Bruno Johnson didn't compromise anything when he opened the Palm Tavern five years ago. He built the kind of bar that he would want to sit in and drink every day. Now, as he officially opens his next venture, Sugar Maple, don't expect the new craft-beer bar to serve even a single Miller product. When it swings open its door on Wednesday, the bar will look like no other tavern in Milwaukee.
"You can do almost anything, and you're going to find someone who will tell you that it's ridiculous to do it that way," says Johnson, who didn't even have a sign outside the Palm Tavern for the first few years.
The Sugar Maple, 441 E. Lincoln Ave., has a sign, and a big one at that. The smoke-free bar also has plenty of room, as well as 60 American microbrew tap beers -- but still no Miller.
"Because it's owned by the same people, my wife and I think it was built with the aesthetics that we like. Obviously, this new place is a little different, it's a little more user-friendly."
Johnson says he has nothing against Milwaukee beers, but that he's trying to offer customers something different. Lakefront and Sprecher will represent Brew City, and "more than half of the beers will come from the Midwest," he says.
Johnson says he wasn't looking to open a second bar, but the space -- formerly the Sikh Temple -- presented itself, and he couldn't turn down the opportunity. Situated on Bay View's most lively corner, which already hosts Lulu, Highbury Pub, Riviera Maya and eventually Café Centraal, Sugar Maple is poised to become a new neighborhood anchor.
"My wife calls it 'Downtown Bay View,'" says Johnson.
Johnson will bring over some of his well-known bartenders from the Palm, a group that's respected by patrons for displaying more knowledge than your typical drink-slinger.
The look of the new place is far more spacious than the Palm. With a back room, Johnson will bring in live jazz a couple times a month. That room can be closed off and used as a lounge when a band isn't playing.
Johnson again used desinger Mike Sherwood, who also created the Palm Tavern, and the bar will be a beer-drinker's oasis. Vast selection aside, Johnson has installed two beer engines -- gravity-fed beer lines that involve a pump hooked to the bar. He's even looking to do a "firkn" night, which involves tapping a keg directly on the bar.
If this all sounds a little grandiose, it is, and Johnson has had to push the opening back a few times. He hoped to be open by St. Patrick's Day, but it wasn't in the cards.
And that's mostly because the space required a ton of work. The building once held a bank, and the safe was immovable. Instead, Johnson literally cut through the concrete to carve out the bathrooms. "When the hurricane hits, you'll be safe," he jokes.
Johnson keeps himself on an even keel, but he shows a bit of excitement when describing his new creation. "It has much bolder colors (than the Palm Tavern). It's beautiful, it's unique, and it doesn't look like a regular bar."
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.