By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Dec 30, 2023 at 5:56 PM

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It may be found right on Main Street in Waukesha, but the cozy and neighborly House of Guinness certainly qualifies as a hidden gem. Just ask Guinness itself, which, according to the Irish pub’s current owners, didn’t know the bar – and the bar’s use of the brand in its name – existed for quite some time. 

"They tell us how long we flew under the radar before they realized that this name was being used, and then, by that point, they said, ‘Well, it’s too much hassle; you guys can keep going,’” laughed part-owner Ian Cliffe. 

"They mentioned to us an at an industry event that legal comes across us every few years and gets all up in arms, and they say, ‘Don’t worry about it, they’re basically grandfathered in',” added fellow part-owner Keith Kucharski. 

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While the bar may be a bit hush-hush at Guinness HQ, it’s by no means a secret to locals near and far, who’ve been rallying to the warm communal hub ever since it opened back in late 2000. Kucharski and Cliffe weren’t owners back then, but they did plant their flags at the neighborhood tap as early regulars.

The two fell in love with the pub and fell in love at the pub; Kucharski met his wife, Liz – who is Cliffe’s sister – at House of Guinness, which also served as the setting for Cliffe’s first date with his spouse, Ellie.  

"Both Keith and I had a history of coming here and being here,” Cliffe recalled. “Even as I moved around, I would always come back to this bar.”

So when the bar became available after cycling through some different owners over the years, the two couples decided to make House of Guinness even more a part of their story and purchased the pub in 2017. 

"It’s been nice to keep something that has become such a staple of the community,” Kucharski said. “I know that there have been a number of owners that have come through and the regulars really want to be sure that not too much changes and that this remains a meeting place for the community and for them.”

"It’s been a lot of fun,” Cliffe said. “We’ve been really working to preserve what we thought were the best qualities of the bar while adding our touches to it and keeping improving on the idea.” 

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Over the years, Cliffe and Kucharski have made fixes, both modest and major, to the pub – from putting in a new classic tin ceiling and improving some of the seating and restrooms, to moving its regular live music from a stage near the front window back to the fireplace area further into the space. Thus far, the tweaks and remodelings have been well-received – especially compared to some past controversial alterations.

"The owner before us had installed televisions … so that made our life much easier,” Cliffe joked. 

The TVs have survived the transition – but unless there’s a big game on, the House of Guinness generally keeps its mere two screens shut off. After all, the white noise from a television is rendered wholly unnecessary here, as conversation and hubbub from the crowd – ranging from young and old, friends age-old and newly met – fills the air instead. 

Sure, the bar looks very traditional from the outside, with its classic and clean black-and-gold signage and trim (as well as some green ivy when the season's right). However, it feels even more like a vintage Irish pub inside – due to the décor, yes, intimately lit without feeling drab complete with the dark-hued tin ceiling, warm brown walls, wooden beams in the middle, old beer signage and a fireplace nook. But most of all, it feels classic and familiar because of the atmosphere, clearly centered around cozy conversation and neighborly bants. (Sorry, you spend long enough in an Irish pub setting surrounded by Guinness and other ales from across the pond, the slang is bound to slip through.) 

Indeed, upon my latest trip, I fell into conversation (and a High Life or two) courtesy of a gaggle of regulars perched at the bar, happy and eager to talk about the pub, the notable cameo it played in their own love story, the area, the NFC North, their ongoing trivia game, the traitor from another team coming over for chats – plus maybe a few answers – and more. What was supposed to be a quick stop for some photos and video turned into a longer-than-expected stay fueled by lovely conversation and laughs – all by House of Guinness’ design. 

“Everybody talks to everyone in here,” said Pamela Kramer, a longtime Waukesha resident and House of Guinness fan along with her husband, Kelly.

“We really pride ourselves on creating an atmosphere that people can talk and gander,” Cliffe said. “That’s probably one of the things I’ve heard from the regulars that they like the most – that even on nights where there’s big loud bands, there’s breaks where you can talk to the person next to you.

“One of the biggest programs we started here was the whiskey club – and we’ve kept it a pen-and-paper process because it encourages that conversation. You come into the bar and somebody’s got out their whiskey club sheet, recording what they’re drinking. You get yours, and all of a sudden people are passing sheets back and forth, rather than being locked in on an app.” 

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When it comes to the liquid spirits served alongside the convivial spirit, in addition to the whiskey club and its several waters of life, House of Guinness offers a number of options from near and far – from classic Miller products, to craft brews like Hinterland and Raised Grain, to overseas specialties like Strongbow, Magners, Old Speckled Hen, Belhaven and, of course, a pint of the Black Stuff. The pub also makes a number of cocktails – including an Irish coffee, a cherry harvest mule and an old fashioned – complete with house-made bitters, syrups and even a family-recipe eggnog for the holidays. 

As for the holidays, House of Guinness keeps things more subdued around Christmas – a few small wreaths here, some small Christmas lights there, but otherwise Cliffe’s happy to keep it “the quiet space amongst the storm” of the holiday chaos. The pub does, however, ring in the new year in its special way, starting things early on New Year’s Eve with festivities, bands and cheerful crowds gathering for a toast at 6 p.m. – aka midnight in Dublin. 

"This place is wall to wall on New Year’s Eve in the afternoon,” Cliffe noted. “That’s been a huge tradition that’s really lived on.”

Of course, House of Guinness goes big for St. Patty’s Day a few months later, with a sprawling party that spills out into its small back porch and parking lot space with bands, heaters and more. (And considering the amount of love stories I heard about fortuitous first dates and marriages involving the pub, maybe it’s a great stop for Valentine’s Day too.)

But really, between trivia on Thursdays, live music on Saturdays and the friendly vibes all the other days, it sure seems like, if it’s a day that ends with a Y, it feels like a holiday at House of Guinness: warm, festive and familial like a handsome Christmas sweater. 

"Part of the tagline for our branding is ‘Welcome home,’” Kucharski said. “I think that’s what we’re trying to hold onto and make a place that feels that way.”

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.