By Julie Lawrence Special to Published Apr 27, 2008 at 5:24 AM
Third Ward cocktail lounge Viridarium has been open since mid-December, though you may not have known it. Tucked away from the bustle of Broadway or Milwaukee Street, the cozy, comfortable bar sits on the corner of Jackson Street and Corcoran Avenue, facing the expanse of the Henry W. Maier Festival Grounds and beyond that, Lake Michigan.

The name means "pleasure garden" in Latin and the interior is appropriately fleshed out in calming earth tones and soft lighting. Co-owner Manny Fuentes has lived in the condos above the bar for the last few years and says his concept grew from his own desire for a relaxing place to grab a drink and a bite to eat after putting in long work hours.

"I used to go to the Holiday House all the time after work," he says. "When that closed, I figured I should just open my own place."

He looked through the windows at the piles of cinder blocks and mud that 133 N. Jackson St. housed for so long and saw Viridarium, a classy, diverse bar with a creative martini menu and an atmosphere conducive to conversation.

"You'll never hear any hardcore music here," he explains. "We're just very mellow. It's hind of like a little hideout over here."

That it is. With no official outdoor signage, the glow from the illuminated back bar is the lounge's only real giveaway to cars passing on Jackson Street. Fuentes' sister, Lorissa, is the martini-mixing bar manager and can whip up anything from the classics to her Mexitini, made with patron and a salted rim, which she calls "dangerous."

Fuentes and his partners Bobby Ljubich and Michael Owens hope to have the kitchen open by summer.

"I want to do late-night appetizers," says Fuentes. "At least until midnight, maybe 1 a.m. "I've noticed that after 10 p.m., there aren't a lot of choices, but people like us don't even come out until 9 or 10 p.m., which is when a lot of places stop serving."

So, what's on the future Viridarium menu?

"I like samosas, I like spring rolls and you really can't get away from wings, whether it's an upscale bar or not," he says.

No doubt the patrons who come in to watch the game on the two plasma screen TVs will agree. It's not your typical sports bar environment, but it's got Stella Artois, Spotted Cow and Miller Lite on tap and it works well as a gathering space for friends. And given its proximity, it'll surely become a hot pot once the ethic festival circuit hits the nearby grounds.

"I think I'm going to have to invest in every ethnic flag," Fuentes jokes. He already has approval for outdoor patio tables, sure to be a highly coveted seat for fireworks viewing.

Wednesdays at Viridarium are Latin Sizzle nights with Mexican beers for $3, shots of Jose Cuervo for $2 and rail margaritas for $3. A DJ plays salsa-merengue from 10 p.m. to midnight. Thursdays are neo soul and jazz night, with domestic beers for $2.50 and martinis for $5.

The rest of the week -- except Sunday, when it's closed -- the contemporary lounge is a welcoming neighborhood spot and a new Milwaukee hangout.


Julie Lawrence Special to 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 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.”