Milwaukee is in a bit of a flux these days. There seems to be a new store, restaurant or bar opening every week and it’s getting difficult to keep up!
Soho 7 is the babe of Bobby Head, the owner of Water Street’s swanky Centanni Piano Bar. As the classy new kid on the block, Soho 7 promises a posh yet comfortable setting with a vast selection of unique spirits. Supposedly Soho 7 is the new place to be seen on weekends, but if that’s the case, I think I’d rather stay at home.
In my opinion, Milwaukee is casual and unpretentious, which are some of the qualities people like most about our city. You can stop at a bar like Wolski’s and feel at home with a complete stranger or spend time simply chewing the fat with the amicable barkeep. But, when my friend Rose and I went to Soho 7, it felt more like we were crashing a private party.
We arrived at the bar exactly at 7:15 p.m. and when we went to let ourselves in, the heavy doors were still latched. Rose tugged on the handle a couple of times until a woman eventually came to let us inside. Other than being reminded by the woman that they don’t open until 7 p.m. (it was a quarter after mind you), we weren’t greeted by any of the five people on staff let alone acknowledged as we entered. There was only one other patron in the entire place – a lady who sat at one end of the bar and sipped on wine – so it’s not like they were busy mixing a profusion of cocktails or tending to an unruly crowd. Whatever, I don’t hold grudges.
Despite being a bit turned off by the inhospitable and somewhat snobbish staff, Rose and I slid into two chairs mid-bar and began to scan the drink menu that was lying in front of us. Exotic cocktails and martini were aplenty, most of which were made with vodka and unusual flavors like thyme, sage, basil and rosemary. The extensive drink list also included rare vintage scotch blends and premium liquors for personal bottle service, which costs $170 and includes the mixers. With all of the fancy-pants drinks, I was quite surprised to see that there was room for Milwaukee classics like Miller and PBR on the beverage bill. That was a saving grace.
A few minutes passed and the bartender approached us and uttered “Ready?” apparently as our cue to order. I decided to be adventurous and try the “ehm be”, a lemon ginger pomegranate molasses concoction, which was a little heavy on the molasses – I’ve never had that in a drink before, so the first two sips were a little overwhelming. Rose played it safe and asked for a raspberry martini, and then with nothing more than a blink, the toffee-nosed bartender turned away and began mixing our cocktails.
As we waited, we caught up on the day's happenings and admired the swanky joint. It’s a far cry from our usual stomping ground, which was a nice change. I don’t mind stepping out of my comfort zone and trying new places, especially to witness the evolution of Milwaukee.
The place itself is beautiful and luxurious. It’s like no other bar I’ve seen – I assume this is the type of lounge you’d find in Manhattan or L.A. The stark, visual contrast of black and white colors and soft and hard textures immediately caught my eye. Butter cream walls are offset with dark accents and Cream City bricks are exposed around the main bar’s liquor display and along the split-level staircase that leads up to the second floor bar.
Small white tea lights illuminate the lounge and when they’d blow out, a gentleman in a handsome black suit would promptly relight them. Behind us were clusters of plush couches where I envisioned friends loafing around after work. (I love bars with comfy sofas!) There’s another sitting area that’s separated from the main room by long sheer ivory curtains and hanging above the red couches is an immense mirror that faces the bar. Between the candles reflecting in the mirror and the stylish light fixtures hanging sporadically from the wooden beamed ceiling, there is a pleasant glow throughout the room, one that lingers and charms customers into one more drink.
Still, I felt out of place when measured up to the bombshell cocktail waitresses who donned mini black dresses and dark makeup and spent hours leaning against the bar twirling their blonde locks. Evidently, Soho 7 is geared toward fashion-forward people like Audrey Hepburn whose candlelit portrait hangs high on the wall across from the front door in a shrine-like display.
Rose and I stayed around the bar for a while watching stylish locals fade in and out of the modish backdrop. We finally got a smile from the bartender and after two cocktails we were ready to call it a night. While Soho 7 provided a nice place to sip an exotic drink on that wintry weeknight, when I revisited it a month later with Eric, the lounge was a completely different scene and I wasn’t fond of it.
I liked Soho 7 as a comfortable lounge and chic place to grab an interesting cocktail after work with friends, but I’ll avoid it like the plague on weekends. Besides little hole-in-the-wall taverns, I like chill bars like Cuvée and Hinterland that are hip without being obnoxious and over the top posh. Both have an understated elegance and a comfortable atmosphere, and attentive service.
That Saturday night was our second anniversary. No, Eric and I aren’t married; we just wanted to celebrate our stability and endurance, which I think is acceptable, no? Given that we were already decked out for our dinner date at Bacchus, we decided to explore the nightlife in the trendy Third Ward district. Since Eric hadn’t been to Soho 7, we decided to start there.
Soho 7 yielded a mega crowd that night, in fact, there was a line stretched out the door and around the corner to get inside. “A line? Are you serious?” I hissed as we turned around and headed to Cuvée. “This is Milwaukee, not Vegas,” I grumbled as we trekked a block in the cold to the Champaign bar.
*Fast forward two hours later.*
As the night wound down, we decided to give Soho 7 another shot. Without delay we got inside, but not much further than the entryway. We were stuck standing shoulder to shoulder with a crowd that was grinding to the outrageously loud Top 40 songs blaring from the speakers and shaking the floor. If I wanted to be mobbed by drunks, I would have gone to Eve. It definitely was NOT my scene.
I read that the owner of Soho 7 claims that his bar is a haven for a crowd that has matured past “waste-face” Water Street. That might be the case, but Soho 7 still had the same clientele and meat market atmosphere, only with pricier drinks in hand – I say this after a young girl spills her full martini on my new Italian leather boots. It was so loud that I couldn’t hear her apologize; then again, she may have been too drunk to even realize that her drink was emptied onto my shoe. Right then, I had enough. We left after being inside for only three minutes and headed en route for The Jackalope Lounj.
I guess to be acknowledged as a real city, a flourish of stores, restaurants and clubs may begin to shake the low maintenance, friendly, unpretentious feel of Milwaukee that I love. But that doesn’t mean that the development of "big city" nightlife is a bad thing for Milwaukee – it will make the city more diverse (plus some people like grinding to hip-hop music). I’m sure that Milwaukee will find a happy medium between swanky martini lounges, loud dance clubs and neighborhood pubs, and I will be glad to check out each one. But, I’m thankful that no matter what, I can find a beer, a round of darts, and some friendly banter anytime just down the road.
Some of the photos were taken from the Soho 7 website.
231 E. Buffalo St.
Milwaukee WI, 53202
Hours: 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. Wednesday and Saturday; 4:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. Thursday and Friday
(Proper fashionable dress is required)