The story of Goldilocks is pretty well known. A little blond girl breaks into a house owned by a family of anthropomorphic bears and proceeds to jack up their chairs, porridge and beds while they're out doing, I don't know, bear stuff. But what if, instead of being a cute little fairy tale girl with no respect for property, Goldilocks had some sense and happened to be just a little bit of a lush? Well, that'd be me.
I've decided to explore every bar, pub, lounge and dive Milwaukee has to offer – in sets of three, just to be cute. Check back often as I embark on regular bar tours with my self-proclaimed "magical sidekick," Jessie. And don't worry – I'm too much of a taste chameleon to ever find one that's "just right."
(Quick recap for the uninitiated or the overserved who may have forgotten since last week: "Seeing Double" puts two locations of the same bar head-to-head in a battle for bar supremacy. There will be three total for those of you objecting on grounds of relevance. If you want to read the first one, click here. If you want to read the third one, well, you'll just have to suck it up and wait until next week.)
It wouldn't be fair to say the Café Hollanders wrote the book on beer, since a) the Belgians did most of their work, and b) even they're not the end all, be all of beer. But with over 20 draft beers at both the Downer Avenue and Tosa Village locations – not to mention a literal book devoted to their full lineup and helpful tasting notes – it's a safe bet that they've got the Belgium beer (apologies – bier) pretty well covered.
As cafes, their business isn't based solely on the suds, but as the book would suggest, it's kind of a big deal. Case in point: they stock 40+ different glasses just to serve the stuff. Clearly, they don't mess around.
Not one to pass up a good beer (not to mention ones with higher APVs than wine in some cases), I couldn't say no.
Location and parking
Both spots are easy enough to find. Nestled in Milwaukee's East Side and Tosa's downtown village, respectively, the Downer and Tosa Hollanders each have their own neighborhood charm, but Hollander Tosa rocks a gorgeous perch right alongside the Menomonee River.
The street parking situation at each is similar and ranges from manageable to bustling. Finding a place to put your car isn't impossible, but it can pose problems during prime times. If you give up, there are parking structures just up the road from both locations. Hollander Tosa, though, has its own free parking lot just over the river by the Little Red Store at the dead end of Harwood Avenue. Of course, if you're channeling your inner Belgian and riding your bicycle in, you can disregard all that.
Winner: Tosa Village. The lot's kind of hidden away, but it's a huge help. Plus, that view can't be beat.
Atmosphere and layout
This one's tough. Hollander Tosa's patio is more than picturesque, but it can get busier than the mall on Black Friday morning out there. The outside was the place to be at the East Side spot, too, but there the tables had more breathing room.
The same was also true for the café interiors. The bar is a prominent fixture in the middle of each location's ground floor. Hollander Tosa's seating arrangement seemed to follow the curve of the bar and relegating a lot of its seating to a row around the space's perimeter. This isn't altogether a bad thing, since the tables also got a great view out of the café's many tall windows.
The Café Hollander on Downer did some of this as well, but they have more room to spread out in the front (and the back, to a lesser extent). This is filled with an attractive arrangement of four-tops, which is made even more spacious-looking with the pseudo-skylight cut out of the ceiling that gives first-floor guests a peek at the second level (or second-level guests a look down at the first, depending on your philosophy).
Winner: It's a close one, but I'm calling this one for Downer Avenue. The interior is better spaced and feels less "finished" with its old-school brick and rustic floor and furniture.
Like I said, Hollander Tosa's patio is all kinds of beautiful. Yes, during rushes it can be crowded, but whether you're overlooking the river or facing Tosa Village's quaint old-fashioned buildings, there really isn't a bad seat on the thing. I'm not trashing the Downer Hollander, though. One of the coolest features of their outdoor seating is the way it's spread out under the tree and fountain out front.
Winner: Tosa Village. Sorry East Side, but the patio can't hold a candle to Tosa's view.
Much of this is the same, since so much of the bicycle-centric motif carried over to the Tosa location when it opened in 2009. What is strikingly different, however, is the beer placement in each café. At the Hollander on Downer, various beer bottles and other decorations are on aesthetic display, courtesy of a wall of shelving in the back of the café. At the Tosa Village location, the whole back space of the bar is taken up by a cooler full of bottled beer. From my seat at the bar, it overpowered the space and took away from the "Belgium café" vibe the Lowlands Group was after when they started their café chain.
Winner: Downer Avenue.
Once again, both bars have proven themselves worthy contenders. This time, though, I think we've hit a tie. But before you call me out on being indecisive, let me explain. First: yes, I'm incredibly indecisive, and I'm not sorry. Second (and more seriously): if it's nice out, Café Hollander in the Tosa Village wins, hands down. The patio is gorgeous and the scenery is unrivaled by its East Side counterpart. Sure, it can get a little crowded, but get over yourself and make some new friends.
If the weather is less than ideal, head for Café Hollander on Downer Avenue. This one got the interior right. From overall feel to little decorative touches, you'll feel right at home – if home happens to be in Belgium. Now if only there were a way to combine them both into a super-Hollander ...
Interested in future Goldilocks and the Three Bars adventures? Stay tuned here, or follow me on Twitter @Eenergee for real-time bar tour commentary. And if you want me to drink at your favorite bar, that's what Talkbacks and @Mentions are for.
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