Milwaukee: Tied House Town
Russ Klisch, one of the founders of Lakefront Brewery, likes to say, “London has its pubs, Paris has its cafes, but Milwaukee has the corner bar.” Old-school bars are a huge part of Milwaukee’s history; in fact, the readers of SAVEUR selected Milwaukee as a runner-up for “Destination-Worthy Old-School Bar Scene” in the magazine’s inaugural Good Taste Awards, alongside Dublin, Ireland and Budapest, Hungary.
Milwaukee’s bar scene is built on a history of tied houses. In the late 19th century, breweries would form exclusive contracts with bar owners, helping them open their business for the right to be the only brew flowing from their taps. Thanks to Milwaukee’s local breweries, tied houses flourished across the city; their connection to the breweries changed after Prohibition, but some of these original corner taverns are still thriving today, many still bearing some mark of the brewery they were once “tied” to.
Raise a glass to the past in one (or more) of Milwaukee’s great historic bars. Here are just a few of the old-school bars that should be on your list:
Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge
First opened as a Miller Brewing tied house in 1936, in 1938 owner Bryant Sharp gave up beer in favor of cocktails, making Bryant’s Milwaukee’s first cocktail lounge. Sharp is also credited with the invention of the Pink Squirrel and the Banshee.
Opened in 1908, Wolski’s still maintains much of the tavern’s original interior, including the back bar, but it’s best known for the infamous “I Closed Wolski’s” bumper stickers handed out to patrons that make it to the end of the night. These stickers have been spotted all around the world, from Paris to Japan.
Swingin' Door Exchange
Located in the historic Mackie Building, this tavern with old-school saloon style initially opened as the Grain Exchange Tavern in 1933. Today it's known as the Swingin' Door, a favorite for happy hour, Friday Fish Fry, and surprisingly addictive vermouth carrots.
Home to the oldest certified bowling alleys in the country, this bar opened in 1908 and is still run by the original owner’s daughter-in-law. Call ahead if you want to bowl so some neighborhood kids can come serve as pinsetters. The upstairs is decorated by dangling brassieres left by patrons over the years.
Originally a Schlitz tied house, the Uptowner has been continuously operating since 1884, the longest of any bar in the city (they made it through Prohibition by serving “medicinal alcohol”).
Landmark 1850 Inn
Built as a stage coach stop between Milwaukee and Racine in 1850, Landmark 1850 is the oldest tavern in the city. Today it’s fully renovated, but still maintains its historic charm.
The depth of history in Milwaukee’s bars and beer & brewing scene is one of the things that makes it a beer destination like no other. Cheers!