August 27, 2015

Bryant's Cocktail Lounge in Milwaukee

Bryant's Cocktail Lounge exterior

photo by: Bryant's Cocktail Lounge

Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge is located in Milwaukee’s Historic Mitchell Street Neighborhood.

Bryant Sharp had an idea. And it was a very good one.

Two years after he opened his beer hall in 1936, he decided to turn it into a cocktail lounge. Out went the jukebox and in came the record player. The wooden floors were carpeted, and wallpaper was hung. The windows were blocked, and the lights were dimmed.

Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge was dark. It was swanky. It was the first cocktail lounge in Milwaukee.

A fire devastated the space in 1971. The entire interior burned, and the cash register melted. Then-owner Pat Malmberg, who took over the lounge when Sharp died in the early 1960s, rebuilt the space, plating the new registers in gold and installing a new McIntosh stereo. When it reopened, it wasn’t unusual to see lines forming around the block to get in.

Bryant's Cocktail Lounge in 1936

photo by: Bryant's Cocktail Lounge

Bryant Sharp’s bar in 1936, two years before it was turned into Milwaukee’s first cocktail lounge.

Today, 77 years after its doors first opened, Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge remains a favorite. And it has the accolades to prove it. It was a semi-finalist in the 2013 James Beard Foundation's Outstanding Bar Program. It’s routinely named to “best of” lists, including Best of Milwaukee (2011, 2012, and 2013), as well as Esquire’s Best Bars in America (2012), Eater’s 38 Essential Cocktail Bars Across the U.S. (2012 and 2014), and Thrillist’s 33 Best Cocktail Bars in America.

The atmosphere is certainly a draw. It’s still a dark, intimate space. Little has changed there throughout the decades, and you can feel that history in the booths and in the walls.

Bryant's Cocktail Lounge decor

photo by: Bryant's Cocktail Lounge

To transform the space from a beer hall to a cocktail lounge, it was redesigned with dim lighting and elegant wallpaper.

The drinks are a top attraction, too. There’s no printed menu, but there are more than 450 drinks in the bartenders’ repertoire, so you’re guaranteed to find something you like. Pre-made mixes are unheard of; everything is made by hand. And many of the recipes are top-secret. Don’t even bother asking.

But let’s go back to the no-menu thing. When Bryant Sharp first opened the space, he thought that menus were limiting. They typically point people to a handful of popular choices, rather than encouraging exploration and a little bit of risk-taking. Then, there’s the matter of some cocktail ingredients sounding downright bizarre when put in certain combinations. That, Sharp thought, might turn people off from what are actually really delicious options.

An exotic drink at Bryant's Cocktail Lounge

photo by: Bryant's Cocktail Lounge

All cocktails use handmade ingredients, and many recipes are top secret.

Today, you’re encouraged to strike up a conversation with your bartender. Tell him or her what you like -- and what you hate. Are you a gin person, or a whiskey person? Do you have a sweet tooth, or do you prefer something a little more savory? What are you craving?

It's the best way to experience the space.

"Bryant’s is more than a bar or a lounge," says John Dye, owner of Bryant's Cocktail Lounge. "It is a piece of Milwaukee history that sometimes feels frozen in time. I like to tell people that I am more a caretaker than a proprietor and that every decision I make is made with Bryant’s history in mind. Owning a piece of living history is not the easiest way to make a living, but I am sure it’s one of the most rewarding."

The bar at Bryant's Cocktail Lounge

photo by: Bryant's Cocktail Lounge

Customers are encouraged to discuss their particular tastes with their bartender to determine the best drink for them.

Location: 1579 S. 9th St., Milwaukee, WI 53204, in the historic Mitchell Street neighborhood south of downtown

Hours: Tuesday through Sunday, 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Closed Monday.

Don’t Miss: Cocktail Hour runs every Tuesday through Thursday, from 5 to 8 p.m. Depression-era cocktails, including the Old Fashioned and Whiskey River, run $5 apiece.

You’re having: Like we said, we think you should ask your bartender to surprise you. But you should also try the Pink Squirrel, which was invented at Bryant’s. You can get it with or without ice cream.

Best Yelp Review: “Entering is a stunning difference from outside. It's a bit like walking into a marsupial cage in the zoo, with red lights illuminating the inside. But what an inside it is. Once your eyes adjust, you're inside what now ranks in my top-ten lounge rooms. It's comfy, it's discrete, it's quiet. If only I had met a nice Milwaukee lass earlier in the weekend to have an intimate conversation, some laughs and perchance some hand-holding and a stolen kiss here or there.”

Lauren Walser headshot

Lauren Walser served as the Los Angeles-based field editor of Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about art, architecture, and public space, and hopes to one day restore her very own Arts and Crafts-style bungalow.

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