Milwaukee  is no Austin, Texas, but there’s a lot more music and nightlife than people realize. Then again, it’s also the city where sheepshead (a native card game) tournaments might get equal billing with live music in the same bar. Milwaukee has more than 5,000 bars, which is in the top 10 per capita nationwide, so there’s something out there for everyone. (Forbes also called it “America’s Drunkest City.”) And it is the City of Festivals: throw a dart at a calendar and you’ll hit an enormous festival of some sort. And again, it’s top 5 for cultural arts in the United States—surprise!
The deal: These places come and go. The ones in here show staying power.
The free weekly Shepherd Express gives a rundown of most of the clubs; the Friday edition of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel is fairly thorough.
In early 2010, the long-defunct and vacant Pabst Brewery complex was rechristened as Best Place at the Historic Pabst Brewery (901 W. Juneau Ave., 414/630-1609, noon–midnight daily except Tues., tours $9). It has lost none of its historic charm. One part of the enormous place is the Little Tavern on the Hill, with all classic Milwaukee beers on draught; otherwise, get yer Pabst memorabilia here!
The folks at Kochanski’s Concertina Beer Hall (1920 S. 37th St.) certainly have big shoes to fill, seeing as their place was the home of legendary Milwaukee polkameister Art Altenberg, who for decade after decade ran his club to preserve live polka music. Many nights this still lives on here; guaranteed every Wednesday night is traditional polka music. It’s real-deal and it’s a hoot!
Stretching along the Milwaukee River, aptly named Water Street  draws a preponderance of Marquette students and lots of downtown business types. Nightlife varies from a microbrewery to sports bars and dance clubs. The Water Street Brewery (1101 N. Water St., 414/272-1195, food served 11 a.m.–9 p.m. Mon.–Sat., $5–15) is Milwaukee’s original brewpub. Raucous as all get out is Rosie’s Water Works (1111 N. Water St., 414/274-7213).
More and more shops, boutiques, and restaurants are moving into the Walker’s Point  neighborhood. Nightspots here vary from a pub with a sand volleyball court outside to a Teutonic watering hole, dark sippers’ pubs, and a whole lot more. Walker’s Point is also the home of Milwaukee ’s oldest LBGT dance club, La Cage (801 S. 2nd St., 414/672-7988); it’s also the largest in Wisconsin.
Bar/restaurants such as Elsa’s on Park (833 N. Jefferson St., 414/765-0615), Louise’s (801 N. Jefferson St., 414/273-4224), and others, all in the same area, have given North Jefferson Street and environs the feel of a subdued scene—all in the ritzy section of town full of boutiques, galleries, and the like. The yin to Water Street's noisy yang.
These come and go, but as of these keys thwacking, the hottest place seemed to be Decibel (1905 North Ave., 414/272-3337, www.decibelmke.com ), the place where you can act like a VIP (or see one). Indeed, even in the depths of winter you’ll see fashionistas stepping gingerly from limousines dressed head to toe in up-to-the-minute wear. The dance floor is hot, but you can escape the low-frequency thumping in the DeepBar, a relaxing vodka lounge.
One with the most staying power locally is the live music/dance club Mad Planet (533 East Center St., 414/263-4555), a perennial winner of local awards for best dance club. They have regular dance parties that always turn into a mix of all local subcultures; here, goths mix with punks. Get there early.
Yeah, I know it’s a chain, but Have a Nice Day Cafe (1101 N. Old World 3rd St., 414/270-9650) is a fun retro haven for those stuck in the 1970s; their signature goldfish bowl drinks will help you get into the, er, groove.
Shank Hall (1434 N. Farwell Ave., 414/276-7288) offers a constant barrage of prominent local, regional, and national acts. It was once a stable, so the interior isn’t exactly a delight when the lights come up. More good spots for local rock or regional alternative acts and mostly college crowds include Points East Pub (1501 N. Jackson St., 414/272-0122) and the acoustically atrocious Rave (2401 W. Wisconsin Ave., 414/342-7283). Many readers of local websites and other media have voted the live music—genres and atmosphere—at Milwaukee Ale House (233 N. Water St., 414/226-2336, 11 a.m.–10 p.m. Mon.–Thurs., till 1 a.m. Fri.–Sat., till 9 p.m. Sun., $6–15) as tops.
Not here on a weekend? Fret not, for the Cactus Club (2496 S. Wentworth Ave., 414/482-0160) has music, often national acts, many weeknights.
Real-deal no-frills Mexican food brings in throngs to Tres Hermanos (1332 W. Lincoln Ave., 414/384-9050), but you also can’t beat the dancing to live Tex Mex and Norteña music Friday and Saturday nights.
It used to be all blues all the time (in a scuzzy kind of way) at the Up and Under Pub (1216 E. Brady St., 414/276-2677; under new owners it's gotten a freshening up and added a nice variety of rock, roots, and more.
The Riverwest neighborhood is a prime spot. A small neighborhood tavern unconcerned with decor, Linneman’s River West Inn (1001 E. Locust St., 414/263-9844) has blues and some folk.
Serious jazzers should head for the Jazz Oasis (2379 N. Holton Ave., 414/562-2040) or a local institution, Caroline’s (401 S. 2nd St., 414/221-0244), just south of downtown, where you go for the music and atmosphere, not necessarily the decor.
International flavors—musical and otherwise—are on offer in a comfortable setting at Nomad World Pub (1401 E. Brady St., 414/224-8111), part coffee shop, part unpredictable drink-pouring bar where you can get betel nuts while listening to world beat music, sometimes live.
Regular Irish music—along with Irish fare—is available at County Clare (1234 N. Astor St., 414/272-5273), set in a retro guesthouse.
Along bopping North Farwell Avenue, Von Trier (2235 N. Farwell Ave., 414/272-1775) could pass for a German bierhall with its long heavy wooden bench seating and a summertime biergarten. In true Bavarian and Wisconsin style, there’s a buck’s head affixed to the wall. They were “refreshing” the place at last check, but it’s lost none of its essence. A block away on North Avenue, Vitucci’s (1832 N. Ave., 414/273-6477) is a quieter place and a personal favorite watering hole—a Milwaukee fave since 1936.
At Landmark Lanes (2220 N. Farwell Ave., 414/278-8770), in the bowels of the Oriental Landmark Theater, there’s bowling—this is Milwaukee, after all—but mostly it’s a happening young nightclub with three separate bars, pool tables, and dartboards. The place has been around forever, and it’s great.
If you’re looking for a more upscale place, try the Hi-Hat Lounge (E. Brady and Arlington Sts., 414/220-8090). With cool jazz wafting in the background, it’s got a classy but not showy feel and an older, sophisticated crowd.
Too many neighborhood taverns to count exist in Milwaukee, and everybody’s got a different recommendation. The since-1908 Wolski’s (1836 N. Pulaski St., 414/276-8130) is a corner tavern that defines a Milwaukee tippler’s joint. You’re an unofficial Beer City denizen if you drive home with an “I closed Wolski’s” bumper sticker on your car.
The longtime standard for the LGBT community is La Cage (801 S. 2nd St., in Walker’s Point, 414/672-7988). Just opened is a casually chic new place, Hybrid Lounge (707 E. Brady St.).