Like all good Chicagoans, I will never refer to the Sears Tower by any other name. And like a good former Milwaukeean, I can never refer to Milwaukee’s finest old-school steakhouse as anything but Coerper’s. If I were to call my friend Mark, with whom I’ve shared a couple dozen meals there over the years, and ask if he’d like to join me at what’s been called the Five O’Clock Steakhouse for more than a decade now, he’d be confused. He’d get it eventually, but it would be a thing.
Not much else has changed at Coerper’s in the seventy-plus years since it opened on Milwaukee’s near west side. A lot has changed in the neighborhood. In 1946, the area around 24th and State Street was home to moneyed elites who left behind towering mansions. By the time I started going to Coerper’s in the 1990s, there was a guy you paid a buck or two to guard watch your car while you ate. Rumor has it he sometimes carried a hockey stick, but I only ever saw him with a golf club.
You don’t normally associate a supper club with the kind of down-and-out urban neighborhood that was once home to Jeffrey Dahmer—his apartment building was literally around the corner—but that’s part of the charm. From the outside, it looks like your standard Wisconsin tavern, but inside it’s a blast of Goodfellas charm, with deep red carpeting and a padded red bar to match. People like to compare outdated restaurant décor to a grandparent’s basement, but if my grandpa’s basement had been that cool, I would’ve visited him weekly.
You don’t normally associate a supper club with the kind of down-and-out urban neighborhood that was once home to Jeffrey Dahmer—his apartment building was literally around the corner—but that’s part of the charm. From the outside, it looks like your standard Wisconsin tavern, but inside it’s a blast of Goodfellas charm, with deep red carpeting and a padded red bar to match.
Charm can only take you so far, and a bad neighborhood can only hurt business. To keep people coming back, the steak has to be great. Coerper’s served monster-sized cuts for Midwesterners with adjustable waistbands, seasoning each steak with a secret spice blend and then finishing them with a “char sauce” that left the steaks looking like lumps of charcoal but tasting absolutely divine. (A quick dousing with butter just before they’re served didn’t hurt.)
I’m writing in the past tense, but I shouldn’t be. While some purists felt like Coerper’s Five O’Clock Club went downhill after it changed ownership and became Five O’Clock Steakhouse—how dare they start charging for those football-sized baked potatoes?—it’s still the same place in the most important ways. They still ask that you sit at the bar and order dinner before they lead you to your table in the mirrored dining room. They still serve warm sourdough bread and that most Midwestern of pregame treats: the relish tray. They still serve a steak unlike any I’ve had elsewhere.
It’s no longer the toughest reservation in town. In the ’90s, you had to start calling at 4 p.m. on a Tuesday if you wanted a table at any sort of reasonable time. Milwaukee has seen a fine-dining surge in the last decade, so there are plenty of other places to indulge. But there’s something about the slightly faded glory of Coerper’s, or, okay, Five O’Clock that makes it even more appealing. If and when we’re ever allowed to eat in a room with a bunch of strangers again, it’s one of the first places I want to go—to be enveloped by something completely satisfying and gloriously unchanged.