Some Milwaukee things come and go, while some Milwaukee things become icons. Mandatory Milwaukee is all about the latter. This week: Barnacle Bud’s!

On the island of Maui in Hawaii, there is something called the Road to Hana. It’s a winding road through the hills with 620 curves. Drivers need to pay close attention, with their hands gripped tightly at 10-and-2 for the whole ride. They even sell shirts about surviving it. I bring up the Road to Hana because the drive to Barnacle Bud’s (1955 S. Hilbert St.; 414-481-9974) can feel just as treacherous.

There are not as many curves—or any, really—but there is a part of the drive that feels like you’re not supposed to be there. Are we sure we’re going the right way? will be asked by someone in your vehicle. That’s just part of the experience—alongside intrusive thoughts that make you consider turning around because you’re unsure if this is really the right way to go.

The parking situation features many spots where you will be towed for being in the wrong spot. The restaurant recommends listening to them; I recommend listening to the restaurant. The spots where you can park feel like an area where undercover Miami Vice detectives Crockett and Tubbs might get involved in a drug deal gone wrong.

Even finding the entrance to the restaurant is tricky for first-timers, but you have to stick with it. Make your way through the fence, pass the dock on the right and the boat warehouse on the left, and prepare to be transported.

As a friend put it, the fact that it feels hidden is what makes it cool. A lot of “secret speakeasy” places are trying to create something that Barnacle Bud’s does by accident.

“Transported” really is the perfect word here because once you cross that threshold, you forget all that came before. The hustle of KK, the doubts of the drive, and the stress of the parking lot are instantly wiped away. You’re by the water now and life is good.

You’re greeted at the front by a hostess and a bartender. There is a small bar right when you walk in, a bar inside, and a bar on the back patio. Table seating is available on the front patio or on the back patio. I’m a back patio guy, as that is where the live music will be and it feels more communal, but anywhere is fine. The vibe is chill all over.

The staff is friendly and quick to share a story or a joke. There is a knowledge among the staff that people are here to have a good time, and everyone acts accordingly. The service is consistent, with frequent check-ins, and shockingly fast, considering the amount of seating in the restaurant.

For food and drink, you’re getting paper menus and I can’t imagine it any other way. Drinks include Dark and Stormy, Moscow Mules, Bloody Marys, Pirate Punch, and the beloved Dumpster Punch. There are also buckets of beer available with Medalla mini-cans or Coronitas. On a warm day, with the breeze off the water, there is nothing that beats this ice-cold beer deal.

There are a lot of solid food options on the menu, from peel-and-eat shrimp and oysters to the lobster roll and burgers and wings. On a recent visit, I had some serious fish envy when the patron next to me opted for the Grouper Po Boy, which featured enough fish for two sandwiches. I won’t say they nail every menu item, but the things they get right, they really get right.

There is one menu item that personifies this, and the restaurant itself, more than any other: Neil’s Home Wrecker Big Dog. The menu commands it “not to be served to married women” or taken home, which, uh… yeah. The giant hot dog is thick and juicy, grilled to perfection with onions and relish, and could be served on triple the amount of bun.

The Big Dog is Barnacle Bud’s in a nutshell. They could easily go with something less flashy to put a few more bucks in their pocket—no one would complain about a hot dog—but that’s not what they do. They go big and deliver more than you could possibly expect, even if they don’t have to.

Time has a way of floating away at Barnacle Bud’s. A lunch can easily turn into an afternoon of drinking and laughing with friends, listening to music, and vibing in the atmosphere with the breeze in your face.

In a world of go-go-go, Barnacle Bud’s asks that you slow down and enjoy yourself. It’s one of the few places in the city where you can come home feeling like you had a real experience. To paraphrase the menu, get there anytime, they’d love to see ya.

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