Almost exactly six years ago, we introduced you to The Monkey Bar. Since then, "the monkey" has done a lot of growing up, culminating in a new look and feel in a new location that reopened officially last week.
A lot of the regular bartenders are still there, including owner and founder Diane Dowland. She has a different business partner than when she started, bringing in Tim Beuth about three years ago. The new bar, just a block and a half southeast at 1619 S. 1st St., is substantially bigger and noticeably less kitschy. Gone are the cuddly monkeys and stuffed animals. The new look is sleek and modern, and even the logo is more serious (think old Bango vs. new Bango).
But monkey business is good business, and with a back room for live music and more room to roam, Dowland is hoping that the new look will lead to increased success.
"We just grew out of the old place," says Dowland. "Tim brings in more of a Downtown and East Side feel, while I bring in more of a South Side live music, alternative crowd, though I hate that word."
Despite its new look, Dowland says she's holding on to the personality that her regulars loved at the old bar. But she admits some customers have been shocked by the new vibe -- which on its first Friday found itself doing a brisk business.
"We have more possibility and potential," she says. "It's less smoky, and my regulars appreciate more of a crowd."
In short, The Monkey Bar doesn't look like a corner tavern anymore, and Dowland is OK with the evolution. She says the credit for the new design belongs to Beuth, and the look is his vision come to life: cool, mellow colors, minimalist decoration, a loud jukebox and limited monkey-themed kitsch.
Dowland says also she's focusing on booking local bands, beginning with long-lived ska outfit The Invaders. She's not trying to compete with the Cactus Club, she says, and when there isn't music, the back room will serve as a second bar.
"I'm not going to book music just to book music. I'll book it as it comes along," says Dowland.
Owning a bar, working late nights and keeping another business afloat during the day, it's easy to see how the industry can be a grind - "the drinking is my third job: the most fun, but the least productive" -- but Dowland says she's reinvigorated by the new location.
"I'm so excited, you have no idea. I even said I would do karaoke for the first time in years - and I hated karaoke."
Ultimately, Dowland says The Monkey Bar's new location gives her the opportunity to run the bar she wanted, even when space wouldn't allow it.
"I overmarketed quite a bit. I marketed ‘big bar' in a small bar. It got really crowded, which was good. It got us to where we are now."
Andy is the founder and co-owner of OnMilwaukee.com. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.
Before launching OnMilwaukee.com in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.
Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.