All winter long, Milwaukee waits in chilled anticipation of that first nice day of summer. When the mercury rises to a temperature we haven’t seen in months. When we stumble forth from our homes, drawn into the light, and go looking for a place that makes us feel like we are being outdoorsy, because today we are taking our drinking outside. On that first nice day—when we dare expose our pale Wisconsin skin to the sun—the wire chairs are un-stacked, the picnic tables are pulled out, and the globe lights are flickered on, signifying that summer is here, and the official season of outdoor drinking is upon us.
The opening of patio season is a near ceremonious event in Milwaukee. This city offers a bevy of spaces designed to draw in unsuspecting passersby, ruining an otherwise productive day with the promise of getting buzzed under blue skies at the risk of sunburned skin. Whether nestled on a slab of concrete, tucked away by the water, or enclosed by fencing that just barely keeps you out of eyesight from the residents next door, these are Milwaukee’s open-air oases that make an afternoon of imbibing in the sunlight feel like vacation.
1. Barnacle Bud’s
Once thought of as Milwaukee’s best-kept secret tucked away by the Kinnickinnick River, Barnacle Bud’s has become the de facto arena where perfectly nice Sundays slowly morph into the Monday hangover of your nightmares. But what a welcome place for a headache to be conceived. Just try and stop yourself from guzzling Dark and Stormies by the mason jarful in the sunshine as the legendary Jimmy T—whose live music enraptures the back patio every Tuesday and Sunday—props his jean-cutoff-clad leg on your picnic bench and sweetly strums the summer soundtrack of your parents’ dreams. You may try to stifle yourself as you sing along to “Margaritaville,” but at Barnacle Bud’s, it’s a near impossibility.
2. Horny Goat Hideaway
Count the Horny Goat Hideaway as an outdoor space that is immeasurably better than the namesake beer it brews. It may be the sleekest, largest, and most activity-filled patio in the city. The expansive patio deck stretches along the Kinnickinnick River and is filled with cushy lounge areas with fireplace features, tabletop seating, an outdoor bar, lawn games, and more. Sure, its name is roughly as hard to swallow (ugh) as the beer it serves, but on a sunny summer day, if you order a cocktail and find an open space to grab a seat, you might find yourself having a difficult time tearing yourself away.
3. Tonic Tavern
Proving you don’t need to be on the waterfront for a pleasurable outdoor drinking experience, Tonic Tavern offers the best street-side patio in Bay View. Their rotating beer menu is always stocked with an awesome selection of local beers and some from the best breweries around the country. Head there at night and take a seat under the canopy of globe lights, or go during the day and pull up a chair at one of the colorful bistro-style tables to take in the excellent views of Bay View’s finest strolling along Kinnickinnick Avenue.
4. The Harp
Inside, The Harp may have the dim, cozy, Irish pub vibe down, but head back to their patio deck and it’s all bright umbrellas, twinkle lights, and (hopefully) sunshine by the riverside. The deck was expanded in 2013 and with it came three new docks, perfect for pulling up your pontoon to throw back some Killian’s or Rumrunners or whatever on the multi-tiered deck. It may be a little bro-heavy come evening, but the deck and the view make it worth weaving through the bomb-taking clientele.
5. The Twisted Fisherman
Pull up an Adirondack chair, plunk your feet in the sand, and wave to the kayakers that pass by on the Milwaukee River. The Twisted Fisherman specializes in candy-colored drinks and a Key West atmosphere on Canal Street. They’ve trucked in a hell of a lot of sand to anchor in the vacation vibe, and have outdoor volleyball courts for those ambitious folks who’d rather be active than fill their guts with crab legs for the afternoon. It may not be as storied or tucked away as Barnacle Buds, but it does its best to imitate that same away-from-it all ambiance that invites you to kick off your flip-flops for the afternoon.
6. Von Trier
Von Trier may be one of the coziest spots to sip a steamy cocktail in the winter, but once patio season hits, its beer garden makes it an equally enjoyable summer drinking destination. It feels hidden enough from busy North Avenue traffic, while wrought-iron gates studding the ivy-covered brick walls allow for a peek at the hoards of people passing by. It may not be as sun-soaked as some of the other establishments mentioned here, but it’s high on charm and low on beach rock. Grab a basket of popcorn, head outside, and do your best to pretend you’re taking a hard-earned rest while backpacking through Germany.
7. (Just slightly nearby) your local yacht club
Man, those jerks at the local yacht club sure do look like they’re having a good time sipping fancy drinks while peering out over their boats in the marina, huh? Stick it to ’em by finding a nearby dock, spreading out a blanket, bringing a cooler full of your favorite boat drinks, and listening to the water lap against the hulls under the stars…for free. Hell, if you’re hungry and happen to be on the dock by the South Shore Yacht Club, you can even order up a pizza and Classic Slice will deliver it dockside. We may know by experience. Ascot and captain’s hat are optional.