By Craig Davis, Craigslegztravels.com
The first indication that the 4th Base Restaurant in Milwaukee is something different came as soon as I ordered a beer at the bar and asked to see a menu.
“I can tell that you’ve never been here before, have you?” bartender Andy Radjenovich said. “We don’t do a menu. We’re a made-to-order kitchen. We do high-end food — steaks and seafood.”
The next two hours would show that what at first glance seemed like a typical corner bar was anything but, a rare find worthy of the label unique.
The food is gourmet, the setting funky. The wooden leg of beloved former Brewers manager Harvey Kuenn hangs above the horseshoe-shaped bar.
Turned out I’d happened upon a Milwaukee institution serving beer, prime steaks and baseball for four decades just a few blocks from where the Brewers play at Miller Field. They filmed scenes for the movie “Major League” inside the bar.
Having covered a Miami Marlins weekend road series against the Brewers, I was looking for something better than the overcooked ribs and crass crowd that marred the previous night at a place near my hotel.
4th Base was a welcomed find on a relatively quiet Sunday night, from the tender, juicy steak to the conversation around the bar.
The patron on the adjacent stool was a soldier on leave who was on a personal mission to visit the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee. He’d ridden his hog for two days from Fort Riley, Kansas.
He arrived after the final five-hour run from Des Moines, sunburned and hungry. While chef Brian Allen prepared our steaks, Andy filled us in on tidbits about 4th Base and kept us guessing with some primo baseball trivia questions.
Such as, who was the last switch hitter to be named Most Valuable Player in the American League? I knew it was a trick question that I’d heard before, not who you immediately think of (no, not Mickey Mantle).
Andy took delight in pointing out that it was Vida Blue, a pitcher whose bat had nothing to do with his winning the MVP in addition to the Cy Young Award in 1971. His .118 batting average that year in the pre-designated hitter era was even lower than his minuscule earned-run average of 1.82 for the Oakland Athletics.
“If you’re looking for something a little left of center, we’re kind of that place. We’ve had all kinds of celebrities and athletes stop in here through the years,” Radjenovich said, mentioning that Bill Buckner was a recent visitor.
“You just walk around you’ll seen things in here that could be in the Hall of Fame. But it’s here. We have the top of the ’82 Brewers dugout. We’ve got the pitching mound from County Stadium.”
What they don’t have is a menu to order from. There are specials on the chalk board, but standard procedure is to peruse the deli case on the far side of the bar, pick something out and tell the chef how you like it.
Andy followed me over there and looked amused as I surveyed an array of beef, seafood and fresh vegetables with uncertainty.
“What kind of steak do you like?”
I like them all but mentioned porterhouse. My eyes glazed over when I heard the size and the price, 32 ounces going for $70 or more.
Most of the negative reviews online about 4th Base remark about the prices and sticker shock when the check arrives.
It is an unusual concept, in no way a typical burger and wings sports bar. The cuisine is creative, and yes it can be costly. Don’t hesitate to ask what it’s going to set you back before you order.
Andy walked me through it and was quick to suggest the 8-ounce filet mignon, which proved well worth $30. Chef Brian cooked it to perfection, topped with sauteed mushrooms, onions and peppers, and Brussel sprouts on the side.
“He looks like that guy in “Rocky” – Rocky’s manager,” the soldier said when Brian came out of the kitchen to check the reviews of his handiwork.
He was right, the chef does resemble Burgess Meredith’s Mickey Goldmill. My new barstool buddy was an intriguing character as well.
I took my time savoring every bite of my steak while he waited for his, a 24-ounce bone-in ribeye.
The soldier was a few days away from turning 32 but seemed a much older soul. Said he’d bought his bike with money earned from a tour of duty in Kuwait.
He was scheduled to leave on another, to Eastern Europe, at the end of the summer. So this was precious time for personal pursuits, and he’d chosen to expend much of it on this pilgrimage to the center of the Harley world and then to continue on for a first visit to Chicago.
But he revealed other passionate interests, showing photos on his phone of classic guitars he longed to own; perhaps the next tour will pay for one of those.
His reverence for baseball, and his grasp of the history of the game, belied his age. It was explained by being from Missouri, where appreciation for the game and love for the St. Louis Cardinals still runs deep in an era when sporting interests have fragmented elsewhere.
It was refreshing that conversation never strayed to issues of politics that have become so pervasive and divisive nationwide. Perhaps that was explained by the throwback spirit of the 4th Base.
“We’re completely unique, we’re not doing anything anyone else is doing,” Radjenovich said, referring to the food. “Very laidback. If you want to go out and get a good steak and not have to get all dressed up, we’re that place.”
The soldier was watching his Cardinals losing to the Nationals on the TV above the bar, but taking it well, when his steak arrived. It was an impressive slab of beef, and entertaining to watch him attack it. He said his hands were shaky from the strain of the long ride, but that didn’t slow him in tearing through the meal.
He was eager to get some rest at the Airbnb he’d booked nearby. Was delighted to say he’d gotten the room for $39, so clearly he was on a budget.
As good-natured as he seemed, I wondered how he’d react when he discovered that this dinner, including several beers, was going to run him at least double that.
When the check came, the soldier studied it for a moment, then a smile spread across his face as he got to the bottom line: $87.
“You got me,” he said, mostly to himself, and set his credit card down.
Then he was out the door, the sound of a Harley roaring away in final farewell. Harvey Kuenn’s leg seemed to sway slightly as the vibrations filled the old bar.
I ordered another round of the local brew and awaited Andy’s next trivia challenge.