By Julie Lawrence Special to Published Jan 22, 2008 at 5:23 AM Photography: Damien Legault

The secret was out months ago.

Bobby Head, an owner of Water Street's swanky Centanni Piano Bar, was working on a Third Ward project that was shaping up to be the classy new kid on the block.

The season changed to fall, and when the holidays passed, we all realized the projected December 2007 open date wasn't going to become a reality.

Then again, gutting the former Dinesen's Leather Only at 231 E. Buffalo St. and transforming it into the stunning space that is now Soho 7 took time. 

The results of this major overhaul are immaculate. Head clearly spared no expense on this latest endeavor, which he explains as "New York-conceived, Miami-nourished and Milwaukee-born."

Dubbing it a "true lounge," Head says Soho 7 is for the crowd that has matured past the waste-face Water Street scene and is looking for a nicer space to sip a drink. Still, this description seems to paint something of an understated picture.

Small white candles illuminate the area leading up to the heavy front doors, beyond which a sea of plush couches, gatherings of candles and what could pass as the city's largest framed mirror complement the immense ground floor bar.

The stark, aesthetic contrasts of the room catch the eye immediately. Cream white walls accented with dark, candle-lit blocks cascade down from the high, exposed wooden beam ceiling and stylish clusters of light fixtures hang sporadically, creating a pleasant glow throughout.

Cream City brick surrounds the main bar's liquor displays and the split-level stairs in the back lead up to a second bar and sitting area that is separated from the main room by elegant ivory sheers.

Last Tuesday's grand opening yielded a mega crowd of chic connoisseurs who appeared more than happy to clean up a bit for a night out. Soho 7 seems targeted toward the fashion-forward set -- a candle encircled shrine-like portrait of Audrey Hepburn hangs highly on the wall across from the door -- and stands as the new place to see and be seen.

Cocktail waitresses -- two per table, a la fine dining restaurants -- don coordinated '60s-style black dresses and are well versed in the lounge's lengthy drink list. Predominantly high-end, the menu features a variety of vodka-based drinks that come as either cocktails ($8) or martinis ($10), scotch blends in rare vintages and grappa. Surprisingly, the beverage list saves room for bottles of Miller and Pabst Blue Ribbon (Milwaukee-born, indeed).

Bottle service is available for premium liquors and includes mixers for $170.

Overflowing with little extras -- a $2 coat check and a women's bathroom that doubles as a complimentary beauty bar, for example -- Soho 7 is definitely posh, but avoids overkill with reasonable prices and an atmosphere that is not intimidating. It's a far cry from the neighborhood bars Milwaukeeans flock to for happy hour -- it doesn't open until 7 p.m., anyhow -- but it works well in the Third Ward as its own cushy evening destination.

Julie Lawrence Special to staff writer Julie Lawrence grew up in Wauwatosa and has lived her whole life in the Milwaukee area.

As any “word nerd” can attest, you never know when inspiration will strike, so from a very early age Julie has rarely been seen sans pen and little notebook. At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee it seemed only natural that she major in journalism. When offered her an avenue to combine her writing and the city she knows and loves in late 2004, she knew it was meant to be. Around the office, she answers to a plethora of nicknames, including “Lar,” (short for “Larry,” which is short for “Lawrence”) as well as the mysteriously-sourced “Bill Murray.”