"Bar Month" at OnMilwaukee.com is back for another round! The whole month of February, we're serving up intoxicatingly fun bars and club articles -- including guides, bartender profiles, drink recipes and even a little Brew City bar history. Cheers!
The Eastsider, 1732 E. North Ave., has been a tavern since the post-Prohibition days and an East Side suds staple almost as long.
Recently purchased by Badger Poker's Jason Growel, the bar is getting a fresh perspective; and there to welcome the change is veteran bartender Steve Gilbertson. You'll find him engaging a room full of patrons each Saturday from 5 to 9 p.m. and appreciating his industry cohorts during Sunday's SIN nights.
He also shares his time with The Up and Under Pub family, where he pulls Thursday and Friday night shifts.
Gilbertson loves bartending and even after nearly a decade in the biz, his enthusiasm shows -- literally. On the inside of his right bicep he's tattooed his bartender's license number under the bar code of his favorite drink, John Powers Irish Whiskey.
OnMilwaukee.com: How long have you been a bartender?
Steve Gilbertson: About 10 years. I started in '98 at Gus' Mexican Cantina and by the time I was 19 I was running the bar. The owner also had a club called Bar Code, and I was running both of them and wasn't even old enough to drink. I then went to Pizza Man for a couple years and was a GM at Kenadee's for while.
OMC: What's your signature drink?
SG: I'm a homebrewer, so I'm more of a beer guy. I can spin a nice martini and have a Rolodex of drink recipes in my head, but I really just like Pabst or Irish whiskey. I keep it simple.
OMC: What's the most ridiculous thing you've seen a bar patron do?
SG: I've seen some ridiculous sh*t. Last night I saw the clumsiest drunk I've ever seen do a headstand. He was blackout drunk and somehow managed to stand on his head for two minutes without falling over.
I've seen drunks hit on a female bartender -- that's absolutely ridiculous. You're sloppy drunk and you think you actually have a chance?
Oh, and there was this guy Josh who used to hang out at Jo-Cat's Pub. He called it "church" and would show up at noon every Sunday and wouldn't leave until 2 a.m. He used to do "tough guy" shots, which involved lining up salt on the bar like it was coke, a lemon and a shot of tequila. He'd take the shot, snort the salt, and squirt the lemon in his eye. This guy used to do this, multiple times, every Sunday. And he would try to get people to do this with him!
OMC: Have you ever had to break up any bar fights?
SG: Entirely too many. Probably the worst was when I was at Kenadee's. It was a busy night and this scruffy dude in a suit -- and it was a bad suit -- was being a real pr*ck to the bartenders. Out of nowhere this chick comes up and grabs his arm, spins him around to yell at him and spills his beer. He pitches it at her, and since he's standing with his back against the bar I didn't actually see him hit her -- all I saw was his hand move and her hair fly. I grabbed him, pulled him off his feet and over the bar -- he looked like he was doing the backstroke trying to hit me.
I saw some bouncers coming to help and two regulars convinced me to let him go ... the second I do he rips a drink out of someone's hand and throws it at my head. It bounced off my shoulder and shattered on the wall. My bar back goes flying like Superman over the bar and grabs him. So yeah, I've had a few nasty ones.
OMC: Have you ever been seriously injured?
SG: No. A bottle to the head was the closest I've come.
OMC: So, why do you love bartending so much?
SG: It's a brilliant study in sociology. Sometimes I get my fill of people and on my days off I definitely appreciate solitude and sitting in a café reading a book. But for the most part, it's so much fun.
The best and worst part of it is that you're constantly the life of the party. You're expected to police the party, but also keep it running. You're everyone's counselor, everyone's best friend. It keeps you on your toes because you've got to be able to read people. You don't know if the person in front of you is a factory worker who just got off work and doesn't want to talk to a person in the world or his buddy from the same job who wants to talk to everyone.
Everybody wants something different when they come to the bar and your job is to figure out what they want and give it to them.
OMC: What do you like least about it?
SG: The thing that pisses me off about bartenders is that most of the ones I've met aren't bartenders; they're kids trying to get through school. There is a level of professionalism involved but a lot of people blow it off.
OMC: What do you do when you're not bartending?
SG: I'm pretty boring. I'm at my house or I'm at a coffee shop. I'll watch bad movies, read, write, play stand-up bass and play with my cat. That's really about it.
OnMilwaukee.com 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 OnMilwaukee.com 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.”