The wo­ven pasts of Bryant’s and At Ran­dom.

Ex­plor­ing the in­ter­twined his­to­ries of Bryant’s and At Ran­dom

Milwaukee Magazine - - Content - BY ROBERT SIMONSON

THE FIRST TIME I walked into Bryant’s Cock­tail Lounge, about a decade ago, I was thun­der­struck by the unique am­biance of the old Walker’s Point bar. Lights turned down as low as they’d go, soft sounds em­a­nat­ing from the old McIn­tosh stereo, cou­ples nes­tled in ban­quettes tuck­ing into elab­o­rate drinks in Hur­ri­cane glasses. It was like no place I’d ever seen. Un­til I vis­ited At Ran­dom.

Within sec­onds, I felt a strong sense of déjà vu. Dim lights, deep booths, ice cream drinks – the Bay View bar felt like a sis­ter bar to Bryant’s.

Could this be a bizarre co­in­ci­dence?

Not ex­actly, ex­plained John Dye, the young pro­pri­etor of Bryant’s. Ron Zeller, the 85-year-old owner of At Ran­dom, which opened in 1964, be­gan his bar­tend­ing ca­reer at Bryant’s. “He kind of opened his own Bryant’s,” says Dye.

Zeller ad­mits as much, in an off­hand man­ner. “There weren’t enough places like that,” he says. “So I came over here.”

Zeller met me on a day when his bar wasn’t open. At Ran­dom does busi­ness only four nights a week. He jokes that the bar got its name be­cause it’s open “at ran­dom.”

That’s not the truth, of course. The truth is much bet­ter and speaks of a decades-long ri­valry with Bryant’s.

“What’s Bryant’s be­gin with?” Zeller asks, “‘B.’ I was first in the phone book. You’re look­ing at tav­erns, what are you go­ing to look at, ‘A’ or ‘B’?”

Aside from the mid­night-in-Mil­wau­kee dé­cor and ice-cream drinks, the two are ac­tu­ally quite dif­fer­ent. Bryant’s, with its young hip­ster­ish bar­tenders, feels like a Cream City out­post of the cock­tail re­vival. At Ran­dom is a quirky fam­ily busi­ness.

Zeller would just as soon pass the reins on. But to the right party. Dye told me he’s of­fered to buy a few times, but been re­buffed. It may be that Zeller just doesn’t care for the mixol­ogy crowd.

“The kids to­day put in a drop of this and a drop of that and stick a bean sprout in it,” he says. “I make drinks! They look good when you get ’em and taste good when you taste ’em.”

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