By Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor Published Dec 05, 2011 at 9:02 AM

Back in the '70s, it was a dusty and sleepy wino bar. You could find more excitement in a convent on a Saturday night.

Since then, the historic space at 322 W. State St. has had a string of names and operators. At various times it has been the Daily Planet, the Tamarack, Lukas' on State, Stub's Pub and the Calderone Pub.

Give a warm welcome to Dehne's Upper 90, the spanking new tenant in an 122-year-old saloon built by the Schlitz Brewing Co. to sell its products back in the days when Milwaukee's breweries operated their own taverns. Many of those buildings still exist in the city's older neighborhoods, and this one has a particularly high profile because it is a half block from the Bradley Center and the U.S. Cellular Arena.

The U-90, as co-owner Jake Dehne expects his new place to be called, has set out to carve a distinctive niche among the plethora of bars and restaurants that populate nearby Old World 3rd and Water Streets. The proximity to the Bradley Center and Arena makes being a sports bar a forgone conclusion for any saloon that opens at 322 W. State.

The idea is to put a different spin on the concept. "We didn't want to offer the usual food, burgers and deep fried mozzarella sticks," says Jake's brother, Seth Dehne, the U-90's other owner. "We wanted to hire a chef, not a cook," adds Jake.

They got that in Michael Conley, a graduate of the French Culinary Institute in New York and the former head chef at The Knick. His most recent position was executive chef at Tuckaway Country Club.

Conley created a menu that features such entrees as bacon-wrapped scallops finished with a lemon thyme beurre blanc ($20.95), twin tenderloin medallions with a red wine demi-glace ($19.95), and wild mushroom ravioli topped with roma tomatoes, wilted spinach and a fresh herb and roasted garlic brown butter ($15.95).

Gastro pub is the fuzzily-defined restaurant concept that has been a hot trend for several years. The U-90 considers itself the city's first gastro sports pub.

The Dehne brothers emphasize they want their bar and restaurant to be "female friendly." "Women are more health conscious, and they don't want to eat the food in the typical sports bar," Jake explains.

"They don't want to come with us guys when we go out. They aren't going to eat deep fried."

Among the U-90 menu items likely to catch the healthy eater's eye are a veggie-stuffed pita ($8.95), hummus plate ($8.95), spinach caprese salad ($8.95) and a build-your-own salad ($7.95). Half bottles of wine, a rarity in sports bars, are also likely to appeal to women.

Boys shouldn't think all of the fun has been removed from U-90's tiny kitchen. Cajun battered and deep fried alligator bites ($9.95), served with creole aioli and buffalo sauce, are offered as an appetizer, and a gator po' boy ($10.45) with roasted red pepper mayo is also on the menu.

If you have sworn off eating reptiles, you can order bite-sized chunks of Usinger's brats dipped in corn bread batter, fried and served with Guinness mustard and raspberry balsamic ketchup ($7.95).

Perhaps the U-90's biggest claim to fame is its pound and a half pretzel sprinkled with coarse salt. ($12.95). It comes with a main sauce and two side sauces chosen from this selection: jalapeno beer cheese, honey dijon and whipped cinnamon sugar butter. Riffing on the same subject, the restaurant offers a dessert of cinnamon sugar pretzel bites ($4.95) accompanied by cinnamon white chocolate sauce.

Upper 90 is a soccer term, and its usage in the name of the Dehne brothers' new establishment reflects their deep interest in the sport. Both played college soccer, and they continue to compete on an amateur level. Their friendship with Milwaukee Wave players has influenced the broad selection of 65 craft and international beers the pub offers.

Several Wave players are from Brazil, and the U-90 beer menu includes two Brazilian brews. Hacker-Pschorr Weisse, Guinness, Carlsberg and a range of Belgian beers are also featured.

The pub's decor suggests its sporting interests are wider than soccer alone. Acknowledging the building's 1889 heritage, antique athletic equipment hangs on the walls and from the ceiling. Baseball bats, gloves and shinguards; tennis rackets, golf clubs, boxing gloves and ice skates are among the items on display.

"We're not a soccer bar but we support soccer," Jake Dehne says. It also supports soccer fans to the point that the U-90 opens at 7 a.m. on Saturdays so they can watch English Premier League matches on the seven TV screens -- the largest is 65 inches -- at the pub.

Dehne's Upper 90 opens at 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Typical breakfast fare is offered on Saturday mornings and at Sunday brunch, which begins at 10 a.m. The breakfast-brunch menu also includes the small Danish pancakes called aebelskivers, made from the owners' family recipe.

The Dehne brothers know the Downtown bar business well. Jake has previously managed the Miller Time Pub at the Hilton and the Fire Pit Sports Bar & Grill at Potawatomi Bingo Casino, and he owns Suite and Buckhead Saloon on Old World 3rd Street. Seth has helped him manage Suite and Buckhead.

The U-90 is their first foray into the world of monster pretzels and Danish pancakes.

Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor

Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.

During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.

Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.