Offbeat bars: Le Tigre, John Bryant’s, Cleo’s, more

Inside a plain-jane strip mall, between a hardware store and compact ethnic grocery, is a cat house of sorts. One with low lights, cash-only transactions and a cozy sense of cool.

Le Tigre Lounge, a little cocktail spot that is big on personality, began business way before the advent of brewpubs, wine bars and big-screen sports taverns. It’s the kind of destination to meet for a civilized chat but not drink the night away.

The 10-seat bar with a vintage jukebox and smattering of four-seat tables was on the outskirts of Madison in 1958, opening in the then-new Brookwood Village neighborhood.

When Le Tigre owner Stephen Josheff of died of cancer in 2015, the landscape had changed remarkably: His bar was an quick walk from a multi-lane freeway where highways 12, 14, 18 and 151 converge.

Son Paul Josheff runs the show today, and he deliberately has not changed much about Le Tigre, which is awash with tiger-themed décor. Even wallpaper has a tiger-coat pattern. On the jukebox are Rat Pack and other hits from bygone eras.

“My dad said every bar had its own kitsch back then,” and “he thought it was good to always have something to look at.” Tigers “are what he loved.”

Stephen Josheff also was fond of saying he chose a tiger motif because he couldn’t get an elephant through the door.

On a more serious note, says the son, “he knew he’d spend a long time here and wanted to create something he’d enjoy. I don’t think it was more for the people on the other side of the bar.”

An easy majority of the 350-plus knickknacks and artwork were donated by customers, ages 21 to over 80. “You get all walks of life here,” Josheff says, “people who like old bars, people who like funky bars.”

He stocks bottled Tiger Beer, from Singapore. A corner screen is tuned to a live cam at Big Cat Rescue, a wildlife sanctuary in Tampa. Behind the bar is a Bronze Tiger, drawn by Mark Stegbauer, cartoonist for Marvel.

Filmmaker David Lynch has found Le Tigre too. A part of the wake for “Saturday Night Live” comic Chris Farley shifted to Le Tigre in 1997.

As a boy, Paul figured all bars were like this. He was raised in North Carolina, visited his dad once or twice a year and was a marine biology major who couldn’t resist lending a hand at Le Tigre as a young adult.

“I had to try it,” he recalls. “I didn’t want regrets, and I ended up loving it.” That was 1998. He counts wife Heather Altergott-Josheff (a Kenosha native) as the person who encouraged him to continue following his heart.

“The most important part is that this was my dad’s place – I am around 100 percent of his favorite things,” Josheff says. “Other (sons and daughters) get photos.”

Le Tigre Lounge, 1328 S. Midvale Blvd., Madison, is closed on Sundays but otherwise opens at 4 p.m. The business has no website but can be found on Facebook.

Crème de noyaux and vanilla ice cream is the classic combination for a Pink Squirrel, and Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge in Milwaukee is the place that invented it.

The unassuming bar in a residential part of the Historic Mitchell Street neighborhood opened in 1936 as a beer hall. Two years later, owner Bryant Sharp decided to serve cocktails and the grand experimenting began.

Customers have about 500 drink options, but no drink menu. The best way to proceed is to let the bartender decide what you should drink.

That means answering a few questions – “Describe what you like, and we’ll go from there,” the bartender says. Something boozy in taste? Citrusy? More sour than sweet? Maybe a spin on a classic Old Fashioned?

On file are cocktail recipes that are nearly one century old, secret recipes, recipes with odd names (The Ray Gun, for one). A cocktail is concocted with a little fanfare (and flash of fire, occasionally). The excess arrives in a mini carafe.

My price: $24 for two drinks, paid after lingering two hours.

Cocktail glasses are chilled. Ice cream drinks get whipped cream and a little paper umbrella too. Conversation is easy at the bar because no TVs distract, and retro music – Smokey Robinson, The Supremes – stays in the background.

Capacity is 99, which includes upstairs booths that are only open on weekends. Take a seat because standing with a drink isn’t cool. This is about old-school chilling, which is no problem for eight of us at 5:30 on a Tuesday afternoon.

The interior is dimly lit in red-orange hues. Booths have cushy seating. An aquarium is lighted. Strangers talk to each other. The bartender takes her time with little flourishes.

Bryant’s has earned lots of attention, including Esquire and other lists of best bars in the nation. The National Trust for Historic Preservation features it at

Expect to dip into history and take little boozy risks en route to a memorable experience.

Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge, 1519 S. Ninth St., is closed on Mondays but otherwise opens at 5 p.m.

Months ago, I asked you to tell me about the most unique or interesting watering hole in Wisconsin.

Cleo’s in Appleton was a popular choice: The bar at 203 W. College Ave. feels like Christmas all year because of indoor strings of lights and other decorations, which acknowledge other holidays too.

Order a Dirty Snowball – a slushy blend of coffee liqueur, vodka, dark crème de cacao and cream – during any time of year. The business, around since the 1970s, has no website but can be found on Facebook.

Mark Dorn of Whitewater caught my attention with Kuhtz General Store, Stone Bank (Waukesha County). “A good ol’ family-run general store with a bar that serves as a quaint town center,” he wrote. “In business since 1926.”

In the one-room store’s erratic inventory are vintage, edible and souvenir merchandise, including Amish-made candy. Attached to the store is a U-shaped bar with jars of pickled eggs on the counter. Raw hamburger and onions on marble rye is a weekend specialty.

The business has no website but can be found on Facebook.

Last: Colleague Gary Knowles of Madison mentions the Stop-Inn Tavern at Siebkens Resort in Elkhart Lake, a favorite with Road America race fans, “but most people never find the cozy little bar tucked away just off the resort dining room downstairs.”

He says the nook seats around six, with standing room for another 10 to 12. “This is the real racers’ bar where many of the top Road America drivers – and the likes of Paul Newman, David Hobbs, Mario Andretti, Danny Sullivan, Robert Wagner, Emerson Fittipaldi, Carl Haas, Brian Redman – have been spotted enjoying a more intimate space.”