A World Away (or, just down the hall)

"Classic American..."

While the lobby bar hosts an array of Monday night businessmen having a casual beer and some mixed nuts with colleagues, buoyed by a soundtrack of classical and jazz piano tunes, just down the hall and through a set of doors is the entrance to the Mason Street Grill. It’s an entirely different world, and easy to forget it’s a part of the hotel at all, were it not for the high-class service and ability to charge your meal back to your room.

Camel leather and stools and high-backed bar chairs with milk chocolate wood legs, dotted with brass rivets, ring several tall tables and line the bar.  There are red leather couches and an easy chair in a half-circle by a fireplace, next to walls with built-in bookshelves lined with jacket-less tomes.  Interspersed among the tiles are vases, decorative boxes, glass votives that vary in shape/height/color, and even a worn leather lunchbox.  Dark wood walls and ceilings are adorned with rectangular light fixtures to provide an ambient lighting that is warm and glowing.  All this evokes an executive dining room or perhaps the Chicago office of a corporate attorney.  But the crowd is clearly there for varying reasons.

Two guys in shorts and golf shirts keenly pay attention to the Yankees vs. Reds game on the TV above the bar (4 to 1, Yanks, top of the 3rd), while Nicholas the bartender, smoothly pours them wine refills using that classic one-handed style of thumb placed neatly in the groove at the bottom of the bottle that indicates someone who knows how to pour wine.  A woman practices the art of maneuvering through a crowd, avoiding a stray barstool, while tapping urgently on her Blackberry and never once looking up.  A father-daughter duo plays catch-up over martinis.  Another woman sets down on the bar a giant binder, stuffed to 4″ thick, while post-its and labeled tabs stick out in a way that appears haphazard but is methodical and deliberate, indicating serious business.

Meanwhile, near the apex of sitting area and wall of windows, there stands a black grand piano.  Placed on top of the piano’s closed lid is an enormous martini glass – the kind I used to see a guy holding as he wandered around East Town’s Jazz in the Park, the glass filled to the brim with some sort of aqualescent cocktail.  The tips in this particular glass show appreciation for each evening’s featured musicians.  Currently a lone guitarist stands, strumming out a finger-style tune that sounds like a popular jazz tune, but is clearly styled in the classical Spanish way.

Soon, a singer joins him.  The sound shifts to something more Bossa Nova, a la João Gilberto and Antonio Carlos (“Tom”) Jobim.  Her voice is pure jazz: rounded and full, with her words clearly enunciated as she rolls around the tones of a soft horn of bass, spiked with occasional flute-like sopranic rises.  Her shoulders shrug in time with the beats of the soft mallets she wields on a set of bongo-type drums, eliciting a quiet “conk,” reminiscent of tapping two hollow coconuts together and reinforcing the musical ambiance of a Caribbean seaside patio or Latin beach cabana bar.

The duo turns out to be Pam Duronio and Tim Stemper.  A married couple who originally met at a rehearsal while Pam was in town from Buffalo doing some contract voice work, they have often performed as “Pam and the Players” with various other Milwaukee jazz musicians, such as smooth jazz master Warren Wiegratz.  Pam particularly enjoys putting the Latin flair to the classic jazz tunes she was trained to sing classically years ago, working with Mark Murphy out of San Francisco.  Doing this to Norah Jones’ “I Don’t Know Why” creates a toe-tapping, upbeat, and catchy rendition of a song that is generally a little more melancholic and wistful.  It’s at home with “Besame Mucho” but then creates a near-unrecognizable, yet wonderfully unique, ” ‘Deed I do.”

As Tim takes up the guitar again, solo, the patrons’ murmuring dissipates to a background purr, or soft rumbling, that could be the surf crashing over pebbles if you closed your eyes.  I enjoy my glass of white wine – a 2009 Fred Loimer Grüner Veltliner out of Austria, titled “Lois.”  The peachy, citrusy aromas are not too fruity, dry or crisp, simply airy and light.  It perfectly complements my Tuna Tartar Tacos (only $5 at Happy Hour, an incredible bargain!!) with their fat chunks of tuna, boasting a sliver of avocado, artfully lain atop each tiny taco, over mixed greens and a spicy mayo.

Pam steps up to the mic, says “This one’s for Maureen and Chris,” and like breathy, whistling reeds, she softly launches into a Patsy Cline tune instantly recognizable to all: “I’m crazy, crazy for feeling so lonely…”

Internet Dating

I’ve been skulking around the Pfister for some time now. While I always meet great travelers, sickness the reason I’m able to engage such happy, amenable, excited people is because of the seamless service that surrounds them. My job isn’t to write about the staff, but the staff are the best kept secret at the Pfister.

When they’ve done their job well, you don’t even notice. Which is why perhaps my first question when I heard the café was closing for renovations was “what happens to the staff?” I find it worth noting that management at the hotel made a point to consider what it would mean to wait staff if they couldn’t work for six weeks. Shutting down the café was required, but shutting down the quiet magic that satisfies guests wasn’t.

The relocation to the Rouge Room meant that servers kept their hours just as much as it meant I kept my oatmeal and morning routines. In this particular moment in our culture where “the economy” and “jobs” are key words in any conversation, relocating staff rather than putting them on hold is quite notable.

But it’s not just how easy the hotel makes it for staff to feel appreciated that makes it so fun to skulk the hallowed halls of this historic hotel. It’s how well they’ve married technology to history that helps us recognize that the Pfister is paying attention in more ways than one. While at Mason Street Grill tonight, a guest was wooing a woman. Whether they were business partners, old friends reuniting or a second date, I saw the ace up his sleeve long before she did, but it didn’t make the reveal any less impressive.

“Well, do you want to eat?” he said, as they finished their cocktails. “Sure, where? We probably need a reservation to eat here,” she said.

“Yup, but I have one.” Boom. Card on the table, victory in hand.

He revealed that he just hopped online today during a dull meeting (let’s hope his boss isn’t reading) and noticed he could reserve a seat online and just did, hoping she’d like to join him.

An age-old tradition—wooing your date, paired with a modern convention—online reservations at the drop of a mouse–and here’s the secret marrying of great, invisible service setting the stage for (here’s hoping for you, man) great customer experiences.

Now that I’ve seen the cushy chairs and the heard the tales of days gone by, I’m ready to indulge in the complexities of what keeps history contemporary and service exceptional at the Pfister.

We’re Renovating the Pfister Cafe

We will soon be transforming a portion of the entrance area of the Café at The Pfister with a barista counter offering guests gourmet coffee on the go and freshly basked pastries and other items. This week, we’ve begun a six-week renovation project of the Café at The Pfister, located on the lobby level of the hotel, which is scheduled for completion at the end of March.

The renovation plans for the space include incorporating a patisserie into the entrance of the café with casual seating and a Starbucks® barista counter. The patisserie area will feature in-house gourmet pastries and desserts from Chef Robert Ash and his culinary team. The majority of the existing Café will remain as originally designed in order to retain the style and reputation it has earned throughout the years.

“Along with the addition of the patisserie and Starbucks counter, the entire café will be freshened up cosmetically,” says Joe Kurth, general manager of The Pfister Hotel. “The main dining room will have a more open feel and will allow for additional seating. In addition to the redesign of the entrance to the café offering guests-on-the-go more options, we will continue to serve the timeless classics our loyal customers love.”

The kitchen of Café at The Pfister will remain open with unchanged hours for the duration of the renovation project through the end of March, but service will be changing locations. Monday through Friday from 6am-2pm, café service for breakfast and lunch will take place in Rouge, the ballroom on the lobby level of the hotel. On Saturdays and Sundays from 6:30am-2pm, café service will take place in Mason Street Grill.

Read more about the renovation from Jeff Sherman of OnMilwaukee.com. Cafe at the Pfister is getting a makeover.Ann Christenson of Milwaukee Magazine: Quest for Croissant

Strangers on a Bar Stool

Here’s what I like about Mason Street Grill…the vibe. It’s not just the cool jazz in the corner or the hushed lighting at the bar. It’s the eagerness of the patrons. They don’t have the “whew, no rx it’s over” aura of other happy hour revelers. In fact, I watched as businessmen gathered for a meeting as late as 7 p.m. As one trench-coated executive was mentioning his flight had just arrived and his colleagues greeted him quickly as a matter of task, unhealthy  I said to the man sitting next to me “Wow, they’re here to work?” and after a glance at their portfolios, he nodded, “yes.”

But it isn’t just that there’s still an eagerness and energy to the bar rather than a winding down. It seems to be full of secrets. The men chat each other as easily as the women do, but there’s something to the cast of the light that implies a spy novel is about to erupt. Or maybe a murder mystery… no, I’ve got it wrong, it’s noir. The entire space is a crackling film noir… this woman is clearly meeting her connection, that man has been jilted here before and the bartender keeps many secrets.

It takes more than clients to create such an elaborate dark, mysterious novel. The staff works like ninjas. From nowhere our food appeared and our drinks never emptied. Like Val at the lobby bar, Josh works quietly, hurriedly and with an efficiency unmatched. But he, too, seems to have an undercover quality. Edges of tattoos peek out from his collar and shirt cuffs. The two girls checking coats walk formally to the closet, but once inside, they grin and chat in hushed whispers to one another—another life, another side of the hotel becomes hidden among fur collars and wool.

I’m happy to steal a peek at what may lie beneath. It adds to the allure. Service is always impeccable at the Pfister and whether I’m wearing the tell-tale I-may-be-writing-about-you nametag or not, not a single staff member has ever missed a beat. But when the jazz filters in, the married ladies get to talking after the husbands relieve them at the bar, and dinner guests start departing for their tables while the cocktail drinkers saddle up…that’s when the vibe envelops you. And that’s when I like to see the staff reveal a glimpse of stocking.

I like knowing that they watch; I like the slippages that reveal they’ve seen it all before—bad pick up lines, first dates, love affairs, incredible business ideas left behind on cocktail napkins. I think they’re checking on me while I perform the duties of a Friday night out, making sure I play the right character in the movie and help move the plot forward.

Playing Dress Up

We’re having tea again this weekend. I am on a mission to expose everyone I know to this amazing day out. I was told yesterday, look however, that I am to dress up. One of the friends has bought a new dress just for the tea outing.

It’s important for me to tell you, I see all kinds in the Pfister—and that’s the best part. All are welcome. While the hotel is always dressed in its best (which is impressive) and the staff are impeccable in their uniforms, cialis guests and patrons don garb that ranges from jeans to sparkles (lots of sparkles).

It is not a requirement that you be fancy, well-dressed or even clean-shaven to have a drink, online go to a meeting or dine at Mason Street Grill while at the Pfister. In fact, the most enveloping part of the hotel is ancient photographs of the hotel in its infancy, Milwaukee history all around you, incredible formal service and people in jeans and Uggs talking to you about how “cool” it feels to be in the hotel. These layers of style, ways of being and eras make the experience so complete.

So when my friend bought a new dress for our outing, I realized that though the Pfister allows for all kinds, just like many places in the city, what it does best is make you feel special and important. I regularly spend weekend mornings at Alterra writing. Though I’ve frequented the coffee shop in work out clothes and business casual, I never feel like I have to up the ante to up the experience there.

At the Pfister, I sit up straighter. At the Pfister, I smile wider and I have actually caught myself flipping my hair just so (embarrassing to admit, but true). Every single piece and person in the hotel accepts jeans, your light beer drink order and your snow and salt-stained winter boots.

What makes this local gem such an amazing escape from the everyday, is when you wear your fancy dress for high Victorian tea and don your grandmother’s jewels, no one treats you like you’re playing dress up. It’s not the range of options in mood and appearance that the hotel does so well that makes it worth the adventure. It’s that it is one of the only places that, when you want to feel fancy, swings its doors wide open and lets you.

Friday Night Fever

I laugh at the character Charlotte on Sex in the City, here the popular HBO television series. When she’s single, she grows frustrated when she doesn’t have plans on Saturday night. “But it’s date night!” she wails when others suggest things for her to do.

I don’t think date night is solely Saturday night in Milwaukee. Friday night in the Pfister is full of roaming young men, cialis sale wrapped in cashmere scarves and the latest fashions and the slight hint of a few beers warming them to the evening. As the night grows late, a certain drive seems to ignite within them as they hunt for the dates they originally set out to find.

When a friend and I tumbled out of the elevator from the parking garage, prostate we were met by Shay and his entourage. Three mid-20s men, handsomely dressed and alight with energy at the late hour, they had already had drinks in the lobby bar and were headed upstairs to Blu to meet with friends for more. Two women arriving together without any male chaperones lit up the men and we were smothered in attention. Where had we been, where were we going and please join us at Blu was the conversation theme and it made me smile to remember girls’ nights out that are fueled with the same contagious energy.

We felt like we were watching a coming-of-age story when two of the crew cheered on a third as he said he was headed back to Mason Street Grill “talk to that girl again, see if she’s still there.” The hope in his eyes and his friends’ encouraging grins, made slightly raunchy by drink, made us smile.

While we watched so many others crawl into the wee hours together in the lobby bar, conversations stumbling across the bar top and lobby tables, we saw endless streams of young men who could have each been Shay and his posse. All dressed in the latest fashions, braving the scene without coats, hair gelled to perfection and walking as if auditioning for Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, packs of young men on the prowl moved through the lobby into the frigid streets.

They weren’t intimidating nor drunk; they seemed, from our vantage point, sleepily ending our evening in girl talk, emboldened and electrified. In some ways, we were flattered and wooed, even though the men weren’t there for us. We happily bore witness to the energy they put in their evening and the John Travolta hitch in their steps. Realizing it was all part of the performance they put together to help them make Friday night date night, to help them capture the attentions and affections of the women they’d meet, we couldn’t help but smile encouragingly and, just as Shay and his friend did, wish them all good luck out there.

Maple Dale School Students Will Shine On Stage at Mason Street Grill

Fox Point’s Maple Dale Jazz Combo Band takes their sound to Mason Street Grill’s music stage this Friday, December 3rd. The group, consisting of seven middle school students, performs there for the first time from 7:30 to 8:15 p.m.

Their opportunity was made possible by Maple Dale’s Director of Bands Jamie Breiwick, who also plays jazz music weekly at Mason Street Grill. Breiwick says his love of music was enhanced by a middle school performance and wanted to provide the same opportunity to his students. “I want to show these kids how their music studies can translate for others to enjoy, outside the school walls.”

The show consists of jazz standards like Duke Ellington and Herbie Hancock. Breiwick says the students have practiced for months and are “beyond excited” about the performance.

The show is open and free for the public. Everyone is also invited to stay for the Jamie Breiwick Group which starts playing at 8:30 p.m. that Friday.

Not So Lonesome at the Pfister

* Note: At the Pfister, we typically do not disclose the identity of entertainers who stay at the hotel. In this case, we’ve received express permission to do so.

There are many memories I have of my dad that keep me close to him.  Lonesome Dove, the character-driven cowboy novel I read at my dad’s direction, is one of my favorites. We were in love with Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall’s perfect portrayals of the lead wranglers we’d befriended.

I thought of dad Thursday night in the Lobby Bar at the Pfister where I watched the crowd wind up for the weekend. The infamous Gus McCrae (Robert Duvall) walked through. He embodied the same calm, calculating pace of his characters. I wanted to shake his hand and tell him how much he meant to me—he breathed life into a character that linked a teenage girl to her father at a time in life when daughters and fathers lose touch.

He ended up on a couch next to me and this man, who to me symbolizes so much, proceeded to discuss where to find a great steak (and to the Pfister’s credit, noted that Mason Street Grill was a top pick). I was mesmerized with this larger than life character living as a regular man—a patron waiting for his table.

More impressive was how we, the Milwaukee community, sitting in the lobby having our drinks, respected this legend. No one caused a stir. Many recognized Mr. Duvall, but most seemed to recognize him as a fellow client of the hotel, they were in good company and that was enough.

When I later told friends about the encounter, everyone had a connection to the actor. A best friend even explained the funeral of a grandfather buried with the Lonesome Dove VHS.

I am thankful for the night’s education. I learned that there is a character to the Pfister and when you join the crowd, you become a part of making that character real. It’s a classy character, one who observes but doesn’t disturb. It’s a character who knows its value and merely nods politely to its parts.

My adventures with Mr. Duvall and his group also confirmed for me that everyone has an impact. The retelling of the tale affected so many close to me that it reminded me how important we are to one another—and we often underestimate that. You can never fully realize how much meaning you have as you pass through and I am fortunate to have been there to capture it.

Music on Mason [LIVE MUSIC]

The East Town Association’s Jazz in the Park has come to an end for the season, but the music doesn’t have to stop.

Soothe those Jazz blues at Mason Street Grill, where the music is playing Tuesday through Saturday.

Jamie Briewick Group performs Tuesday & Wednesday from 6:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. and Fridays from 8:00 p.m. to Midnight.

Jamie is regarded as one of Wisconsin‘s most in-demand and versatile jazz trumpet players. Jamie has shared the stage with many nationally recognized musicians including: Dan Nimmer, Joe Sanders, Willie Pickens, Jim Pugh, Steve Houghton, Brian Lynch, Pete Zimmer, Rob Wilkerson, Rick Germanson, Dan Kinzelman, and Carl Allen.

Mark Thierfelder Jazz Trio performs Thursdays from 7:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m.

Mark Thierfelder is a native of Milwaukee, WI and began his musical studies on trumpet at age 12. Some of his strongest musical influences include, but are not limited to, Miles Davis, Benny Green, Duke Ellington, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Louis Armstrong. Mark Thierfelder performs unique arrangements encompassing many different styles and genres.

Edgewood Entourage performs Saturdays from 7:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m.

Luke Edgewood performs piano music with song arrangements that have just the right blend of pop & jazz. Solo, duo, trio or quartet; Luke Edgewood is versatile & will provide you with just the right level of entertainment.