The liminal edge between Wauwatosa and Milwaukee is getting a new bar. Well, it’s an old bar getting a major upgrade.

A 100-plus-year-old building at 5520 W. Vliet St. will soon reopen as Biersal Tavern. It had been local dive Wonder Bar since 1992, and had accumulated many years’ worth of use. The floors were caving in, the plumbing and electrical were outdated, walls were built without load bearing in mind. Nevertheless, Wonder Bar had been a local staple on the corner of 55th and Vliet for a long time. Along with the regular wear and tear damages it amassed, it amassed an equal number of regular diehards who called the bar a local fave.

This is a story I am personally invested in since Wonder Bar was once my neighborhood dive. It was walkable from the suburban space between the Tosa Village and east North Ave., both of which recently have undergone significant upgrades to suit the recent influx of young families, east side deserters, and transplants. When Wonder Bar closed in July 2023, the area lost an accessible place to play pool and drink High Life, a place where everyone knew the bartenders and what the regulars did for a living. It’s where I bartended for a brief stint during a summer home from college, because even though the atmosphere was grody and dark, the regulars dished generous tips. Wonder Bar was the place where you only ordered what was on tap and cocktails that had their ingredients in their names.

The change happened quickly—one day the bartenders said, “Our last shift is Saturday,” and then the place shuttered for months. It was handed over to Eric Gutbrod after a long sale process that was kept a purposeful secret. Now that the transition is complete, I can’t help but reflect on the history this bar joins, a continuum of places to drink on the corner.

In 2011, during the slowest hours of my summer gig, I soaped up a coarse rag and scrubbed at a tacky yellow layer lifting away from the walls, accumulated from years of cigarette smoke long before the ban. Honestly, I’m sad to see it change. Wonder Bar was a reliable dive one could visit without holding expectations for the experience. In an era where our reviews and feedback after a visit to a bar have become as valuable as cash, Wonder Bar was a place where cash was king and your feelings—online or in person—didn’t really impact the business. I know because I made suggestions on a regular basis (a new playlist! Ring toss!) and was told each time to go pound sand. It was the one place a neighborhood patron could find a dart board, a pool table, bar dice, and a spinning prize wheel all in one location.

Now, everything is different. I met with Eric Gutbrod on a recent Monday afternoon to scope out the new digs. After months of watching the changes underway, I walked the familiar path and entered through the patio, which was littered with lumber, stacks of chairs, and other evidence of a work in progress. Eric pushed open the door. He is in his 40s, with gauged ears and a laptop open at the bar, ordering booze and cramming paperwork for the pending licenses the bar still needs to set an official opening date. The pool table has been removed. So has the dart board, both TVs, and half the liquor cabinets. It looks bigger, maybe due to the added tables and chairs that create an invitational atmosphere. You can now sit with your friends against the wall and play cribbage, or one of the many other games stashed on either side of the new jukebox. The effect is a little jarring. Why is it so bright? Why are the pint glasses so clear? Who cleaned the graffiti off the bathroom walls?

Eric told me he spent 24 years in the service industry. He is a certified cicerone and has been looking to purchase a corner bar in Milwaukee that reflected the city’s unique architecture and could serve a neighborhood with his individual vision. He is part of a wave of 35-40-year-olds moving from the east side to the west, because property is more affordable and, up until you hit 60th Street, you still are technically in Milwaukee proper. I asked about the ideal demographic for Biersal Tavern. Eric lit up and said, “Everyone. I know that sounds general, but I really do want this place to be welcoming to all people. This will be a safe, welcoming space for everyone.” Love that! If Wonder Bar was anything, it was a little standoffish, a little gritty on the surface. Certainly, welcoming is good.

But welcoming intentions are hard to draw up practical designs for, and the “if you build it they will come” model only works if the “they” in this scenario have nowhere else to go. While this certainly was true for the Heights and nearby Wauwatosa for many years, young people and businesses have moved in over the last decade and injected some energy into a relatively quiet area. There’s stuff to do now besides push a stroller through the park and go bowling. From this perspective, the vision Biersal projects is certainly in line with recent Heights and Village changes. But maybe some people don’t really need a place to drink classic cocktails with a twist and play board games. Maybe they need a place to play pool and watch two to three Brewers games a year with independent contractors who don’t ask personal questions.

These criticisms aside, I believe variety is cultural propulsion. Wonder Bar was beloved (begrudgingly, maybe) by people who decided, over time, to make it their watering hole. It was dimly lit and not always friendly, but you never felt an obligation to socialize or even really enjoy yourself in the bar. And if you were there to wallow a little over a Schlitz and a Tullamore Dew, you were slid a basket of peanuts and left to your own gloom.

Biersal Tavern has positioned itself to be cleaner and more optimistic, and was built from an informed and practiced perspective. I imagine the bartenders will be friendly and engaging, serving customers whatever they need from the available selections, which I imagine will be well-stocked on a regular basis, given Eric’s existing relationships with community beer and liquor providers. What I will miss is the ability to occupy a space that could care less about my well-being, my opinions, or my preferences. I will miss a space that encouraged anonymity, even if you’ve been going there for 15 years. Sometimes, that’s just the reset one needs to feel connected to the complicated mess and beauty of being human.

When a new business is thriving, a place has the potential to become a neighborhood nucleus, especially if that new business both fills a gap and meets its neighbors on their level. Biersal Tavern is scrubbed and presentable in an area that is rapidly losing its frayed edges. When it opens, I will go. And I will have a good attitude about it. I will try a classic cocktail with a twist and I will chat with the friendly bartender. Then I will walk home and decide for myself if it is a place where I want to spend my time. And if not, the journey continues for the next watering hole, an oasis for the holdovers who haven’t quite figured out how to make the seediness within disappear.

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About The Author

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Annie Raab has written about visual art and culture for print and online pubs since 2014. She has a BFA in fine art and an MFA in writing, loves pool, cardio, and tiny apples. She lives in Milwaukee, partially on a sailboat.