Lots of people around Milwaukee know Paul Jonas. Whether they recognize him from his years behind the bar at the Nomad, Palomino, Vinifera or Dancing Ganesha, or through his career as a serious -- and often less serious -- musician in the 5-Card Studs, Jonas is a well-known figure in the Milwaukee nightlife scene.
So when Jonas opens The Tonic Tavern on April 1, there's a good chance he won't have to build his customer base from scratch. And, while Jonas hopes the live music, relaxed vibe and ample outdoor seating at the new bar, 2335 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., will be enough of a draw, he's not taking any chances, plugging his new venture at every sold-out 5-Card Studs show from here on out -- just in case.
"I'm kind of counting on it," says Jonas, of his friends' and colleagues' support, since he's spent many years helping other places take off. "We have a bunch of friends in this neighborhood, and we're all coming up together. I'm just a little bit behind schedule."
Jonas is currently in the demolition and construction phase of the bar, transforming a building that began its life as a horse and carriage storage space for the lot's neighboring brownstone.
When he's done, The Tonic will become a spacious, two-room bar with room for a stage, several patios and unique twists and curves in a building that's bland from the outside -- but bursting with potential on the inside.
"The color green is what comes to mind when everyone hears about it," says Jonas. "So, there will be green in there, along with as much Cream City brick as possible."
Jonas expects to open a bar that's cozy and chill, retro without seeming pretentious. He envisions a '50s jazz lounge -- "contemporary retro; a lot of straight, simple and clean lines.
"I've got the guts to the inside of a piano that I might put up there to carry the music theme on, too," says Jonas. He hopes to hang some local art throughout the bar, as well.
Jonas will convert the existing front parking lot into a patio, while the garage part of the structure will serve as a smoke-free secondary lounge with a fireplace. The back part of the building, where the horses once stayed, will become the main bar with a lofted ceiling and room for a fold-down stage.
In this up-and-coming section of Bay View, The Tonic Tavern should fit right in. Jonas' sister, Sarah, is one of the owners of nearby Lulu, and his old boss from the Nomad, Mike Eitel, owns Café Centraal, up the street.
Both appeared on Jonas' behalf at his liquor license hearing Monday, and he's received support from Joe Katz, who owns the Highbury Pub, directly across from The Tonic Tavern.
"My original dream was to be a rock star," says Jonas, "but I bartended forever, and I figured if Mike Eitel can do it, I can, too. I'm smarter than he is.
"But seriously, everyone came out of the Nomad, and I thought I've got to make this happen. I bought a house in Bay View a few years ago, leveraged everything I owned and decided to go ahead with it."
Musically, Jonas hopes to bring in groups of performers to jam and improvise, and eventually he might play at his own bar, too. But it might not be as the 5-Card Studs, since with a capacity of less than 100, a Studs show could overwhelm The Tonic Tavern.
That's a bit down the line, however. Right now, Jonas is lining up a trustworthy staff, which he remembers as being a challenge from his bar managing days.
Jonas has a lot of work ahead of him, as is evident by the photos above. But he says he's still on pace for an April 1 opening. On the other hand, he has a backup plan if April Fool's comes and goes.
Says Jonas, "If I don't make it, I can say, 'Just kidding!'"
As for the name of the bar, it's not just about that stuff you mix with gin. The tonic is the central tone of a musical composition, Jonas explains.
"You find resolve, musically, at a song's tonic. I'll incorporate that in some way. You'll find resolve at The Tonic."
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.