The Best Bars in America 2012
It's another addition to our catalog of the best places to have a drink in America. As always, the project is guided by David Wondrich: Esquire's drinks correspondent, the world's foremost cocktail historian, and the best drinking partner anyone has ever had.
Bar City of the Year: Milwaukee
The best bars in America: We knew it was impossible right from the beginning. To identify the best bars in a country this vast and this thirsty is a task on the order of identifying the best cells in the human body. At the time, we decided to recommend only bars that we knew personally. We still think that was a good call. This meant that best bars was going to be an ongoing project, particularly since we've always preferred visiting bars as part of our regular activities rather than organizing special missions. (If you make a special trip to find something, you tend to find what you're looking for whether it's there or not.) But we had — and, thank God, continue to have — good bar-steeped writers all over the country, and our drinks correspondent, David Wondrich, gets around quite a bit and is not averse to visiting bars. Sooner or later, we figured, we would at least get to the major drinking towns in America, places with their own distinctive bar traditions and cultures. And yet some bar cities of reputation kept getting neglected. So this year, we finally broke down and decided to start pointing Wondrich at a few of those towns. His first destination was Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a town whose reputation among barflies looms large. Here's his report.
I haven't been to Milwaukee since I was a kid, back in the 1970s, and I don't recognize a damn thing on the ride in from the airport, although the large green-clapboard building with the sign PUDDLER'S HALL EST. 1873 makes my drinking elbow twitch, even from the freeway. Any place where iron-puddlers drink, or drank, has got to be pretty serious. But in general, Milwaukee presents itself as your standard midwestern city, with miles and miles of freestanding clapboard and brick houses around a central core, where much of the old stone city has been sacrificed to freeways, parking garages, and boxy office buildings. After I check into my hotel, I go for a walk. It's lunchtime and there are a couple of downtown bars I want to check out. Both turn out to be closed and gutted, victims of the redevelopment that's struggling to get a foothold in the center of town. It would go easier if there weren't so damn many garages. Eventually I find myself in the obligatory loft-and-yuppie-bar neighborhood, where bars offer cocktail lists with "martinis" that have names such as Berry Sexy. Not promising. Finally I say to hell with it and walk into a local Yard House — style bar and grill, the kind of place where coworkers go for lunch and a pint of lite. It's packed — at 2:00 in the afternoon on a Tuesday. The crowd runs to Dockers and polo shirts, and I could be anywhere. Then I sit down, in the only seat left at the bar. The guy on my left has his car keys in his hand and is just getting another pint glass of vodka and cranberry for the road. The three 40-something guys on my right are dicing for shots with the young bartender and offering to give her pole-dancing lessons. Okay. So maybe not so typical. Before Prohibition, men used to roll dice to see who paid for the drinks. In New York, San Francisco, New Orleans, and most of the other great sporting-life cities of the past, the tradition is extinct. Not in Milwaukee. (I won't give the place's name, because after my two six-dollar pints and an order of fresh pretzels, the bartender charges me only for the pretzels and a "three-dollar shot." Don't want to get her in trouble.) Over the course of a long afternoon and a longer evening, I investigate, if that's the word I want, a number of other establishments. Downtown has a fine ultramodern mixology-type bar, Distil (722 North Milwaukee Street), but across the street is a righteous old businessman's dive by the name of My Office (763 North Milwaukee Street), so you don't have to lie when your wife asks you where you are. Across the Milwaukee River is North Old World Third Street, home to a strip of German joints with a feel commensurate with its name. (Milwaukee was a prime destination for German immigrants in the 19th century and their influence is still strong.) The Knight's Bar at Mader's (1041 North Old World Third Street) is attached to the restaurant where presidents and other such personages get taken for "authentic" German food. The bar has thousands of dollars' worth of medieval weapons and armor on the walls, always conducive to amusing bar talk, and excellent beer on tap. Right down the street is the popular Old German Beer Hall (1009 North Old World Third Street), where the taps spout house-made brew straight from Munich and the urinals are kitted out with little soccer goals that have balls hanging from the front, so you can try to score. Whoever came up with this deserves a medal. (As a side note, every bar I go into is playing top-flight European soccer on the TV.) The real drinking, however, takes place away from downtown, at places such as the righteous Wolski's Tavern (1836 North Pulaski Street), which has been around since 1908 and deserves at least another century. (They were playing bar dice there, too.) I suspect if I were to spend another week in Milwaukee's neighborhoods, I would find others, but even in the brief time I was there, I visited two of the best bars I've been to anywhere in America. And those two are starting off this year's list: Koz's and Bryant's.
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