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Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2010

History Meets Dining at Swingin’ Door Exchange

Menu expanded under new owners

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Downtown Milwaukee’s landmark Grain Exchange Building, also known as the Mackie, first housed the Swingin’ Door when the Prohibition Era came to an end. At that time, in 1933, it was known as the Grain Exchange Tavern. It became the Swingin’ Door in 1973. After nearly 40 years as owner, Michael Murphy sold the business in September. In a nod to the building’s history, the new owners—K.C. Swan and wife Shelley Sincere, veterans of Slim McGinn’s—changed the name to the Swingin’ Door Exchange.

The name may have changed, but the interior remains much the same. The tables in the back dining room now sport white linen tablecloths, the gaming machines have been moved to provide more space, and wood carvings of frolicking elephants have been removed, but the pine paneling and bar are untouched.

The menu, however, has seen a big change, with a greater focus on food that is served every day of the week. Appetizers and small plates are labeled “Exchange Plates.” Sandwich and salad options have expanded. You will also find a few entrees, a Friday fish fry and daily specials. Weekends offer a brunch in addition to the regular menu.

The kitchen makes homemade soups, salad dressings and coleslaw, as well as some fine potato chips. Homemade items typically take longer to prepare, but the kitchen maintains its efficiency. It’s still possible to have a quick lunch here.

One of the best new items is the barbecue ribs, served one of three ways: small plate ($8), half rack ($12) and full rack ($18). The ribs are lean, meaty and tender, and the sweet, tangy sauce comes with just enough of a hot pepper kick to be noticed. The entrée portions include soup or salad and a side dish. The creamy coleslaw is a perfect side for the ribs. (You might also consider the spicy vermouth carrots. The vermouth is subtle and the spiciness is just right.)

Soups change daily. One option was a garlic soup that lived up to its name; another was pork poblano stew that was thick and meaty. The above-average house salad comes with leaf lettuce, Roma tomatoes, sweet red peppers, cucumbers, red onions, crumbled egg and croutons. The dressings include a memorable mustard vinaigrette.

Be sure to check the daily specials. One was a penne dish ($7.75), vegetarian baked pasta with garlic, Parmesan, evoo and Roma tomatoes. On Friday you will find items like bluegills ($9) and cod ($7.50-$9), and perhaps pepperoni shrimp scampi ($8.50). The shrimp are not large, but they are bathed in garlic butter; the addition of crumbled pepperoni is an inspired one.

There are a few minor misses. The tomatoey chili ($3-$5), which comes with plenty of ground beef but no beans, lacks the spice of the barbecue sauce. It benefits from some Tabasco. Pierogies ($4), Polish dumplings with cheese and potato fillings, make for an inexpensive starter, but the dough is a bit dry and they are so identical that they seem pre-made.

The weekend brunch menu is nice. Among the six items priced from $5-$9 is the Southwest scrambler, a mix of potato, sausage, egg and tomato seasoned with salsa, onion and chile—filling and tasty.

The revised Swingin’ Door retains its classic character—the bar is still a perfect spot to watch a football game—and the new menu feels right for the place. The kitchen does a fine job and the staff is very welcoming. The new ownership is off to a good start.

Swingin’ Door Exchange

219 E. Michigan St.

(414) 276-8150

$$

Credit Cards: MC, VS, AX

Handicap Accessible

Swingindoorexchange.com