A guide to Milwaukee's hidden gems
Belly up to these bar stories, brought to you by Miller Brewing Co., that explore well-loved-but-lesser-known taps and taverns from all corners of the city and beyond.
True to its Brew City nickname, Milwaukee is no stranger to bars – to the point that we have more drinking spots than grocery stores. Some might say we've got a problem; we'd say we just have our priorities straight.
But with so many places from which to choose, it's easy for some locales – even truly classic Cream City clubs – to fall between the cracks or hide in plain sight. They may not be the fanciest places or the most hip, but without them, a part of Milwaukee's welcoming neighborhood soul would go missing. And here are just a few of those hidden gems that deserve a moment in the spotlight – and that you should discover for yourself for your next drink.
This guide will continue to be updated as we cover more hidden gems.
261 E. Hampton Rd.
"The fact is, Aliota's – a decidedly unextraordinary looking pub, located in a strip mall next to a coin laundry – is among the best illustrations for the phrase 'don't judge a book by its cover' that I've ever encountered."
182 E. Lincoln Ave.
"You can find just about anything while roaming the streets of Bay View looking for a bite or a beer. You can find exquisite sandwiches and tasty craft brews. You can find bars blasting the city's hottest live music until well after the sun goes down, and you can find bars blasting England's hottest soccer matches right as the sun's coming up. There are dives and fine dining. Small plates and family-style platters.
"And, if you venture a bit off the neighborhood's main drag, you can find a cute little baby in a combat helmet choking down a cigar and a pint of beer."
122 Cottonwood Ave. in Hartland
"Located just off the main drag in Hartland, Beer Snobs Ale & Eats isn't exactly a tough place to find. But it's a true gem for Lake Country beer lovers looking for a place to sample something new."
1000 E. Burleigh St.
"As soon as you're welcomed through the door, though, you're welcomed into Bosco's extended family. Upon a second visit on a rainy afternoon, I didn't arrive to another movie conversation but I did find the same friendly, conversational vibe, eager to talk with anyone about anything, ranging from local gossip (the hot topic, in this case, was the naming rights for the new arena) to personal histories and everything in between. By the end of the trip, I felt like I knew all my fellow patrons, that they knew me and that we'd be picking up the conversation right where we left off next time – all in a little over an hour."
3105 W. Forest Home Ave.
"The bar is also known for Daniels' Bloody Marys. Although she will make one with vodka, she highly recommends gin as the main spirit. Daniels mixes her Bloodies with extra pickle juice and horseradish and garnishes with a pickle spear, string cheese, marinated mushroom, sausage link and a pepperoncini.
"'It ain't nothing like a Sobelman's, but I don't want a whole chicken in my Bloody anyway' says Daniels."
6343 N. Green Bay Ave.
"When we first told you about The Brick, a week after it opened in 2015, there was a lot of talk about continuity – the pub lives in the same space where Tim's grandfather operated Wren's II, and across the street from the original Wren's, which stretches back to 1961. It turns out that the regulars – and there are lots of them – definitely remember the history of the Hren family, and coming to the Brick, it's like they never missed a beat."
3158 S. Howell Ave.
"Some of the best taverns in Milwaukee are the ones that don't mess around. The ones that are entirely without artifice. They feel comfortable, homey. What you see is what you get. These are the ones where the owner is typically standing right behind the bar waiting to serve you. This is The Bubbler, 3158 S. Howell Ave., owned by Teri Bashaw and run by Bashaw and her two adult children."
218 N. Water St.
"Can a bar truly qualify as one of Milwaukee's hidden gems when it sits right in the middle of the bustling Third Ward neighborhood, inside the portfolio of one of the city's most popular and noteworthy restaurant groups – SURG – with all of the corporate support and media spotlight that implies? It can when it's Bugsy's Back Alley Speakeasy – quite literally hidden away down a Third Ward back alley, with no visible signage until you've stumbled upon the entrance, tucked away between cleverly designed and trickily arranged shipping crates in the throughway's 'loading dock.'"
401 S. 2nd St.
"Most of the jazz clubs in the Bronzeville neighborhood that were hopping in the 1940s and 1950s have closed, leaving Caroline's one of only a few jazz clubs left in the city. But Rubitsky says she has noticed a strong revival of the genre, particularly in the past three years."
5527 W. National Ave.
"Gary Janocik knows that his bar – which is on the ground floor of a five-unit rooming house – sometimes gets a bad rap because, well, it's on the ground floor of a rooming house."
2417 N. Bartlett Ave.
"Since Greenya bought the business in 2000 a lot has changed at Champion's – and a lot has not. The dramatic artichoke wallpaper remains the same and the vintage dark wood back bar is reminiscent of many rounds of drinks from long ago ... Photos of Greenya's family members are framed and displayed on the wall, including one of his grandfather and another of his grandmother and other family members when they appeared on the 'Family Feud' game show in the '80s."
2501 S. Superior St.
"Seriously, the 'Cheers' reference is a tired one, but the idea of a third place where you're so comfortable and well-known that it feels like being among friends in your own home remains so powerful that we all just keep coming back to it. That's how I feel about Club Garibaldi, 2501 S. Superior St., a place I first stepped into at some point in the 1980s when a band I was in played some gigs in the back room, unknowingly joining a dance hall tradition at the Bay View corner tap that runs back into at least the 1920s."
8828 W. North Ave.
"There's a dart board, a few TVs showing the Brewers game, a lovely mosaic in the floor right inside the door, but Club Tap is a place to have a drink, maybe a pizza (definitely a pizza) and talk. In short, it's a classic Milwaukee-area tavern ... like you'd find 80 years ago, I bet. I nudge (owner Tony) Lalli to tell me what he thinks is the secret to the Club Tap's longevity and I realize that it's all around me. There's no secret sauce. There's just relationships and cold beer."
5356 S. 13th St.
"(Owner Corne) Hanssen, who grew up in Bay View and graduated from Marquette High School, was a letter carrier for 32 years. He met a lot of people over the years on his mail route, some of whom are customers today.
"'If you treat people right, they come back to you,' says Hanssen."
7342 W. State St.
"First, let's get a few things straight. Opened in 1985, Colonel Hart's, 7342 W. State St., is by now a Tosa Village landmark. Also, there was no Col. Hart. The story goes that before he opened the bar, Tim Capper worked at Major Goolsby's Downtown, and he wanted to outrank his former boss, so he grafted the rank of colonel onto the name of the park across the street from his new place and ... voila!"
2127 W. Wells St.
"There are certainly places more blatantly difficult to find. But few are more hidden in plain sight than Conway's Smokin' Bar & Grill at 2127 W. Wells St., an old-school Irish bar that boasts not only a delightfully quirky interior, but also a kitchen that pushes out a menu of basic comfort foods and smoked meats."
6132 W. Capitol Dr.
"There probably isn't another bar in the world that's known primarily for its soup, clown paintings and Christmas decorations, but that's part of what makes Dale's of Milwaukee, 6132 W. Capitol Dr., so extraordinary."
2201 S. 55th St.
"We stopped by Dick & Gloria's Cocktails & Dreams on a Thursday morning around 11 a.m., and five or six regulars were perched at the horseshoe-shaped bar watching 'The Price Is Right.' Most of them had Mount Royal and seltzer mixers in front of them.
"'It's our most popular drink,' says bartender, Dawn. 'I'm not even sure why.'"
2800 S. Kinnickinnic Ave.
"Patti D'Acquisto says she never intended to own another bar.
"The former co-owner of Maiden Voyage on Van Buren and Brady has, instead, focused on the salon she runs. Her ex-husband continues to run the bar, which was renamed Sal's after it moved up Menomonee Falls.
"But then her friend wanted to sell, and here she is, running Frank's Power Plant, which recently reopened at 2800 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., in Bay View, after a brief closure for cleaning and renovation."
7170 W. Burleigh St.
"I don't know about you, but when I have a drink, it puts me in the mood for a nosh, too. So, I love a friendly neighborhood tap that has a kitchen that serves good food. And add a jigger of history and I'm hooked. With its intimate triangle-shaped bar, midcentury modern architecture, a welcoming owner and a killer fish fry, Gard's, 7170 W. Burleigh St., has all of that."
502 E. Garfield Ave.
"'Swinging into the future' humbly declares the sign outside Garfield's 502 – or perhaps the future is swinging its way toward the club, considering the excitement growing out just south in the new arena district. But while an exciting future is mere minutes away, the beloved local bar and eatery – fittingly named after its address at 502 W. Garfield Ave., fit snugly between the Halyard Park and Bronzeville neighborhoods – still knows where its roots lie: in its past and in its community."
4305 S. 84th St.
"In the heart of Greenfield, less than a mile north of I-43, at the intersection of West Cold Spring Road and South 84th Street, across those two streets from two different churches, is a classic, 41-year-old neighborhood pub where the beer is cold and cheap, the service is fast and friendly, the conversation comes easy and everyone is a regular – or becomes one quick."
2578 N. Dousman St.
"According to internet etymologists, the phrase 'gee willickers' was a favorite non-profane profanity long before the days of Dick Grayson and Dennis the Menace. A loophole for saying the Lord's name in vain without actually saying the Lord's name in vain, word historians track its earliest in-print use all the way back in mid-1800s – while its use in regular conversation likely goes back even further. Gee Willickers, the Riverwest bar found at 2578 N. Dousman St., isn't quite that old, but befitting its name, it's also a charming flashback from a different time."
224 E. Washington St.
"George's Pub is a bit of a museum for (bar owner George) Vomberg's popular country band, the Nashville Rejects, which have been playing bars, weddings and the state fair for, as Vomberg says, 'about 100 years.'"
1132 E. Wright St.
"Like many of the best hidden gems throughout the city, walking into the The Gig feels more like a good friend's basement than just a simple place for beers. Even with its impressive collection of music and memorabilia, it's less about the nifty or flashy items that decorate the space and more about the people, the spirit and the neighborhood that fills it nightly – a neighborhood that's an offbeat, unexpected but utterly essential, colorful riff from the city's usual rhythm."
W278 N2315 Prospect Ave.
"Considering the warm weather only lasts a few months, perhaps one of the most pleasant sights for many Wisconsinites to set their eyes on is a nice, soothing beach. You can certainly find that gorgeous view at Gina's Sports Dock, found right on Pewaukee Lake – any closer you'd be sharing your table with the fish."
1729 N. Farwell Ave.
"On a block stretch on Farwell Avenue, however, between these two loudly shifting tectonic plates lays a tiny bit of classic comfort, a modest Milwaukee time capsule frozen in time. On one side of the street, there's the original Zaffiro's, opened back in 1954. Look both ways and jaunt across the street, and you'll find Halliday's, another cozy, half-century-old local landmark just as old and even homier – so much so that, remove the signage, you could easily walk past the cottage-looking house without really noticing. And many do."
228 Hamilton Rd., Cedarburg
"If you take a seat and order a drink, you'll know exactly why those regulars are there. After all, domestic pints are just $2 all day, every day, with craftier options (from breweries like Lakefront and Surly) for just $3.50; a rail cocktail will set you back around $3. It's also the sort of spot where, if you ask for a glass of 'house wine,' the bartender will hand over a mini bottle of Jagermeister and a shot glass."
6801 W. Beloit Rd.
"The best bars are comfortable places where guests can gather to enjoy a drink in the company of friends. In fact, it's their innate ability to engender feelings of comfort, joy and camaraderie that makes these neighborhood hangout so special.
"Such is the case for the aptly named Happy Tap, 6801 W. Beloit Rd., a longtime West Allis staple which keeps its patrons coming back with a combination of affordable drinks, hot pizza and a friendly congenial vibe."
9643 S. 76th St.
"For almost two decades now, people from all over the area have certainly found The Hideaway Pub & Eatery and made it one of Franklin's favorite worst kept secrets. Even on a lowly Wednesday night, the dinner rush packs both the bar and the banquet hall connected right next door."
233 N. Water St.
"When it comes to hidden gems in Brew City, the Milwaukee Ale House isn't one. A gem? Absolutely. But hidden? Absolutely not.
"That is … unless we're talking about the intimate, cozily quaint and quiet bar at Milwaukee Ale House. No, not the main bar, the one right in front of you as you walk in the door, sitting at the epicenter of the action with room to accommodate 200 people. I'm talking about the other bar – the one that holds a quarter of the patrons of its upstairs neighbor, the one that requires a respectable quest to find and the one that might just turn your impressions of the big, bustling Third Ward bar upside down: Hopside Down."
4238 W. Orchard St.
"If the Ice House, 4238 W. Orchard St., is a hidden gem – and I'd argue that it is – it's one that's hidden in plain sight, on busy Miller Park Way, across the street from Target and Toppers."
1800 E. Arlington Pl.
"You walk into Jamo's and you're immediately and entirely in Jamo's world, which is intimate and unpretentious and dimly lit and anachronistic. It's stuck out of time (it could be 1951 or 1983 or 2002, though the clocks on the wall will tell you it's always after 5) and place (a block from Brady Street, but nestled snugly into its neighborhood, disdainful of the nearby buzz), with its own people and practices, a distinct sense and style. Jamo's is an old corner tavern, the quintessential dive bar. It's the definition of a hidden gem."
418 N. Mayfair Rd.
"JoJo's at Summerfest has stayed true to its identity, letting customers revel in fine drinking and good conversation in the midst of a beer-infused Summerfest."
181 S. 2nd St.
"There are zero to few topics that (bar owner Art) Guenther can't speak at length about. He is opinionated and intelligent; a product of his time and rigid in his views – but this is exactly why the "regulars" choose to be regulars."
5901 W. National Ave.
"Maybe you've sat in Kegel's Inn, 5901 W. National Ave., one of the most 'Milwaukee' of local institutions (yes, I know it's actually in West Allis), and thought, 'It'd be great to be a part of a longstanding tradition like this.' I know I have.
"Oddly, even Julian Kegel kind of thought that on the rare occasions he'd visit Kegel's, not ever putting together the fact that the name on the sign outside was his Kegel family."
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