Kochanski, who notes he doesn’t book the polka bands; they just show up. "Once these guys are dead and gone, you’re not going to see this anymore. So, it’s about coming and experiencing it so that you can say: ‘Yeah, I remember that.’"
Meanwhile, guests come to enjoy a beer or three, maybe even from the bar's collection of Polish brews, which is the biggest you’ll find in the State of Wisconsin. Typically, there are at least 10-15 options, ranging from Okocim Pilsner to darker brews like Black Boss Porter. And Kochanski says customers shouldn’t be afraid to try them out.
"If I can get it, I want it," Kochanski says. "And I make sure to carry Polish beer that tastes good. There have been times when I brought in a beer that tastes like ‘licking someone’s asshole’... and I said no way. The goal is to get people to have a good experience with Polish beer."
Psst. Kochanski’s is also one of only about three bars to have Pabst Andeker (from the newly revived Pabst Brewery Downtown) on tap. Drink it up, but don’t tell.
Of course, if polka isn’t your thing, Kochanski’s is also a great spot to see other live music.
"Nowadays polka doesn’t pay the bills," Kochanski says. So, he’s brought on a variety of other bands who play live at the bar on a regular basis.
"I tell people we have polka, rockabilly, blues, swing, some punk, some metal. But I cater towards bands that do original music. I want bands to use this place as a tool to catapult themselves, to give them an audience for their work. And that’s part of the motivation."
Some shows feature dueling bands on two stages, and Kochanski says he regularly offers matinee shows on Sundays so that parents can bring their kids to the bar and give them a taste of great live music
"Milwaukee had a great music scene when I was growing up, and it’s not like that now. We had such diversity in venues. And people played their own stuff. If I can’t change the music scene in Milwaukee now, I’ve got to change it for the next generation."
One of the things you should know about Kochanski’s is that there doesn’t seem to be a "right" way to pronounce the name of the bar.
"My parents say ‘ko-CHAN-skee’" says Kochanski. "And I say ‘ko-HAN-skee’ ... but folks from Poland who I’ve talked to actually pronounce it ‘ko-HINE-skee’ ... so I answer to any of those."
No matter how you choose to pronounce it, Kochanski still means "lover boy" in Polish.
But it's not just the name that's intriguing. Kochanski's also harbors an impressive collection of unique (and sometimes quirky) elements that make it irresistible to the lover of all things kitsch.
Take for instance the fascinating collection of bar snacks behind the bar, which includes options like Poprocks and wax mustaches, fangs and lips. Kochanski says the wax sundries get used all the time; people buy them and take selfies or give them to their kids. And they come in handy during Kochanski’s annual Mustachio Bashio, a fundraiser held the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend each year to raise money for Movember and men's health.
Or how about those movies playing on the television above the bar? You’re likely to spy anything from bad b-movies to weird sci-fi and, as Kochanski says "anything campy, kitschy or weird.".
In the back of the bar, you’ll also find a vintage French Bonzini foosball table, which is likely the only one in Wisconsin.
Reel back around and head to the front of the bar near the stage and you’ll find a German NSM Jukebox which contains a diverse collection of Kochanski’s own CD collection including selections of big band, Prince and a host of bands who have played at the bar over the years. "It runs the gamut," he says. "There’s something for everyone."
And if you look straight up, you’ll see a beautifully restored vintage ceiling which Kochanski says he installed with the help of Tyler Bergstrom, a craftsman who has handled restoration for area churches as well as the Pabst Mansion.
"When I first owned the place, there was so much smoke damage, and the ceiling was cracked and dirty. For a while, I spray painted the word ‘tin’ over and over again, and I’d tell people it was a Polish tin ceiling," Kochanski says with a smile, noting that all but one customer understood that he was joking around.
Kochanski says folks are also intrigued by the green door on the exterior fire escape. "It’s a tribute to Marilyn Chambers," he says. "And her one movie, ‘Behind the Green Door.’ It’s sort of my homage to the fact that this used to be a whorehouse."
Kochanski’s gorgeous beer garden
Among the improvements Kochanski has made to the property over the past decade, the crown jewel is the beer garden, which is potentially the largest in the city. It’s a project, Kochanski says, that was nine years in the making. But, he chipped away at it year after year.
"For the longest time, I was taking people to the door and making them look outside at the pile of dirt and explaining the vision," he says. "And it’s so hard to believe that it’s there now, and it’s exactly as I envisioned it."
During the summer months, it’s a virtual oasis, complete with a gorgeous landscaped patio that Kochanski – who works as an arborist for the City of Milwaukee – designed himself. There’s also a fountain, which holds particular meaning for Kochanski.
"I call it my "mom and dad fountain,’" he says, his voice trembling slightly with emotion. "It has two spires, one for my dad who was taller, and one for my mom. My dad just died two Novembers ago. He was a vet. And during the after-funeral party, which we had here, we had a color guard and the whole nine yards.
"And I got up on a ladder next to the fountain and made a speech about my father and how much he loved this place. And then I poured some of his ashes down his spire. And when my mom dies, we’ll do the same with hers."
As a next step, Kochanski say he’s working to convert the fountain to collect rainwater, which will be recycled to supply irrigation for the raised flower bed.
The beer garden also contains a building that looks suspiciously similar to a smokehouse. But Kochanski laughs when I ask him what it is.
"The first year I owned this place, I just bled money to keep it heated," he says. "I kept the heat at a chilly 60 degrees, and my bills were still $1,200 a month. So, I installed an outdoor wood-burning boiler, and my bill literally went down to zero. It was so dramatic that WE Energies actually freaked out … now we’re only bar in Milwaukee to be heated entirely with wood."
Kochanski says he’s all about "sticking it" to WE Energies, so he’s also planning to install solar panels on the roof to generate electricity in the months to come.
Kochanski says one of the best things about the beer garden is that’s it’s perfect for holding events. And when he says "events" he means anything and everything from fundraisers and music festivals, to car and motorcycle shows to old-school '80s-style wrestling matches and night markets. And yes, that's Kochanski himself hocking beverages from a cooler at one of the wrestling matches that took place this past summer.
The bar also hosts downright interesting cultural events including the upcoming Bummel tour for the dramatic German cultural organization Muller Fasching Verein Nordamerika Inc., which takes place on Jan. 13, 2018 from 8:30 to 9:30 p.m.
"Come and bring a camera," Kochanski says. "And bring friends. But don’t tell them a thing about what’s happening. Trust me."
In the end, Kochanski says he just wants people to come out and enjoy the history and culture of the space.
"I’m a nostalgic guy," Kochanski says. "Sometimes I’ll be in here by myself and I’ll look around, or smell a crazy old smell. And it will make me miss the bar when Art [Altenburg] had it. It was what attracted me to the bar in the first place. It was a special place. And my goal is to make this a special place for others."
It’s a mission he takes seriously.
"I want people from out of town to come here and then go back home and tell people about it, and tell other bands to play here," he says. "I look at myself as an ambassador to Milwaukee. There have been NPR stories about this place, and twice I’ve had it where people come … I remember two couples distinctly, one from New York and one from Florida. And they both told me they came here straight from the airport when they arrived. I have no idea whether this experience will be the only one someone has … the only impression of Milwaukee they’ll have. And I want it to be the best possible."
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.