"Bar Month" at OnMilwaukee is brought to you by Miller Brewing Company, calling Milwaukee home since 1855. For the entire month of March, we're serving up fun articles on bars, clubs and beverages – including guides, the latest trends, bar reviews, the results of our Best of Bars poll and more. Grab a designated driver and dive in!
Since it opened last June, we’ve written quite a bit about Stella Van Buren, the posh Italian-American steakhouse located on the third floor of the new Westin Hotel, 550 N. Van Buren St. But we’ve mostly written about the menu, which, as dining writer Lori Fredrich notes, combines the flavors of a classic Italian kitchen with American steakhouse influences. It’s upscale comfort food, and, enjoyed within a uniquely impressive atmosphere, Stella is a cool concept, well-executed.
But what we haven’t talked about as much, until now, is the excellent drinking that can be done at Stella Van Buren.
I was there a couple weeks ago for a Johnnie Walker Black Label "Deconstruction Event," which was as dope and utterly discombobulating – for a whisky noob, at least – as it sounds. Among other interesting things I learned from whisky specialist Martin Duffy, a U.S. Brand Representative for Glencairn Crystal, were that more than 40 different malts go into Johnnie Walker Black, age doesn’t make whisky better – though, he’d probably argue, it’s gotta be at least 12 years – it just makes it different, and look out for Jane Walker, the new, special-edition female iteration of the brand that celebrates women who lead the way. Also, I got a little bit tipsy.
Anyway, I returned recently with a friend for happy hour because I'd only really spent time in the back room and wanted to see the space and try some of Stella’s esteemed (happier-tasting?) beverages. So that’s why we’re here.
First, it’s hard to overstate just how distinctive Stella’s setting and vibe are. When you walk into the Westin, on the southeast side of Downtown, you don’t immediately think its third-floor restaurant will reveal some breathtaking views. But somehow it does, because the vantage point and angle aren’t ones you’re used to, and the design of the place deftly contours to the outlooks it has. From inside its crisp-yet-cozy dining room, patrons can look out to the south and west at a (rapidly improving) cityscape through beautiful floor-to-ceiling windows that allow in brilliant natural light – especially at a happy-hour sunset – that sets the tone for the entire ambience.
The well-lit space is airy and dynamic, with comfy booths, fine tabletops and a multi-tiered back bar, all atop a handsome hardwood floor. But as large and open as the restaurant is, when it’s crowded – and it’s often crowded, with couples, hotel business travelers and after-work colleagues from the U.S. Bank building, to which it’s connected – Stella is lively, not-quite loud and vibrant. It feels like a trendy lounge in New York City, transplanted to little old Milwaukee, and that feels very different and fun.
The restaurant seats about 180 diners and there’s another 50 spots at the bar, two of which my friend and I occupy, prepared to pretend to belong – or, at least, refrain from ordering Jack and Cokes.
Sitting at the sleek bar, we are staring at an entire wall filled with every type of alcohol imaginable, complete with a ladder to scale the shelves and a couple of flat screen TVs. We ask the friendly bartender – all of the servers at Stella seem to be friendly – for some suggestions. Given the popular recommendations, the extensive bourbon list and the mason jars of fresh craft garnishes, we quickly realize signature cocktails are the way to go, happy-hour discounts be damned.
Because why would you put your name on something that wasn’t good, I ordered the Stella Old Fashioned, which was made with Copper and Kings brandy, vanilla demerara syrup and Bittercube Cherry Bark Vanilla Bitters. It was $12 and, indeed, it was very, very good. My friend got the Italian Paloma ($10), another house favorite, which comprised Altos silver tequila, agave and house-made rosemary grapefruit soda, and claimed, "This is the best thing I’ve ever drank." I’ve seen this person mix Juicy Juice and Skol vodka, but, nevertheless, it was a pretty glowing review.
The craft cocktail list consists of about a dozen drinks, including the Botanico Ubriaco (Rehorst gin, Thatcher's Organic Elderflower liqueur, Yellow Chartreuse, strawberry), the Basito (Twisted Path white rum, brown sugar, basil, lime, house-made ginger beer) and the Violette Femme (Pisco Portón, blackberry, crème de violette, lemon, egg white). Most of the professional-looking people around us were sipping on glasses of wine ($7 during Happy Hour) and craft beers ($5 drafts), and behind us a suited-up group of young guys in nice ties was exchanging glory-day tales of college drinking – but, hey, bankers.
Stella also now serves brunch, for which it has a deliciously different drink list. Those beverage options include fresh juices like the Ginger Sunrise with carrot, golden beet, orange ginger and turmeric and the Lean Green with kale, apple, spinach, cucumber and lemon ($7 each); brunch cocktails like a specialty Bloody Mary with Nueske's bacon-washed Wheatley vodka, housemade serrano bloody mix, chili lime-infused sea salt served and a Miller High Life pony chaser ($8), the Cello-mosa with housemade limoncello, citrus and bubbly ($6), and the East Side Spritz with Wheatley vodka, bubbles and house-made raspberry limoncello ($12.).
Not even open for one year and already regarded for the restaurant’s outstanding food, Stella Van Buren, thanks to its ambience and craft cocktails, also makes for an equally superb experience as just a bar – a really, really, really nice bar.
Stella Van Buren is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Hours are 6:30 to 11 a.m. for breakfast (coffee bar is open 6-10 a.m.), 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. for lunch and 5 to 10 p.m. for dinner. Bar hours are 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.
Born in Milwaukee but a product of Shorewood High School (go ‘Hounds!) and Northwestern University (go ‘Cats!), Jimmy never knew the schoolboy bliss of cheering for a winning football, basketball or baseball team. So he ditched being a fan in order to cover sports professionally - occasionally objectively, always passionately. He's lived in Chicago, New York and Dallas, but now resides again in his beloved Brew City and is an ardent attacker of the notorious Milwaukee Inferiority Complex.
After interning at print publications like Birds and Blooms (official motto: "America's #1 backyard birding and gardening magazine!"), Sports Illustrated (unofficial motto: "Subscribe and save up to 90% off the cover price!") and The Dallas Morning News (a newspaper!), Jimmy worked for web outlets like CBSSports.com, where he was a Packers beat reporter, and FOX Sports Wisconsin, where he managed digital content. He's a proponent and frequent user of em dashes, parenthetical asides, descriptive appositives and, really, anything that makes his sentences longer and more needlessly complex.
Jimmy appreciates references to late '90s Brewers and Bucks players and is the curator of the unofficial John Jaha Hall of Fame. He also enjoys running, biking and soccer, but isn't too annoying about them. He writes about sports - both mainstream and unconventional - and non-sports, including history, music, food, art and even golf (just kidding!), and welcomes reader suggestions for off-the-beaten-path story ideas.