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John Dye on the 76-Year History of Bryant's in Milwaukee

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This is the Barkeepers, a feature in which Eater meets the fine ladies and gentlemen behind the bar at some of the world's hottest cocktail parlors.

[Photo: Jeff Cleveland/Bryant's Cocktail Lounge]

A successful first date ended up dramatically changing bartender John Dye's life, but not in the way you probably expect. In 2000, Dye moved from Seattle to Milwaukee, Wisconsin to earn a PhD, and six months after his move, a local woman took him on a first date to one of the country's most storied drinking establishments: Bryant's Cocktail Lounge, which opened in 1936. It proved to be their only date, but Dye ended up making a different kind of commitment, purchasing the bar when it came up for sale a decade later.

"When Bryant's came for sale, I was the very first person to look at it, and then waited almost two years to actually buy it," Dye says of the bar, which provided a departure from Milwaukee's corner-bar tradition by swapping beer for an all-cocktail format back in 1938. "I had plans to leave Milwaukee, but it was almost like a calling." Since Dye purchased the bar, he's acted as presiding barman and historian, and Bryant's Cocktail Lounge has landed on Esquire's annual list of the Best Bars in America, earning the odd distinction of being "the darkest bar" in the country. In the following interview, Dye talks about the dark working conditions, reveals what cocktail he'd pair with pepperoni pizza, and reminisces about some of Bryant's craziest moments through its seven decades.

When you first came to Milwaukee, was there a robust cocktail scene?
Not so much. There were a lot of martinis and that kind of thing, which was really similar, in 2000, to what Seattle had, too. There were a few people there doing cocktails, but really there weren't any cocktail bars that I was aware of then. I think Milwaukee definitely has a beer focus and it always has, even though every bar has liquor. It's more of a beer and shot focus.

Do you remember your first visit to Bryant's?
I do. I was brought here on a date. I met this girl — this would have been probably within the first six months that I lived in Milwaukee — and this is where she brought me. I definitely remember being really, really amazed because Seattle doesn't have bars like this. The old lounges, they got bought up and turned into something else in the '70s, you know? Whereas one nice thing about Milwaukee is that there's an economic depression here, and a lot of the bars stopped in time. It's really kind of neat if you're into history and vintage things. It's just a really neat place.

Talk me through how you ended up purchasing the place. It went on sale, and apparently stayed on sale for quite a while.
It did, and I'm not sure why. It's not in a very populated neighborhood. I think that's part of it. Our neighborhood is a little rough around the edges, but it was just such a great piece of history. It was almost bizarre to me that nobody bought it because it just sort of sat there. It's like, "Why is nobody buying this? It's really wonderful." I was selling real estate at the time. The night time hours were getting to me, so I put bar ownership — even though it had been a goal of mine for a really long time — on the back-burner. This place just kept calling my name. Finally, I just was like, "Okay, fine. Divine world. I'll take it." I bought it basically with the goal of just preserving it. Part of it, too, was that I was like, "If this stays on the market much longer, somebody's going to buy it and ruin it." Because you're not getting the best buyers in. I was aware of that, and just wanted to save this icon.

Was there a lot of back and forth with you and the previous owners?

"Sometimes I feel like a curator, like I work in a museum."

The manager who had been here for 45 years, she's still around and I speak with her almost daily. The history of this place: You hear story after story. It's really incredible. Being open for 76 years, a lot has happened here. A lot of people have a really emotional attachment to this bar. It's interesting. Sometimes I describe it as I feel like a curator, like I work in a museum. I have a selection of really awesome stuff that, every decision, I need to decide what's best for this bar in terms of its history.

[Photo: Jeff Cleveland/Bryant's Cocktail Lounge]

What are some of the wackier stories that you've heard about the history?
This is kind of a funny one. We still do, but they used to really heavily enforce the rules like no swearing. You would have to come in here and treat it like you're going to over to your parent's house back then. Not now. They just had this thing where if you swore, they would come up and politely ask you, "Please don't swear. Use cocktail lounge language." We still do that if people are yelling. There was one particular guy and he just kept swearing, so Shirley, this spry old lady — and back then, she had to be in her sixties — she went and she got a piece of this bar soap. She went and she washed his mouth out with soap. [Laughs] Like, "Wow, how did you get away with that?" One time somebody was telling me that somebody threw a porcupine in here. Really bizarre, and I guess [the bartender] just calmly told everyone, "Excuse me. Everyone needs to leave. Somebody threw a porcupine." Everything is a story, and there's just lots of stories around. It's pretty amazing.

One of the things that I think came up most often in my research is that you guys are known as being "America's Darkest Bar." Is it difficult working in those sorts of conditions?
No, you get used to it. It's kind of funny, you just realize how much bartending is about touch, and just knowing where things are. It's not like you can't see anything. We have some strategically placed lighting. The hardest thing is probably trying to read credit card reports and IDs ... that's the hardest part.

Does the bar have a most popular drink?
We get asked that a lot. Honestly, because we have over 400 recipes, every experience starts with conversation. We just really try to focus more on what the customer wants, so we don't necessarily have a "most popular drink." But we can point to certain eras, if that makes sense. We have one that was very popular in the '90s called The Brain Buster. Marquette University is by here; it's an urban campus and there are no bars in the city. They actually used to shuttle [students here]... the shuttle used to come and drop the kids off here, pick them up and take them back to campus, and so there's a drink here called The Brain Buster. We still get alumni from that school that are in their sixties and seventies that come in and ask for it.

The Pink Squirrel, which is a common drink ... that was invented here, so that was kind of an early era drink. Then there was a time when Manhattans were very popular here, and Old Fashioneds. You see the trend over time which is really neat, especially since we serve all of them. In a sense we fit into a craft-cocktail type of scene, not because you can get that style of cocktail here, but it's so much more than that. Somebody once called us the cocktail emporium, which is probably pretty accurate.

Let's say a guest comes in and is just overwhelmed. How do you guide them to their eventual order?
If they're not a cocktail drinker, a lot of times what we'll do is try to relate it to food. "What do you like to eat? What are your tastes?" Try to get them away from thinking about cocktails into more thinking about other flavors, or their mood, or even what their plans are that night. You can approach this by so many different methods. That's the most unique thing is every interaction with the customer becomes a conversation. You're getting to know them a little. We really try to not just do this rote, "Well, we have these flavors." We try not to get into these patterns because we want it to be a unique experience for everyone.

[Photo: Jeff Cleveland/Bryant's Cocktail Lounge]

Let's say I say my favorite food is pepperoni pizza. What would be your recommended cocktail?
Oh, man. That's a little hard because pepperoni is so savory. People who like those savory flavors ... We have one called "The Doll." It's a spicy rum drink with pepper and with cucumbers. A lot of times when people are looking for something savory with that bite, that's the direction we go in, but I might ask you a second question on that one. Sometimes people will say, "Oh, I like Porterhouse steak." It's like, "Oh." Sometimes you can get to a better [result] with desserts.

Tell me about your clientele.

"This is probably one of the most diverse bars. Ever."

I've been to a lot of bars around the country. This is probably one of the most diverse bars. Ever. Not only in color or background, but the fact that everybody's in the same room and they're all getting along. It's an incredibly diverse place. I'll tell you a little story of how I realized this: The first month when I reopened this place, I looked down the bar and there were these gangster kids from this local gang that's in the area, then there were some people from a motorcycle gang, and there were a bunch of priests. They're all sitting at the bar drinking cocktails. The Latin King kids are sipping on an ice cream drink. It was just like, "Whoa." They're all just at the same bar, smiling, having a great time. I just don't think you would ever find those three groups of people in the same room under any other circumstances.

Then we get a lot of people who have just been coming here a very long time with their family. Sometimes we'll have another funny situation where somebody will be like, "You know, I've never been here before and I was so excited. I was telling my grandma and she was asking me what I was going to do this weekend, and I was like, 'I'm going to this bar called Bryant's.'" And Grandma's like, "Oh, I've been there." It's really incredible.

In terms of the flow of the evening, what is the energy in the room on an average Friday, let's say?
It gets busy in here, but it's very loungy, and it always is. It has this energetic mellow feeling. I don't know if there is a pace that's just called "lounge." I wish my whole life was like this, you know? It has this really warm hum to it, if I could say it like that. We listen to all older music. We have this amazing sound system here. People are sort of transported. We get very busy and there will be a line out the door, but once you sit down, for the most part it feels the same on a Wednesday as it does a Saturday.

With an award like Esquire's Best Bar... do you notice a change in the crowds after something like that happens?

"Sometimes people come in and they expect us to be something that we're not."

Definitely. Sometimes I would love to sit down with other bars that have had this happen. It's a huge compliment and you just feel really great about it, but at the same time you just kind of want to do what we do. This last year we just got a ton of attention: We got that Esquire thing, we were a James Beard semi-finalist. I don't want to put people down because they're really wonderful to search these places out, but sometimes they want it to be what they think it is in their head, and not what it actually is... sometimes people come in and they expect us to be something that we're not.

[Photo: Jeff Cleveland/Bryant's Cocktail Lounge]

In general, it's been really great for business. But then there's this dark side of press that — especially for something that has this long-standing history — is that sometimes people want it to be something else. We've had people approach us and be like, "Oh, you should franchise it." It's like, "No, we shouldn't." This bar, it's one of those things that's so unique that if you changed one piece of it, it would no longer be as special.

Have you ever had to throw anyone out of the bar?
Not forcibly. I remember this one time, it was at a bar I used to work in here. Every five years there were these giant Harley Davidson celebrations here, they call it Harley Fest. If you work in a bar, you're generally working really long hours, and you're dealing with some jerks, but the majority of them are really nice. I remember this one time, this guy ... we cut him off because we had already done last call, we just couldn't serve him another drink. He got really angry and he took his arm — and there were a bunch of glasses at the bar because it was the end of the night — and he just brushed all the glasses off onto the ground. Probably broke 50 glasses, and he's just throwing a fit. I don't know what I was thinking, but I jumped the bar. I got in his face, and I looked up. He was this huge guy, and I was like, "Oh, crap. What am I going to do now?" Thankfully we had bouncers, and they came and took him out.

Usually I just find if you need to get somebody out, there's a way to do it where they think you're on they're side. That's the best way to do it. That guy actually came in later and apologized, which I thought was really nice. He felt pretty bad about the whole situation.

And finally, what's your must-have barkeeper tool?
This is going to sound so cheesy, but I think smiling. It's such an incredible human thing to just smile at somebody. Try to make it as genuine as possible, but I think that if you smile it just makes everything better. Your service is going to be better, people's experiences are going to be better. It's like this customer service lubricant that makes everything better. That would be my number one thing.

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Bryant's Cocktail Lounge

1579 S 9th St., Milwaukee, WI 53204