by Ellen C. Warren
Travel east on Wright Street, cross the torn-up Humboldt Blvd, and slope down the hill for a brew at The Gig. If you want to meet our man-of-the-hour, Barry Lewis, make sure it’s a game night. Depending on the time of year, that could be a Brewer’s game, Packer game, Buck’s game… all sports hold appeal for this bar owner. His hardy laugh in answer to my: “So you come to your bar to watch games?” is only part of his busy workday story. But the answer is also a hearty “Yes.”
A true sports aficionado, Barry tracks his strong involvement back to his “many years” as the General Manager at Major Goolsby’s, the popular downtown sports bar. When he was working there the Bucks were still playing at the Arena, which was right across the street, so he was frequently in attendance at their basketball games.
His interest in baseball regularly finds him out in Phoenix for the Brewer’s Spring Training. “It’s at the end of February and it’s nice to get out of the cold weather,” says Barry. The Brewers have their own stadium there. There are about twelve baseball teams that have Spring facilities in the area. He explains, “So if the Brewers are at home or on the way you can just take another twenty-, thirty-minute drive and get to another stadium.”
Friends of his recently relocated to Phoenix, which makes the trip “a lot more special.” Friends to visit around the country seems to be the reality for this easygoing guy with the big smile and the quick laugh.
He has friends to hang with in New Orleans as well, another place he loves to frequent. Although a lover of jazz, he has never made a Jazz Festival or Mardi Gras. He’ll go anytime because “the food, the music, the people are awesome.” When the airfares are good, he books a hotel or AirBnB. “The first couple times I stayed outside the French Quarter. But now I stay as close to the French Quarter as I can,” he says, “it’s pretty easy to get around without a car.” Things have changed a bit since Katrina. It’s not just jazz on Bourbon Street anymore. But some things are still the same. “A bunch of kids will get together on a street corner and throw the bucket out, and brass bands … it’s music all over,” he shares.
Barry started up The Gig with a partner twenty-one years ago. (Before that it was Barrel Riders.) He bought the partner out after three years, so it’s been exclusively his for eighteen years. It’s not his first business endeavor, by far. When he graduated from U.W.M. with a degree in Political Science, he already knew that his life was going to take a business track.
He left Major Goolsby’s after a friend, who also worked in the hospitality industry, suggested they start a business together. This future partner lived above an east side location that had opened up. The friend worked as the chef and Barry handled all the front-of-house operations. The Corner Grill (where Tess is presently) opened in 1999 and lasted for three years. For its final six months Barry was working both there and at his new enterprise, The Gig.
There was another stint of doing double duty from 2005 to 2008 when he opened a tavern on Kinnickinnic in Bay View called The Groove. He ended up selling it to his bartender, and it’s now called Blackbird Bar.
Lewis grew up in the area, attending Gospel Lutheran Elementary and Milwaukee Lutheran High School. His parents met in Milwaukee where they came to work, mom from Arkansas and dad from Mississippi. He has one sister who lives in Germantown.
When he was looking to buy a duplex, he landed in Riverwest in 1989. Compared to places he was considering on the east side he got “three bedrooms instead of two, plus a back yard” for an equal price. He’s been here ever since. A single man who doesn’t really cook, his list of favored places to eat sounds like a who’s who of Riverwest establishments. Sadly, a few faves — Dino’s, Klingers, and Riverwest Filling Station — are no longer with us. But he still has Nessun Dorma, Riverwest Pizza, and Corazon.
Besides being a place to watch sports, shoot pool or toss darts, The Gig has a reputation as the gathering place of the T.V. game show Jeopardy enthusiasts. Barry comments, “It’s so weird that you mention Jeopardy. I was in the airport coming back from a trip and I had on my coat that has the logo. A guy spotted it and yelled ‘The Gig! You guys still have Jeopardy?’” It’s been happening for six or seven years now. Monday is the big day, because that bartender loves trivia, but you can catch it any weekday.
Somewhere around eight years ago Barry saw a need to fill the vacancy that the end of the football season brings. A friend suggested a bluegrass jam. “Lots of people around here like bluegrass and they want to play but they have nowhere to go,” he was informed. So, it’s going good now. Held outdoors in the newly improved back gardens, it happens every Sunday afternoon from 1 to 4.
You know something is right with a place when it has three great bartenders who have been there for eighteen years, loyal customers, and reasonable prices. Barry plans to be there until he retires. Go say hi!