Drinking our way through Milwaukee’s airport (and airport-themed) bars
Variety, charm, and way too much patron singing.
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Airport-adjacent bars are among the first sights travelers see upon landing in Milwaukee, and the last thing they may experience before they depart. It’s a fitting prelude or postscript to the city’s tavern-laden landscape. Conversely, with these establishments’ proximity to the airport, most locals see little need to leave their own neighborhoods to drink near General Mitchell “International” (term used loosely) Airport.
Despite Milwaukee’s rich and iconic bar history, sometimes the first, last, or only experience visitors have imbibing in town is gleaned from watering holes with aeronautical puns for names that sit in the shadow of General Mitchell’s control tower, or are nestled near airport runways. Recently, The A.V. Club kept our luggage at home and landed at some airport-themed bars.
Operating under the self-appointed rule to only visit places with names that co-opted terms from aviation, we made our descent down Howell Avenue before landing at Final Approach, a restaurant and cocktail lounge whose name was a subtle nod to flight. The airplane on the restaurant’s roof was a less subtle nod. Inside (the place, not the plane), we immediately spotted an elderly group eating near the entrance, seated in repurposed airplane seats.
Not surprisingly, the restaurant was brimming with people eating Friday fish fry, and we saw more than a few old fashioneds being sipped between bites of fish. There was no way we were getting seated any time soon, let alone served in a timely manner. So we crammed into a person-sized nook near the bar and took in the interior décor while we waited for a bartender. Final Approach was more traditional supper club than airport bar, but propellers and framed photos of military aircrafts nailed to the wall hammered the theme home. When our bartender finally had a spare moment to help us, we ordered one of Final Approach’s 30 draft beers, Tyranena Bitter Woman IPA, which we promptly slammed before taking off to the next place.
A few blocks away, we happened upon Aviator Sports Bar & Grille, an establishment attached to a Best Western directly across from General Mitchell International. We were drawn in by an illuminated exterior sign with an old-timey airplane on it. Hotel bars don’t often make for prime hangouts, and Aviator was no different. The small space was shrunken all the more with painters’ cloths hanging the length of one side of the bar, due to ongoing renovations. Still, Aviator made the most of what it had by offering a respectable Friday special of $3.50 Lakefront Brewery pints and $5 tall Great Lakes Distillery cocktails. We took advantage of the sale-priced Lakefront with an Eastside Dark and watched some playoff baseball. Soon, a pack of guys who seemed to be regulars (as bewildering as the concept of anointing a hotel bar as your home base is) drove out what little business there was by screaming all 8:42 of Don McLean’s “American Pie” off-key as they played darts and danced. When Styx’s “Mr. Roboto” followed, our Eastside Dark was gone and so were we.
The experience inspired us to leave Howell Ave. and change course to the other main drag beside the airport, Layton Avenue. We decided to bypass other aviation alcohol emporiums on the way and set down our wheels in the parking lot of The Landing On Layton. The Lake Parkway-adjacent business—that’s technically in St. Francis—is essentially an old house that was converted to a bar and grill. Its rusty, dingy exterior is in marginally better condition than that of the vacant former Blockbuster Video store next door, but inside yields a shockingly well kept and cozy joint. We took a seat at the bar and bought a pitcher of Miller Lite (one of few tap options) and caught up on the MLB Playoffs.
Astonishingly, the small tavern smashed between a highway on-ramp and a defunct video store was fairly packed. As plates of delectable-looking beer battered fish and Rueben sandwiches were brought out, we began to understand why. We fought the urge to order some $9.99 fish fry (this time) and finished our beer in the relaxing St. Francis gem before heading westward on Layton again, en route to our final leg of our travels.
Another exterior airplane brought us to our final destination of our sojourn, Amelia’s (724 E. Layton Ave., 414-483-0345). Implicitly named after the famed missing pilot with the same first name, the south side bar is best known for its karaoke and, more recently, having three pages of health violations less than a year ago. Even before entering, we were treated to a drunk woman yelling at someone in a car attempting to leave the parking lot. Inside wasn’t much better. Popular country songs and outdated radio rock blared, forcing us to scream our order (a mini pitcher of Spotted Cow for $6.50) just to be heard. We took a table beside three guys bellowing dialogue even louder than the music required, which was especially evident when the trio subbed in racially inspired lyrics for Zac Brown Band’s “Chicken Fried”—a song that was already bothersome enough in its original form.
Even in our abbreviated airport bar crawl, we experienced a great deal of variety, a dash of charm, and way too much patron singing. For better or Amelia’s, Mitchell Field area bars offer the same vast variety that help make the rest of Milwaukee such a special place to get blotto.