Taking a Dive in MKE

Additional reporting by Maddy Kennedy, Matt Kulling, and Benjamin Lockwood.

The dive bar is a delicate balance: a bar that might appear run-down and filled with health hazards, yet safe enough and filled with history that make it a must-go experience. Some tip the scales on one side more than the other. What makes a good dive bar? Sketchiness? Clientele? Décor? Prices? We decided on a little of each. Of the dive bars in Milwaukee, we chose those most worth the trip. From a one-eyed bartender singing Johnny Cash to a 90-year-old woman with a colorful vocabulary serving six nights a week, the characters are vivid in the best worst bars in Milwaukee.

RATING SYSTEM

  • Atmosphere: Dim lighting, grimy surfaces, jukebox selections with nothing from this millennium.
  • Pricing: You don’t go to a dive bar for twenty dollar cocktails. Cheaper prices, higher ranking.
  • Experience: How much fun we had reviewing it.

Holler House, 2042 W. Lincoln Ave.

  • Hours: 4 p.m. – Owner’s discretion
  • Specialty drink: $5 Old Fashioned
  • Neighborhood: Forest Home Hills, South Side

As the nation’s oldest certified bowling alley—operated manually by trained pinboys who set up the lanes and send back the balls—Holler House has a built-in reason to visit. But you’ll find a lot more history than balls and pins. Operated since 1908, the Holler House is tended by the nearly century-old owner, Marcy Skowronski, a matriarch with a mouth like a sailor who lives and sleeps in the back room of the bar. Countless brasseries hang from the ceiling—a tradition started by Skowronski and her guests as a way to irritate their husbands—and, although technically constituting a fire hazard, were allowed to remain up after the local alderman pulled some strings to save his favorite watering hole.–Ben Lockwood

Atmosphere: 4 out of 5 stars
Pricing: 3 out of 5 stars
Experience: 4 out of 5 stars
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Holler House. Photo via Yelp.

 

Wolski’s Tavern, 1836 N. Pulaski St.

  • Hours: 2 p.m. – 2 a.m.
  • Specialty drink: Miller Lite
  • Neighborhood: Riverwest

If you’ve driven anywhere in the Milwaukee area, you’ve seen dozens of “I Closed Wolski’s” bumper stickers on cars, stop signs, and laptops. Despite what the sticker suggests, Wolski’s is alive and well, and a must-go for an end-of-night dive bar. The inside is reminiscent of your grandparent’s house, with a cozy, warm feeling that makes it easy to linger and chat with friends. It’s a bit busy given its reputation, and is still a staple in Milwaukee and worth visiting. Stay until the lights come on to earn your sticker.–Matt Kulling

Atmosphere: 4 out of 5 stars
Pricing: 5 out of 5 stars
Experience: 5 out of 5 stars
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Wolski’s Tavern. Photo via Yelp.

 

George’s Pub, 224 E. Washington St.

  • Hours: 12 p.m. – 11 p.m.
  • Specialty drink: Cold can of PBR or Old Milwaukee
  • Neighborhood: Walker’s Point

If you’re looking for a bar that doubles as a museum (sans the pesky cleanliness criteria), George’s Pub might be the place for you. Glass display cases filled with war memorabilia, knick-knacks from owner George Vomberg’s life as a singer in The Nashville Rejects, and intriguing odds and ends line the walls of the tavern. The pub’s specialty—a can of Milwaukee’s Best for $1.50—may be the cheapest on our list. Bring cash, both for the drinks and the jukebox. If you’re lucky. George might be in the mood to sing a little Johnny Cash—in which case, you’d be getting more bang for your buck.–Ben Lockwood

Atmosphere: 2 out of 5 stars
Pricing: 2 out of 5 stars
Experience: 3 out of 5 stars
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George’s Pub. Photo via Yelp.

Foundation Tiki Bar, 2718 N. Bremen St.

  • Hours:4 p.m. – 1:30 a.m.
  • Specialty drink: Extra-strong Mai Thai
  • Neighborhood: Riverwest

With bamboo, fish tanks, coconuts, sea horses, and puffer fish, Foundation whisks patrons away to tiki places where rum is featured prominently in cocktails, along with other island favorites. You can get just about any drink your heart desires, but all will be stronger than you expect. The Hawaiian shirt-clad bar tenders make a great Mai Thai. No one knows their secret, but one of the ingredients on the menu is ominously labled as “danger.” Although slightly more expensive than the other dive bars on the list, Foundation’s potent cocktails and exotic atmosphere are a summer getaway from bitter Milwaukee winters. – Maddy Kennedy

 

Atmosphere: 5 out of 5 stars
Pricing: 2 out of 5 stars
Experience: 3 out of 5 stars
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Foundation Tiki Bar. Photo via Yelp.

 

Gee Willickers

  • Hours: 5 p.m. – 12 a.m.
  • Specialty drink: Changes daily, usually incorporates cheap whiskey
  • Neighborhood: Riverwest

Gee Willickers is one of the most stereotypical “neighborhood” bars you’ll ever see on your dive bar crawl. The bar is difficult to discern from the rest of the block without its neon sign. Buzz in using the intercom next to the door. You be the judge whether the buzzer is a charming quirk or the sign of a sketchy area. Once inside, you’ll experience a bar not long on theme, but big on character, with cheap drink specials any night of the week. Gee Willikers doesn’t have a kitchen, but come by on Wednesdays for homemade tacos, whipped up by the bartender. –Matt Kulling

Atmosphere: 3 out of 5 stars
Pricing: 5 out of 5 stars
Experience: 3 out of 5 stars
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Gee Willikers. Photo via Yelp.

Sabbatic, 700 S. 2nd St.

  • Hours: 5 p.m. – 2 a.m.
  • Specialty drink: “Depends on who you are” – Bartender
  • Neighborhood: Walker’s Point

In the home of Harley-Davidson, Sabbatic has all the trappings of
a biker bar with hipster punk décor. The dim lighting hides much of the art around the bar, from painted mannequins to a chandelier made of vinyl records. The drink menu caters to a young crowd and a college student’s budget, including a 15-minute beat-the-clock happy hour during which most drinks are 99 cents. Though it doesn’t have the history of many of the other dive bars in Milwaukee, come see this up-and-coming staple in the Walker’s Point scene.–Andrew Dawson

 

Atmosphere: 3 out of 5 stars
Pricing: 5 out of 5 stars
Experience: 4 out of 5 stars
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Sabbatic. Photo via Yelp.

 

Jim’s Time Out, 746 N. James Lovell St.

  • Hours: Hours vary daily
  • Specialty drink: Don’t ask
  • Neighborhood: Downtown, on Marquette’s LIMO route

A favorite of Marquette students for years, Jim’s Time Out boasts a single pool table, no specialty drinks, and a bartender with a handful of recycled jokes. The welcoming atmosphere and small volume of patrons ensures you’ll always have a spot at the bar and a story to hear. Not one to lag behind in the digital age, JTO’s has a fully electronic jukebox with a ton of gross 90s alternative rock, so you’ll never lack a dance tune. Order a beer on tap. Don’t ask Tom to make you anything fancy, unless you’re looking for a pint glass full of booze.–Ben Lockwood

Atmosphere: 3 out of 5 stars
Pricing: 4 out of 5 stars
Experience: 4 out of 5 stars
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Jim’s Time Out. Photo via Yelp.

Koz’s Mini Bowl, 2078 S. 7th St.

  • Hours: 10 a.m. – 2 a.m.
  • Specialty drink: Cheap brandy Old Fashioned
  • Neighborhood: South Side

Equal parts bowling alley and taxidermy museum, Koz’s Mini Bowl is continually ranked at the top of Milwaukee’s dive bar scene. The stuffed lion in the corner and collage of bounced checks from people skipping out on tabs boosts the Koz’s divey-ness. Koz’s specializes in old-school duck-pin bowling that uses actual human pinsetters. Games are $3 per round, but if you don’t tip the pinsetters at least $2, the owner may just mount your head on the wall next to that lion. Any of these elements alone would be interesting. Combined, they create one of the best dive bar experiences the city of Milwaukee has to offer.-Maddy Kennedy

Atmosphere: 4 out of 5 stars
Pricing: 3 out of 5 stars
Experience: 5 out of 5 stars
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Koz’s Mini Bowl. Photo via Yelp.
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