As Milwaukee’s culinary and cocktail scenes continue their upward trajectory, a local bar and restaurant climate that’s getting markedly better with each passing month is also getting noticeably weirder and more whimsical in the process. Aside from the awesome Epicurean oddity the just-opened Snack Boys will offer every day, Vanguard changes its concept every Halloween, other restaurants host pop-up brunches, and a growing convoy of food trucks routinely park outside a host of bars and breweries on a weekly basis. Another place where pop-ups push the envelope is The Phoenix Cocktail Club.

Since opening on New Year’s Eve in 2016, the Cathedral Square lounge and restaurant has kept things interesting in a multitude of ways, including overhauling its menu for Mardi Gras last year, collaborating with a Minneapolis bar to honor the 1992 NBA Dream Team, combining hip-hop with donuts, rolling out Elf-focused drinks for the holidays, and ringing in 2018 with a Kanye West-themed “New Yeez Eve” party. However, one of Phoenix Cocktail Club’s most frequent and, frankly, strangest ventures is LoveShaq, a semi-regular redressing as a tropical pop-up bar devoted to none other than Shaquille O’Neal.

LoveShaq was created by Phoenix’s beverage director and award-winning mixologist Adam Sarkis, who is an avid basketball fan and an ardent supporter of O’Neal’s long, illustrious, and varied career as a player, rapper, actor, and all-around cultural icon.

“Years ago, I made a joke that I wanted to open a bar called ‘LoveShaq’ that would be Shaquille O’Neal-themed,” Sarkis says. “Do I realistically think a bar could be open 365 days a year as LoveShaq and be successful? No. But I think it’s just unique enough to gather a crowd of like-minded folks to unite and imbibe the night away.”

Sarkis says there have been “eight to nine” LoveShaq pop-ups at Phoenix so far. The drink list, presentations, and collaborating mixologists change each time, but there’s a definite tropical influence with each time.

“I don’t want to use the word ‘tiki’ because it’s not a full out tiki menu, but it has lots of inspiration and variations of tiki style drinks,” Sarkis says. “There’s also lots of inspiration the futurist Italian cocktail movement from the ’30s. The idea of adding an element of surprise to presentation and being spontaneous based on feeling within the moment.”

Some of Sarkis’ favorite drink names so far are the “Shaquiri” and “Three Dots & A Shaq.” The next LoveShaq pop-up is planned for January 25 at Phoenix. From there, it will expand to events in Chicago, Baltimore, and other cities. If you like tropical drinks that are loosely based on the life and work of a seven-footer, LoveShaq just might be the place for you.

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