It's easy to miss AJ Bombers (1241 N. Water St.) if you're not looking. Then again, ever since its shocking dispatch of burger lynchpin Sobelman's on the TV show “Food Wars,” it seems to be on everyone's radar. The upstart bar and grill is a sweet mix of originality and substance, combining unique gimmicks (its peanut delivering system has to be seen to be believed) with damn good food. Putting peanut butter on a burger may seem blasphemous to some, but at Bombers it's simply forward progress. No, it's not Sobelman's, but the great thing is that it doesn't try to be.
Complete with a mechanical bull and Daisy Duke-wearing bartenders, Red Rock Saloon (1225 N. Water St.) provides Milwaukee with Southern flair and down-home hospitality that's hard to find in an area packed to the gills with Irish pubs. Live bands play regularly, covering country classics by Tim McGraw and Garth Brooks to deliver the proper soundtrack for this authentic honky-tonk that looks miles away but feels right at home.
Coyote Ugly (1131 N. Water St.) claims to be the world's most famous bar, and while that may or may not be hyperbole, the fact remains that girls dancing on countertops has become a staple at bars across the country—and this place has turned it into a sweet science. You know how it goes: attractive bartenders, revealing outfits, cheap drinks. What more could you ask for? Just don't order water, unless you want to get wet, of course.
The first thing you'll notice about McGillycuddy's (1135 N. Water St.) is its massive patio, because, well, it's awesome. It's the perfect spot to escape the stuffy confines of an overcrowded bar on a sticky summer night, complete with a full outdoor bar and sparkling lights dangling from the trees. When at capacity, the atmosphere is absolutely electric, and there's no better place to down a cool brew in the often-intolerable summer heat. For those looking for a more intimate outdoor setting, you might want to check out McCarthy's (134 E. Juneau Ave.), which has a smaller, more laid-back patio section with a bags set and pool table.
Perhaps a testament to the duo's immense popularity, Duke's On Water (152 E. Juneau Ave.) and its sister bar Scooter's (154 E. Juneau Ave.) seem to have the most diverse crowd on Water Street. Both are usually shoulder to shoulder, filled with a raucous assembly of folk ready to tip back drinks, share stories and maybe shoot a game of pool or two. Ignore the fact that Duke's technically isn't on Water Street and swing by for a night filled with more global flair.
Of all the bars in the Water Street area, Trinity (125 E. Juneau Ave.) might be the most ambitious. As the name implies, it's actually a conglomeration of three Irish pubs—Foy's, Gallagher's and Duffy's—that forms a sprawling paradise of booze and tuneage not to be missed. In the belly of the beast is an outdoor section with interesting stone décor that gives it the appearance of a grotto-like haven for those overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of a bar this epic and grand in scale.
Sitting scenically smack-dab on the river is The Harp (113 E. Juneau Ave.), which provides freshness and romance to a strip of bars that can get a bit stuffy. It's an aesthetically pleasing locale, and the deck in the back, complete with a shining view of the city, is perhaps the ideal spot to schmooze your significant other and be rowdy at the same time.
Perhaps no other spot on Water balances food and drink like Water Street Brewery (1101 N. Water St.), where you can sit down and enjoy a first-rate meal at a decent price and then tip back a few of the restaurant's delicious, often refreshingly unique house beers. Of course, it also serves as the perfect jumping-off point for a long night out on the strip. Grab a bite here early and then hop down the block to some of the more party-heavy bars.
The Safe House (779 N. Front St.) isn't actually on Water Street, but it's an absolute must-visit for newcomers to Milwaukee, if for nothing else but its novel originality. This hidden gem's entrance is located down a shifty alley. We won't reveal the surprise, but once you walk in it's definitely not what you'd expect. A helpful pointer: Go on their website and find the password to enter this tucked-away speakeasy with minimal embarrassment and ridicule.