"Why, it's a world class of people!" says the tiny, bustling bartender at National Liquor Bar,spreading her arms wide to indicate her patrons. It's a snowy December night in Milwaukee. The neon sign outside--a giant brown bottle pouring out an eternally trickling stream of golden hooch--glows through the frosty front window. Everyone from "the homeless to top businessmen" frequents the place, she says, although at the moment only a few beefy guys dressed in Carhartt and Green Bay Packers jackets are huddled around the bar--decompressing, from the looks of it, after factory shifts.
A three-in-one establishment--with a long rectangular bar and a greasy-spoon diner plonked down in the middle of a vast, fluorescent-lit liquor store--National Liquor Bar is the paradigmatic watering hole for a city where there's never any shame in satisfying the urge for a brewski. The glory days of Milwaukee brewing may have ended with the departures of Schlitz in 1982 and Pabst in 1996, but Wisconsin is still one of the top beer-drinking states in the land. Shoppers picking up a bottle to take home say "What the hay?" and stop at the bar for a 90-cent Milwaukee's Best from the tap. Solitary old ladies drop in at midday for a glass of High Life. And when the Packers are playing, you might even spot a few suits hollering up at the TV.
Then there are patrons like me, urban preservationists who come here for a shot of Milwaukee, straight up, without the frippery and fakery of the new theme bars that threaten places like this. Ever since I was a kid and would meet my dad for lunch downtown in a dark tavern near his office, it's seemed to me there's magic in Milwaukee's best old bars. The German immigrants who began rolling out the barrels of beer here in the 1840s called it gemütlichkeit--meaning, essentially, coziness. Milwaukeeans, despite their reputation for "never saying nothing out," have a way of unwrapping all their protective layers--literally and figuratively--in their city's most welcoming nightspots. Whenever I feel weary of New York City's endless succession of new see-and-be-seen boîtes, I go home to Milwaukee for a little gemütlichkeit. And I know that when I go out, if I choose my taverns carefully, I'll have plenty of company.