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Making History at the Swingin’ Door

Venerable Downtown bar serves full line of sandwiches, soups and daily specials

Sep. 6, 2016
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swingingdoorexchange
Photo via Swingin' Door Exchange Facebook

Chances are, you won’t just happen upon the Swingin’ Door Exchange, 219 E. Michigan St. Michigan Street is a lonely stretch at the dinner hour and, even in the daylight, a maze of scaffolding from a restoration project at the Chamber of Commerce building in which the Swingin’ Door resides does an unfortunate job of hiding the place. But the Door is a worthy destination stop, the rare Downtown bar with a corner-bar feel, right down to the décor and pull tab machine. There is a genuine air of history about the place—from the easily-missed doorframe posting for Lizzie French’s brothel (a legendary River Street madam in her time) and the cluster of antique beer and liquor promotional items behind the bar. And history actually happened inside the cozy quarters of the place. When Milwaukee’s famous Newhall House, which was located just across the street, burned to the ground in 1883 the dead and dying from the blaze were laid out in the Western Union office that then occupied the space.

The space has been home to a bar since 1933, but has only recently become a place for full-menu sit-down dining. The menu is surprisingly diverse, with an impressive salad selection (including a very good marinated beet salad), burgers, sandwiches, melts and entrées as well as daily specials that range from gourmet hot dogs to steak. They also offer Saturday and Sunday brunch and one of the best Friday fish frys in the city. The Door’s chili is fit for any season. Mild, hearty and served with ample onions, sour cream, and cheese, it manages to fit with any sandwich or dish. KT’s Buffalo chicken dip is a standout among the appetizers. With a creamy mix of cheese and finely shredded chicken, it brings the heat that the chili lacks and comes with tortilla chips and toasted French bread. 

For those looking for lunch or a light dinner option (perhaps to be accompanied by the Door’s ongoing three-for-$5 PBR special), an excellent option is the blackened chicken bacon avocado sandwich. Served on a toasted Sciortino’s roll, the chicken breast cutlet is seasoned and flat-ironed grilled, crispy without being dry. It is topped with melted cheddar, two hearty strips of bacon, and a generous fanning of fresh avocado slices. While the chicken sandwich can be a pedestrian offering at many restaurants, the Door has this one down to near perfection. Of the sides, the house-made potato chips, served with either blue cheese or ranch, are highly recommended. The spicy vermouth carrots pair very well with entrées or salads. 

Unpretentious, homey and always friendly, the Swingin’ Door offers not only one of the most authentically Milwaukee experiences Downtown, but also some of the area’s best food. 

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