2989 S Kinnickinnic Ave
Milwaukee, WI 53207
It was a quiet Monday evening when I stopped in at the Palm Tavern, typical industry night I suppose, patrons just a couple of bartenders on their night off. Well, besides me and a number of other tourists who stopped in over the course of the next few hours. Upon hearing I was from Texas, owner Bruno Johnson said that figured, maintaining he doesn’t get a lot of love from the largely working class neighborhood at this southern end of the popular Kinnickinnic corridor, a grittier stretch probably ripe for gentrification. But savvy drinkers far and wide pay the Palm a visit as it’s constantly written up as one of the best bars in Milwaukee, if not the entire country. Bruno and his wife opened the Palm in 2003, later opening Sugar Maple further up this road dotted with some of Milwaukee’s best bars.
The Palm Tavern is a small place, just a few tables and booths forming an L around the bar, its central focus a towering pyramid of bourbons and whiskeys. That focus is evident throughout the bar, a common theme from the walls to the taps. Now divorced, his ex running Sugar Maple, Bruno runs the Palm with an almost military precision and efficiency. The building dates back to the 1890’s, previously housing grocers, speakeasies and taverns, and the fixtures evince that history, tin ceilings, but the whole place was clean as if ready for inspection. Everything in its place behind the bar, the walls perspicaciously adorned with original artwork and music prints, the bar stocked with bottles for which Bruno can and will explain his preference: heavy on whiskey, with plenty of rums and gins and digestifs to sate the selective drinker. The limited taps pour only the best beer, since he doesn’t believe “local” necessarily means “good.” He’d love to carry more Milwaukee brewing stalwarts like Lakefront or Sprecher, but if the young turks like Good City, or those further afield like New Glarus or Bell’s or Founders make better beer, that’s what he’s going to serve.
As I partook of several of those Good City offerings, Motto, their aromatic Mosaic pale ale, and Reward, a juicy DIPA, I fell into conversation about the Mops playing on the stereo, “I’m Just a Mops,” from the Sixties Japanese Garage-Psych Sampler album. When I commented on the Nolet’s Silver gin from the menu, and Bruno said he likes to mix it with Topo Chico, I waved the checkered flag there and then. If I lived anywhere near the Palm, it would be my faithful neighborhood bar, forsaking all others.
I couldn’t pass up an Alpha King from 3 Floyds, and wrapped up with an apricot Emperor Norton from Almanac. I thought, with a bar as small as the Palm, perhaps streamlining is an absolute necessity. But in a world of jumping on bandwagons or indiscriminately serving “local” or “craft” just because the brand rep stopped by earlier and gave you a handy behind the dumpster, it was refreshing to belly up to a bar where everything from floor to ceiling has been personally vetted by the owner, with no crap on tap. No TV’s or other distractions, just a proprietor engaging with his customers and knocking back the good stuff. Cheers to the Palm, from Texas.