Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge, est. 1938, is a house on a corner of Milwaukee’s Mitchell Street residential neighborhood. A bar in a house—oh boy. I was sure it was going to feel like drinking in grandma’s basement. Not so. Bryant’s has so many cool, cheap design tricks—tricks that feel utterly natural—that I felt it some of them were worth sharing.
The first thing you notice: no alcohol. Not a bottle visible. All the booze is in the well or cupboards underneath. The back bar is stocked exclusively with glassware. I counted about 35 different glasses, many specific to a single drink.
There is nothing on the front bar. No coasters, no napkins. It is flat and smooth, uninterrupted. No taps, either. There is no beer (this, in Milwaukee, is probably a statement in and of itself).
There are no drink menus.
It’s almost like you expect no bartenders. But there they are, in white shirts, vests, ties. Ordering is done by discussion, a talk as short or as long as you’d like. They take your order by suggestion, by inference, by your mood. Tell them where you’re from, there’s a drink. Tell them the last piece of poetry you read, there’s a drink. They’re young and they’re not perfect at this brand of palmistry but I appreciate the effort.
Bryant’s makes “serious” cocktails but I also noticed them doing a fair business in fruity pseudo-island drinks which made me happy. So much bartending these days is furrowed brow nonsense. It's refreshing to see umbrellas and big hunks of pineapple and drinks that try to make you laugh instead of squint and nod.
The bar was redecorated after a fire in 1971 and, from what I can tell, nothing has changed. It has wood veneer paneling, leatherette everywhere, wall-to-wall carpeting, patterned wallpaper, drop ceilings, fake flowers. I know this sounds horrible. I have no way of assuring you that it is not. A singular, cohesive vision makes it work somehow.
They have also made it work through darkness. Dim the lights far enough and it doesn't matter what how big a travesty your wallpaper is. I have no argument with this technique. One of my other favorite joints, the Bronx Bar in Detroit, does the same thing and I've come to appreciate super dark bars. I know they're hiding something, but I don't care. At Bryant's they shutter all the windows, keep the few lights they have on deep dim, light indirectly with burnt caramel orange color bulbs and use a vintage Macintosh tuner as the bar's sole light source. Darkness forgives a lot. I'm sure if you saw the place in daylight you'd run screaming. But in the evening it's so dim they deliver your bill on a tray with its own light so you can read it. It's so dark that a Google search for pictures inside the bar comes up empty. I guess it must be like trying to take a picture at the bottom of the ocean.