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Drink in the atmosphere at Milwaukee cocktail lounge


AT RANDOM: 2501 S. Delaware Ave., Milwaukee, (414) 481-8030. No website, of course. Open 7 p.m. until 2 a.m. Wednesday through Saturday.

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

MILWAUKEE — Ronald Zeller bet on a long shot in 1965 when he opened At Random cocktail lounge in Milwaukee’s Bay View neighborhood.

Zeller is the son of a Schlitz factory worker. His lounge has never served beer. Or wine. At Random features more than 100 blended drinks.

Weekends at At Random are so crowded, Zeller removes all bar stools. The dimly lit bar in a former ranch house is filled with couples. Motherly waitresses bring you a Tiki Love Bowl and encourage you and your partner to hold hands and make a wish. I know. I’ve been there.

Faded pictures of Frank Sinatra hang on pseudo brick. Sinatra, Jack Jones, Dean Martin and others play softly all night long. There is a song for everyone.

At Random is one of the most romantic bars in the Midwest. You accept it for what it is, not what it should be. The bar has survived because time has taught it that the greater the odds, the greater the love.

At Random lives in the moment — which is 1965. The bar doesn’t accept credit cards.

The maroon lounge lighting is soft and bordello crimson. Zeller wears a red apron that matches the decor. Clown portraits in the dimly lit corner can creep you out.

During a recent Saturday night visit, I asked Zeller if the artificial countertop Christmas trees stayed up all year.

He informed me that they’re not Christmas trees.

“I call them our ‘Love Trees,’” he said.

“People get engaged here, they get married,” he added. “They get pregnant because of me.” Indirectly.

Zeller’s waitress wife, Shirley, scolded me for talking to her husband while he was working.

Zeller, 79, met Shirley at Lincoln High School in Milwaukee. They’ve been married 54 years.

Shirley came up with the bar’s name.

“She got the bright idea we would be first in the telephone book,” Zeller said with a laugh. “But who is going to look in a telephone book to see, ‘Where should I go drink tonight?’”

It took me a while to reach Zeller on the phone. I called a few times and got a gruff voice on the answering machine saying, “I’m out of the hospital and we will reopen on January 26.” That’s something you won’t hear when you call Enclave in Chicago.

Zeller had knee surgery. He was limping behind the bar.

“All our drinks are experimenting,” he explained while mixing a so-called Missionary Downfall, made of rum, brandy and Galliano (sweet herbal liqueur), along with lemon and pineapple juice.

“Most of our drinks are healthy,” said Zeller, who opts for real fruit instead of mixes.

Zeller points out that At Random is surrounded by four bars in a two-block radius.

“Why would you come here for a beer?” he asked. “I had to do something different. We are strictly a cocktail lounge.”

At Random’s biggest sellers are the Tiki Love Bowl (multiple rums and punch served in a fiery gonzo goblet with a lemon on top; $18) and the Peanut Butter Cup ice cream drink ($8).

Places like At Random don’t exist in Chicago because neighbors would complain about bar traffic and Zeller would face shakedowns for zoning violations. If you have too many Missionary Downfalls you could mistake At Random — clad in white aluminum siding — for someone’s house.

“It was a house,” Zeller said. “I wasn’t going to spend a lot of money on the outside. Most people are in the inside.”

At Random’s female waitstaff wears neckties and crisp, white dress shirts. A hostess brings you to your table.

The youngest server I saw was Tiffany Pionke, 35, from Crystal Lake.

“This epitomizes class,” Pionke said. “There aren’t places like this anymore. A friend took me here one night about 10 years go. It was in the middle of nowhere and I was lucky to find my way back.”

During the good weather, Zeller still finds his way down to Arlington Park racetrack, where he befriended late Sun-Times turf writer Dave Feldman. He bets on breeders, sometimes on jockeys. He takes chances. The greater the odds, the greater the payoff.

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