To those of a certain late-20s/early-30s bent, the newly re-opened Brown Bottle harkens memories of a former downtown bastion of Thursday night specials and college-y underage drinking. To those of a different age bracket, the former Schlitz Brewing Guest House is homage to a Milwaukee joint where one maybe posted up for a sudsy celebration of the end of World War II. Closed since ’04 (aside from a brief resurrection as an Italian joint), the Bottle’s brownness and that Old World pub aesthetic has gotten a quick Murphy’s Oil spruce and shine, installed former Bacchus line cook Ben Hudson as executive chef, and dug a pipeline under I-43 across town to where the eponymous, again-hip beer is now brewed. We recently paid a visit to the unofficial watering hole and dining room of the semi-spanking new Schlitz Park that we keep reading so much about in the Biz Times.
The space: In that weird pocket where downtown bleeds into Brewer’s Hill sits the booze campus that made Milwaukee famous. And now, even if you aren’t associated with UMB Fund Services or RDA Enthusiast Brands, there’s reason to go down these cobblestones (now paved) of Cream City history.
Open the big wooden door and negotiate a pseudo-gothic lobby, then jimmy another oaken door and you’re met by a dim, cozy bar, replete with snug side booths, Beatles overhead, and sipping bros. Back toward the dining room, which feels like a taller ceilinged cousin ballroom of Karl Ratzch’s, you’ll find a vibe more Rat Pack-ish, with Ella and “Sing, Sing, Sing,” and senior folks staying warm with Old Fashioned’s and Friday fish fry.
Dependent the usage rate of your HBO GO account, the chained antler chandeliers might lend a True Detective vibe. But with ceiling inlays, thick carpeting, low lighting, wood a-plenty, antique beer posters, dark brown tables, dramatic doorways, and severely upholstered chairs, it all reeks of a timeless Wisco-Germanic hunting lodge. Front or back, the Brown is warm, homey, and has the general feel of grandma’s house if your grandma always has the heat on too high. But a Goose Island Matilda ($5), in a snifter, hints that this is not exactly your grandpa’s wood-paneled filling station.
The service: Despite the early hour, only half-filled dining room, and Friday signifying supposed top-shelf help, our drink list was prematurely lifted, and the wait between rounds and food was palpable. Still, whatever. Overheard from a nearby table: “I am not a woman of the world!” And really that gets more at what the spirit of the new, or old, Bottle is about: aw shucks.
Milwaukee Record’s food: Chef Hudson plied his trade on the line at Bacchus, but as we’ve learned from efforts such as Prodigal Gastropub with chef Van Luu, that doesn’t always mean a whole lot. New GM Tony Keller comes from Café Hollander in Tosa, and this may be more indicative of what at first appears as not exactly thrilling bar and grill fare. But emboldened by endless $2 Schlitz (if you feel fancy, their $5 house Brown Bottle Lager is made by Lakefront), we decided this was as good a place as any to fatten for the interminable polar vortex.
We’ve long tired of beer-cheese soup that really just tastes like cheese soup. Here ($8 for a bowl) it seemed right. Maybe too right, as if somebody was actually getting service-industry drunk in the kitchen while parsing stock measurements. We endorse such culinary actions, and such a beery blend. With a sharp, bracing cheddar-ish zing and crouton crunch, it’s hard to think of a better way to battle winter.
Seared Deviled Eggs ($6) started the solid portion of the evening. They came small and warm with a homogenized mush filling that offered many layers, including most prominently one a bit sweet, cinnamon-y, holiday-ish. At once heartening and perplexing—we’re not used to our whites so warm in bar snack form—it was an apt tagalong for beer and idle discussion.
By now declaring this a five-course Friday, a Margherita Flatbread ($10) was next. We were surprised by big gobs of fresh mozzarella, which lent a Neopolitan-ish look to the oblong pie. But the bright red sauce, a bit sweet, yielded a soggy, flimsy middle crust which left our fingers with an oily sheen. And though that adorning basil was past its prime, it was a satisfying package nonetheless. If you’re capable of a pro-level order, eat one piece, ask the waitress to box up the rest, and crisp it up back home in a frying pan for a righteous midnight mid-winter snack.
The same fulfillment could be felt with the Mac & Cheese ($10): crumby, crusty garlic herb top, silky creamed elbow noodles, quality cheddar emulsification running in happy rivulets. There was also something sweet lying just underneath. Unfortunately here the advanced take on ordering backfiref: Nuke it at home the next day and you are inevitably left to wonder how much is too much oil for intestines trying to keep regular.
For the first time in the night we went big, calling for probably the most foodist offering on the menu, the Kimchi Reuben ($10). We say “foodist” mostly because one would guess the inspiration is from the same sandwich at Stephanie Izard’s Little Goat in Chicago. But here, it was soft on the Korean fermentation topping, subtle actually, and the entire package seemed to owe more to McBob’s than anything highfalutin or Food Network-y. There was a perfect toast on the marble rye, liberal smush of Russian that spurted around each bite, much melt-y swiss, big but not too-big steamy chunks of corned beef, and an overall saucy, meat-cheese bundle with humble roots but big stomach dreams.
The verdict: Maybe we’re partly in love because it’s a new restaurant that is so blatantly not a new restaurant. Perhaps we’re overly enamored by wood that isn’t of the reclaimed variety, way fond of plates that come in standard size, happy with cocktails which are—oh wait, yes—still of the “craft” persuasion. But for a while this felt damn near the coziest place to be on one of the coldest Friday nights in memory. You’d have to be a dick to not be pleased with such a homey renewal of a Milwaukee corner bar tradition.