Swingin' Door Exchange
219 E Michigan St, Milwaukee WI 53202 (map); 414-276- 8150; swingindoorexchange.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: Great burgers, patty melts and daily specials in a location that's been a bar since 1933
Want Fries With That? Pretty good for frozen, but the signature spicy vermouth carrots are a more interesting option
Price: Big KC burger (special), $10.95; patty melt, $8.50; homemade chips and Cajun ranch appetizer, $4
There's a certain kind of bar that exists in Milwaukee—and all over Wisconsin—where you get the feeling when you walk in that you've gone back in time. You know immediately that people have been bellying up to the same wooden bar for more than a few decades and it makes you want to become a regular too. Dark wood paneling and outdated (or antique?) beer memorabilia never seem to go out of style at these bars.
When I walked into Swingin' Door Exchange, I knew it had been around for a long time. I hadn't done a lot of research into the history before going, however, so I was a little confused by the "established 2010" on the sign out front. Turns out, Swingin' Door has been a bar (and later a restaurant) since the end of the Prohibition Era, 1933. Makes sense, given the cozy interior full of dark stained glass and little alcoves. The current owners purchased it in 2010 and from what I can tell, have kept the history and charm of the place alive.
Luckily, the food was just as memorable as the atmosphere. There's typical bar food, but there's also steaks, crab legs, and multiple daily specials like all you can eat mussels on Wednesdays. It's like one of those newfangled gastropubs without any hint of pretentiousness. On the day I visited, they also had a burger special that our server told us was extremely popular, the Big KC burger.
It starts out with their standard half-pound burger patty, and they top it with shaved prime rib, cheddar, grilled onions, bacon, and chipotle mayo. There isn't much I can say was wrong with this burger. The beef itself was extremely juicy, even if it was cooked a bit past the medium I had requested. It had nicely developed grill marks and tasted very fresh. The beef flavor was bold but not minerally. All around a fantastic basic beef patty.
The toppings worked well together, and there was just enough of each one so nothing overpowered anything else. The prime rib was sliced super thinly and upped the beefiness of the burger to a new level, but there were a few fatty bits that I picked out. The cheese, fried onions, and chipotle mayo were applied liberally, but the mayo could have used a bit more spice and pepper flavor. Even with the toppings, the sesame seed bun held up really well without being heavy or dense. The one miss on this burger was the bacon—it tasted a little chemically and like it had been in the fridge for too long.
If you're a fan of patty melts, this is a stop you should make. The same awesome half-pound patty goes into it, along with fried onions and cheddar. The sandwich is grilled in enough butter so that it turns out perfectly greasy—not a gutbomb but not for eating everyday. The flavor of the light, seeded marbled rye bread comes through without overwhelming the fantastic beef.
You can get typical fries with your burger, but if you're looking for something interesting, the spicy vermouth carrots are a good choice. They're thinly sliced and well caramelized with just a hint of spice and a good bit of butter. The fries are frozen, but at least they're skin-on and crisp. The homemade chips are a better option, and as an appetizer come with a sour cream-based Cajun ranch that was absolutely awesome. Our server told us we'd want to dip our fries in it, and she was right.
Swingin' Door Exchange is one of my favorite overall hangouts after just one visit. The atmosphere, service, and food all exceeded my expectations and I'm wondering how they've been able to stay relatively under the radar for so long. While I hadn't been there when previous owners still ran it, I can only guess they're thrilled with the way their long-standing establishment is continuing on, hopefully for decades to come.