In the last few years, several Milwaukee landmarks either closed their doors or prepared to shut down, leaving local kitsch lovers and sentimental fools shaking their heads, wondering why they didn't visit just one more time.
These weren't the kind of places people put on postcards: the venerable old Goldmann's Department Store, Art's Concertina Bar, Drew's Variety, The National Liquor Bar and Bryant's Cocktail Lounge. These were the sort of places that Milwaukee insiders kept to themselves -- and when they faded away, many didn't notice because they didn't know they existed in the first place.
Fortunately, a handful of Milwaukee's under-the-radar landmarks remain -- but for how long? In this increasingly homogenized, upscale version of Brew City, these secret treasures seem like anachronisms -- businesses from another era. In October, OnMilwaukee.com staff writer Molly Snyder Edler asked readers in a blog if Milwaukee was losing its retro, and listed seven places that she feared were in jeopardy. Here's a list of 10 more businesses that persevere ... and we at OnMilwaukee.com hope they stick around for many, many years to come.
American Science and Surplus
6901 W. Oklahoma Ave.
Possibly the funniest, most unique store in Milwaukee now, it must've been the wackiest business far and away when it opened sometime around 1937 (even they don't know for sure). The place to go for science experiments, bong-making materials or a donkey cigarette dispenser that shoot butts from the ass's ass (think about how clever that is). Many of the thousands of items serve no purpose to people other than chemists or engineers, but the hand-written descriptions alone are worth an hour-long visit. But just try to spend only one hour there; before you know it, you'll have strolled the aisles for much, much longer. Their slogan is "incredible stuff, unbelievable prices," and the store still does a brisk business. It also has a comprehensive and well-built eCommerce section on its Web site, sciplus.com.
2501 S. Delaware Ave.
Legend has it that this one-of-a-kind ice cream bar was the brainchild of former employees of the now shuttered Bryant's Cocktail Lounge. And if that's true, then a little bit of Bryant's lives on this awesome tavern, the perennial winner of OnMilwaukee.com's readers' pick for "best bar for a secret rendezvous." Increasingly, the bar is also at randomly open, which leads us to fear for its future as ownership gets older. Soak it in while you can -- with a giant Tiki Love Bowl, a grasshopper or any of their other delicious drinks. It's a true, old-school Milwaukee landmark.
The Downer Theatre
2589 N. Downer Ave.
Fortunately, Landmark Theatres owns both the Downer and the Oriental (see below), so these vintage cinemas aren't going anywhere anytime soon. This neighborhood mainstay first opened its doors on Dec. 3, 1915. At a construction cost of nearly $65,000, it was considered one of the finest and most modernly-equipped movie houses in a residential district in the United States. At the time, it held 1,200 moviegoers, entertaining them with a Weickhardt pipe organ and a live orchestra. When Landmark bought the Downer in 1989, it divided it into two screens, remodeling the dark and musty old building. They painted the auditoriums a bright shade of cream, and restored the building's decorative molding sand gaslight-type lanterns. They even matched the original vintage carpeting, breathing new life into Milwaukee's oldest operating movie theater.
Dretzka's Department Store
4746 S. Packard Ave., Cudahy
At 106 years old, Dretzka's is actually five years older than Cudahy, the city in which it resides. And if that isn't old-school, nothing is. Believe it or not, the store is managed by the great grandson of the original owners, and he keeps the business in the family working with his mom and his brother. If the future of retail is Wal-Mart and Target, then hats off to a local, indie department store still going strong after a century of doing business the old-fashioned way.
1020 E. Brady St.,
Glorioso's is one of the last of a dying breed. Once Milwaukee was full of ethnic grocery stores reflecting the various cultures of the European immigrants that settled here. Now Asian and Mexican groceries abound, but if you're looking for a taste of Italian Milwaukee, Glorioso's is one of very few choices. With a great deli and a selection of Italian specialties, it's a good place to grab a quick lunch or the raw materials for a yummy dinner.
Jim's Time Out
746 N. James Lovell St.
You might not be able to point it out on a map, but there's a townie bar smack dab in the middle of Downtown. Look for it nestled among much bigger fish, across the street from the fire house and kitty corner from the Milwaukee Public Museum. Jim's Time Out is the kind of low-key, neighborhood tap that could once be found everywhere in the city. And for some reason, it's still here.
Nite Owl Drive-In
830 E. Layton Ave.
It's not that old-timey drive in restaurants are unbelievably rare in Milwaukee. You need to look hard, but you can still find a few. But this place across from the airport seems especially unchanged. Why else would the "Brewtown Cruisers," a car club dedicated to 1949-'51 Lincoln and Mercurys, drop in for their car show, which they've done for 27 years running? According to a review at roadfood.com, one reader says he's been eating their food since 1958. And, considering this is the place that once billed itself as serving "the largest post-war hamburger in the area," you really owe it to yourself to order the "Jumbo" for a less-than-jumbo $4.
2230 N. Farwell Ave.
In 1917, a Milwaukee newspaper proclaimed "the Golden of Age of the moving picture business in Milwaukee is past." Nearly 10 years later -- July 2, 1927 to be exact -- the majestic Oriental Theatre opened for business. John and Thomas Saxe built 45 theaters around the country, but the Oriental was considered their crown jewel. Designed by Gustave A. Dick and Alex Bauer, the theater had the look of the East Indies.
The design, which remains largely intact today, was simply breathtaking. The building, itself, is a sight to behold. From blocks away, its distinctive minarets poke above the East Side skyline. Inside is even more spectacular. The entrance features Indian tiles with eight porcelain tile lions guarding the staircase to the theater. Inside the inner lobby, large murals of Oriental street scenes adorn the walls. Sixteen silver leafed elephant heads with coiled trunks support the inner lobby ceiling beams. As if that's not enough, East Indian idols, elephants and other distinct symbols round out the three brass and stained glass chandeliers and their matching wall sconces. Home to six giant Buddhas, the auditorium ceilings are graced with a golden sunbeam and edged with 26 dragons standing on 26 elephant heads.
The Oriental today is still Milwaukee's largest theater with an incredible capacity of an 1,100 seats.
629 E. Silver Spring Dr., Whitefish Bay
Something about this Whitefish Bay variety store rolls with the times. Ask anyone of a certain age who grew up on Milwaukee's North Shore, and they'll recount shopping at Winkie's with a glint in their eyes. Upstairs, it's gifts, candy and sports memorabilia. Downstairs, it's toys, arts and crafts and dime store fare. But even as the Silver Spring thoroughfare gets more and more upscale, Winkie's perseveres, staying current and relevant -- and it's still a favorite shops of kids and adults, alike.
1836 N. Pulaski St.
You might think that a 90-year-old tavern that's tough to find even for seasoned East Siders, may have lost its cool factor. Considering more people know about the "I Closed Wolksi's" bumper sticker than where the bar even is, you may think time has passed the bar by. But you'd be wrong. Maybe it's the free popcorn. Maybe it's the darts. Maybe it's the mix of old East Side regulars and young Marquette kids, but this delightfully uncomplicated tavern retains its "je ne sais quoi" that has inspired patrons to plaster bumper sticks on every corner of the globe.
Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. 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.