Featured bartender: Paul "PJ" Johnson of Wolski's Tavern
Paul Johnson – who goes by "PJ" – has spent almost two decades behind the bar at Wolski's Tavern, 1836 N. Pulaski St. Quick witted, fast with the pour and super easy to talk to, Johnson is the embodiment of the bartender who's made Milwaukee famous.
OnMilwaukee.com: How long have you bartended at Wolski's and did you tend anywhere else before?
PJ: Nineteen years. I started when I was 23 or 34 and I'm 43 now. Before Wolski's, I worked at the old Milwaukee Inn, which is where Smoke Stack is now.
OMC: Did you grow up in Milwaukee?
PJ: Yes. I went to Rufus King High School.
OMC: So you knew all of the Citizen King guys?
PJ: Yeah, we all grew up on the East Side. DJ Brooks is a good friend of mine.
OMC: So what's changed at Wolski's over the past two decades?
PJ: We're building a patio. It will be done this winter, but in full swing by spring. Otherwise, in terms of the look, not much. We had records and cassettes, now we have CDs. We're still not into anything like Pandora yet. We move slowly here at Wolski's.
OMC: What do you like about working here?
PJ: Everyone is very close. There are regulars who started coming in here before I even started. It's like a family. And there hasn't been a new person behind the bar in 10-12 years. No one goes anywhere or if they do leave, they come back. It's a vortex. It sucks you back in.
OMC: Got a crazy bar story to tell?
PJ: One time a guy came in here and ordered a gin with half-and-half and no ice. He told me his doctor told him he had a bleeding ulcer and he thought the half-and-half might coat it.
It does get crazy in here, but nothing too bad. There are just so many different types of people in here, from suits to locals to tourists.
OMC: How do tourists hear about Wolski's?
PJ: Word of mouth, mostly. Once they come here they always come back. We just had some some people this week who live in New York but were stranded here because of the hurricane. Sometimes people know us from the stickers. They've been photographed all over the world [points at photographs on the wall]: Irish pubs, the top of a 23,000-foot mountain in Argentina.
OMC: How many "I Closed Wolski's" stickers have you given away? Hundreds? Thousands?
PJ: Thousands and thousands.
OMC: So do you really have to close Wolski's to get a sticker?
PJ: Yeah, most of the time. We have other stickers we give away before bar time. It's an incentive-based program for the most part. If you want one, you have to earn it.
OMC: What's the deal with the flags on the ceiling?
PJ: People just started giving them to the owners so they put 'em on the ceiling.
OMC: Are you married? Have kids?
PJ: Yes, I have been married for 13 years, but my wife and I dated for 10 years before we got married. My wife bartends at the Hi-Hat Garage. We have a 12-year-old son, Anders, and we live really close by. I usually walk to work.
OMC: Do you see a lot of hook ups at the bar?
PJ: I know a lot of people who met here, got married and have kids now.
OMC: What do you like to do when you're not tending bar?
PJ: We love to travel. My mother lives in Molokai, Hawaii, and we go every year. She got a retirement job there, working with sea turtles and monk seals. It doesn't suck. She could have retired in Iowa.
OMC: What bars do you like to go to when you're not working?
PJ: I don't go out a lot, but I like Bel Air Cantina, Hooligan's, County Clare, Champion's, The Red Dot.
OMC: What kinds of drinks do you like to make?
PJ: Well, we're known for our Bloody Marys here. But no blender drinks here. Very few of our drinks have more than three ingredients. (Sets drink down in front of customer.) Here's a good example: a Jack and diet.
OMC: What do you like to drink?
PJ: Miller Lite, Guinness. I like vodka and wine, too. Pretty simple.
OMC: Why does the popcorn always taste so good here?
PJ: Heart-healthy coconut oil and lots and lots of salt. It keeps ya thirsty.
Nice interview. As a fellow barkeep for over 20 years now, I can say with great confidence that PJ is definately one of the most liked and respected professional barkeeps this city is lucky to still have.
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