Swinging Door thrives with old time flavor
"Here's To Alcohol ... Which Often Makes One See Double, And Feel Single!"
-- wooden sign above the bar at the Swingin' Door
One nice thing about Milwaukee is that there are still a number of cozy drinking establishments into which one could walk and see little change over a long period of time. The Swingin' Door, 219 E. Michigan St., is such a place.
One step through the appropriate swinging doors at the entrance, a la a Wild West saloon, and you become a member of a long line of patrons who have patronized the bar since the day after Prohibition ended in 1933. The camaraderie can be felt with some of those original patrons by observing them in wall pictures, celebrating with mugs in hand on that day.
In a downtown fast filling up with trendy bars and clubs -- in a building constructed in 1875 and that would not look out of place along a major London street, several floors beneath a popular wedding reception room that briefly served as the world's busiest grain trading pit -- the Swingin' Door has gone about its business, making sure generations of Milwaukeeans do not go thirsty -- and in some cases, hungry.
Many of those current patrons consist of Mackie Building and other downtown workers by day, for lunch and "work breaks." On weekends, it is wedding reception guests in the Grain Exchange Room looking for a break when the DJ plays "Macarena" who often take refuge for a few cold ones. Most late nights, waitstaff from surrounding bars and restaurants come in to unload some of their tips on drinks and after-work consorting.
While socializing, or just having a quiet drink alone, one can mull over pictures, authentic memorabilia and other nuances that in some cases date back well over a century.
In 1889, the space served up money and messages, as a Western Union Telegraph station. Two strong nods to that time exist in the form of a picture showing the delivery guys -- on bicycles -- out front in 1889, and a vault in the back of the bar, still bearing the Western Union name. For the last 70 years, though, it has been either a bar, or saloon or tavern, depending on your definition of each.
The Swingin' Door has essentially three main areas: the bar area, a back room which for private parties and a narrower middle area where you can browse among Andeker and other old-school beer promotional items, a detailed poster of Milwaukee nightspots from the '80s (which provides the fun of seeing which places remain and which are gone but remembered) and some artwork.
Some celebrities visit when they're in town, including former Bucks coach Don Nelson and a number of people who have gone into entertainment or politics. President Clinton included the Swingin' Door on his agenda during his 1996 visit to Milwaukee with German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. A note from the White House commemorates that visit -- it's mounted next to the entrance to the men's room.
The Swingin' Door focuses on drinks, especially local brews, including Miller, Lakefront Brewery and Sprecher products on tap. A full kitchen, however, satisfies the occasional cravings with a line of sandwiches, soups and, of course, the consummate Friday fish fry, which sometimes includes perch.
Strange as it sounds, owner Mike Murphy acquired the Swingin' Door in part to combat changes in hair fashion. He owned the Swingin' Door Barbershop, a few doors down in the same building, and when the popularity of longer hair in the 1960s necessitated diversification, he bought the bar.
After all, long- and short-haired people alike need a drink once in a while.
Swingin' Door (Mackie Building, street level), 219 E. Michigan St. (414) 276-8150, is open Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-2 a.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-2:30 a.m.
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