Last time we bellied-up to the venerable bar at Von Trier, an especially sad episode of Two And A Half Men crackled on a bunny-eared Panasonic, empty bar stools were outnumbered only by 86’d tap handles, and our draft Anchor Steam was old and flat enough to render a near-replica aftertaste of a certain hometown macro brew. 2009 wasn’t a great time for any business, but the North-and-Farwell icon had seemingly hit bottom.
Enter new owners John and Cindy Sidoff. The couple’s nearby tavern Hooligan’s is pretty much textbook for maintaining classic, corner-watering-hole vibe, and for satisfying drunken face holes with meaty wings, spiced burgers, and other comforting bits of bar food. A recent Friday happy hour seemed the perfect time to check the Sidoff’s “Restaurant Impossible” job on the storied, once-cherished joint, sample the new small plate menu, and see if they’d really, somehow, extinguished that indefinable smell.
The space: Something more felt than seen, it’s a formidable, all-encompassing feast of ornamentation: wall-and-ceiling murals of happy German drinking scenes, a monstrous espresso contraption from the time when Mr. Starbucks wore short pants, a gamut of Steins, craggy antlers hanging everywhere, and more stained glass than at your corner St. Whatever. In short, there’s so much Bavarian bric-a-brac that it might seem like a coked-up T.G.I. Friday’s owner had set up a satellite branch of Old German Beer Hall.
But, that chandelier is an original from the Pabst Mansion. And the building has been a bar since Hoan was a mayor and not a bridge. Chances are if your grandparents lived in Milwaukee, they drank here. So, cheesy old-timey Swing and all, Von Trier is, uniquely, the real deal.
The service: Affable, welcoming, quick with the mix-ology, and quick enough with the food. Some unfamiliarity with the intricacies of the menu—so, is the “imported” mustard really imported?—only underlined the fact that this is first and foremost a drinking establishment. Likewise with the “filtered water” spritzer behind the bar: It’s a nuance our beer-geek pals assure us is but a garnish; still, it at least shows the shelf of seriousness Von Trier strives for in the realm of high-end libations.
The A.V. Club’s food: Speaking of drinks: 80-degree days of summer can find little better company than an al fresco Moscow Mule ($8.50). Here the vodka and ginger beer combo comes in an Ice Cube vs. Coors Light-level chilled copper mug, which is apparently so valuable that you can’t order one without plunking down a credit card. Touché on the part of Van Trier here, otherwise we were definitely walking out with that shit.
For the designated driver in need of a cocktail, there’s the relatively lightweight Pimms Cup ($6.50). We thought it was a New Orleans thing, though we were informed it’s a “Wimbledon classic.” Either way, Pimm’s, ginger ale, and lime is quite the tonic to soften the edge of mid-day, mid-summer blaze.
Two German pretzels ($6)—big, with pillowy insides, flaky outsides, and bricks of salt on top—were teamed with “imported” Middleschharf mustard and Obatzda. The mustard (horshradish-y, dark yellow) and the spread (creamy with notes of Guinness, paprika, garlic) form a LeBron/Wade tandem of drunken noshing: each so good on its own, sometimes brilliant together, but best if they take turns. A trio of German Sausage ($9) is proffered from the Bavaria Sausage House in Madison. Bratwurst, Knackwurst, and Weisswurst—cut into nuggets in case you’re too beer-deep for knife-toting—come with the same mustard and a curried catsup, along with a delicious heap of garlic-packing Kartoffel (“potatoes,” for the layman).
Seriously large portions should have led to nothing but a well-sated smoke in the lovingly enclosed brick-and-vined beer garden, but the flatbread section looked neglected, so we opted for the daily special: Tenderloin Flatbread ($12)—thinly sliced beef, sage cream sauce, Maytag bleu cheese, red onion marmalade, and bordelaise. If that sounds like a lot of stuff to put on one piece of dough, that’s what it tasted like it, too. Like an over-topped pizza, it showed the merits of keeping it simple.
The beer list shows the opposite. While not quite the best beer bar in the city, Von Trier is still right there. Even eschewing the over-priced Belgian’s, the requisite Germans, and the tired U.K. offerings, the U.S.A. section stretches from a lengthy bottle list into the 30 taps, and includes classic go-tos like Goose Island and Sierra Nevada alongside new-school champions like Dogfish, Three Floyd’s, Great Lakes, Founders, and Lagunitas. Let the menu guide you toward a proper pairing, or just grab a hoppy, economical Abita Jacques-Imo I.P.A. can ($4.50), because where else can you do that?
The verdict: A 40-plus inch flat screen sparkled with TCM’s presentation of the black-and-white Hitchcockian thriller The Spiral Staircase when we sat down, eventually to be turned in favor of the Brewers vs. Padres. It felt like a metaphor for the new Von Trier: a classic reconciling with today. Maintaining utmost respect to the past, the place has been refreshingly spruced, polished, and de-grimed—even to the point where the only smells were coming from our beer burps.