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Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2010

Von Trier: Continuing an East Side Tradition

Old bar gets some new love in Milwaukee

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A historic East Side bar slowly loses its luster, and nearly its life, before the owners of a thriving bar across the street decide to invest a considerable amount of money, time and energy in resurrecting the Milwaukee institution. The recent revival of Von Trier is a perfect pitch for a makeover show on the Food Network.

The southwest corner of Farwell and North has been home to bars for nearly a century. During World War II, it was Rieder’s, a “super bar” that, in addition to serving fresh drinks at the bar, sold bottled liquor and six-packs to-go. It was a swanky lounge known for cocktails mixed with freshly squeezed juices, a jukebox that played classical and European music, and tall, blond cocktail waitresses.

In 1978, Rieder sold his bar to Karl Lotharius, the owner of a disco just south of Milwaukee and Wells streets called Oliver’s Cabaret. Lotharius, who hailed from the German town of Trier, named the bar Von Trier, German for “from Trier.” Lotharius decorated his bar with German art and décor, including intricate woodcarvings, ornamental beer steins and antlers (as both wall mounts and chandeliers). Among the colorful stained-glass windows is an imported custom-made piece featuring a Bitburger Brewery beer advertisement. After Lotharius bought the adjoining building and converted it into the bar’s back room, he worked with an antique dealer to decorate it. The dealer happened to possess a handcrafted Cyril Colnik chandelier that had been removed from the Pabst Mansion when it was on the verge of demolition. Lotharius bought the antique and had it installed in the back room, where it remains today.

Over the course of several years, a UW-Milwaukee student, Mike March, painted murals on the walls and ceilings of the bar depicting scenes of a pastoral German countryside and the town of Trier. It wasn’t long before Von Trier had a reputation for a lively back patio, great hot toddies and an outstanding beer selection that featured German and other European brews.

On an early fall morning in 1981, Lotharius was struck in the abdomen by a double-barbed, metal-tipped arrow outside his Murray Avenue apartment and later bled to death at the hospital. In the wake of his death, which remains unsolved, bar manager Mark Eckert also became manager of the owner’s estate. He purchased a share of the business in 1983, and the rest of the business from the last two shareholders in 1989. With the exception of a popcorn machine in 1990, and a new exterior wall to replace the glass block faade that was driven through on two separate occasions, Von Trier didn’t see much improvement over the next two decades. The bar grew dimmer and dirtier until, after 31 years at Von Trier, Eckert sold the business to John and Cindy Sidoff, the owners of Hooligan’s, in October 2009.

With a team of restoration experts, building contractors, bar managers and student workers from Right Step, the Sidoffs cleaned Von Trier from top to bottom, scrubbing three decades of grime from the surfaces. They threw away enough junk, broken equipment and furniture to fill five large Dumpsters.

Behind the bar, the owners installed new beer lines and towers, refrigerators, freezers and a dishwasher, as well as plumbing and electrical fixtures.

“We have about 75 beers right now,” manager Jory Hanson explains. “We’re bringing in a few new beers every week to bring it up to 100.”

Von Trier currently serves 12 draft beers, but will be upgrading to 24 when the second draft tower arrives from Germany. Numbering nearly 20, hot drinks such as the ber-popular hot buttered rum (dark rum with butter, cinnamon, nutmeg and clove mixture with a lemon twist) are still a priority on the menu. An underutilized area of the bar was converted into a quaint wine cellar where management plans to host wine tastings. To continue the very-Von Trier tradition of free salty popcorn, the new owners also purchased a brand-new popcorn machine.

The Sidoffs didn’t have to advertise Von Trier’s reopening on Dec. 10, 2009—they simply turned on the lights. According to Hanson, 235 light bulbs had to be replaced, including all the lamps in the outdoor beer garden, as well as the spotlights on the front overhang. The long “Von Trier” sign, which hadn’t been lit in more than a decade, was restored, and the red neon sign perched above the threshold was repaired. Other than cleaning and updating, the new owners haven’t changed the core personality of Von Trier; they just gave the old bar some love.

“The best compliments we’ve gotten so far,” Hanson says, “is that we didn’t do anything.”

www.vontriers.com / 2235 N. Farwell Ave., Milwaukee, 414-272-1775 / Open daily from 3 p.m. - 2:30 a.m.