Downtown Waukesha becomes a wee more Irish with Clarke 'pub'

Christopher Kuhagen
Paul Ward, bar manager of The Clarke Irish Pub in downtown Waukesha, makes a pint of Guinness last week. The pub opened on Aug. 11.
Published on: 8/18/2014

Brittny Helgestad would stroll through downtown Waukesha with her husband and stare inside the vacant Clarke Hotel restaurant and bar window in downtown Waukesha.

"We were always out looking in the window," Helgestad said. "It would be kind of depressing."

The 33-year-old's mood was more optimistic on this night.

Three days after the bar reopened as The Clarke Irish Pub in the heart of downtown at the Five Points on Main Street, Helgestad was on the other side of the window sharing laughs, conversation and drinks with her friend, Colleen Wittmann of Milwaukee.

For Wittmann, the new hotel pub drew a favorable comparison to one of the owner's other Irish pubs.

Where County Clare in Milwaukee has "more hustle and bustle," Wittmann, 30, liked the Waukesha pub's "relaxed" atmosphere.

Sitting nearby them were Dave Andera of Muskego and Rick Marciniak of Delafield.

The two men, who were enjoying a couple pints of Guinness, are regulars at the Nice Ash Cigar Bar across the street in downtown. Now, they said, they have a second spot to meet.

"Downtown Waukesha needed something like this to ignite it," Andera said. "It's a perfect complement to Nice Ash. This will draw from a wide radius where people will drive 10 to 15 miles. Every downtown needs that. Taylor's People's Park (restaurant) does that, too. So now Waukesha has several."

Part of 'Irish' family

Andera and Marciniak both had high praise after one visit to the pub because they're familiar with many of Harp & Eagle Ltd.'s offerings.

The Clarke Hotel is the latest acquisition for Harp & Eagle Ltd., which operates Irish-themed hotels and restaurants across the state, including County Clare in downtown Milwaukee.

"I'm real excited that they're here now because they run a great business," Andera said.

Harp & Eagle Ltd. bought The Clarke Hotel for $1 million this spring. In turning the bar into an Irish pub, the firm hopes to spark new life into the overall operation.

"We just want to bring a little County Clare over to Waukesha," said bar manager Paul Ward. "I always say it's like the Clare with a 'k.' We got this wonderful, wonderful space, right at the Five Points. You couldn't ask for a better spot."

Ward is coming over from County Clare. He worked there for 14 years — the last 10 as an assistant general manager and bar manager.

Ward said The Clarke Irish Pub will separate itself from other establishments in the city — he reiterated many times that it's not a bar, but a pub, which is short for "public house" in Ireland.

"You come in here and strangers are friends you've yet to meet," Ward said. "This is a pub. That's where everyone gathered to meet. That's where the politicians and the farmers all gathered to talk business, the week's affairs."

Ward said the difference between bars and what The Clarke Irish Pub is offering is clear.

"We offer an environment to immerse yourself in," Ward said. "It's more about soaking in the Irish charm and hospitality and having a drink when you're doing it and talking to the bar staff to a level to where you can have a conversation."

In his early conversations with people from Waukesha, he is reminded of home. Ward was born in County Clare, a county located in Ireland's mid-west region.

"When I came to Waukesha I was taken aback because it really reminded me of Ireland," Ward said. "The people and how friendly everybody was. Not to take away from Milwaukee, but it's a big city. I didn't have quite the same welcoming, where people were saying 'We want you to succeed.' This is great."

Restaurant on schedule

Not to be forgotten is the restaurant, which is expected to open next month.

Ward said he plans on having live music, including Irish tunes, in the restaurant, which will also have the same menu as County Clare's.

For Wittmann, that's exciting.

"It's good home cooking," she said.

New furnishings still have to be installed as well as new light fixtures in the restaurant. Dennis Radtke, the owner of Harp & Eagle Ltd., has been remodeling the restaurant and pub over the last few months. The restaurant and pub have received a paint job, complete with Irish sayings imprinted on the wall.

Ward said a grand opening of the pub and restaurant will take place after the restaurant opens.

Returning to city

While the restaurant is still looking for new staff, David Seidner is a familiar face behind the bar.

He previously worked in the bar under its previous names, The Black Trumpet and D Mo's Italian Pasta and Chop House. Seidner has been working at North Star American Bistro in Brookfield since D Mo's closed almost three years ago.

But it didn't take long to sway him to return.

"As soon as it was sold, the hotel's general manager contacted me because he knew I would be interested in coming back," Seidner said. "I've been waiting the whole time to come back. I'm so happy to be back."

Seidner said it was emotional reopening the doors on Aug. 11.

"The first night I saw some old regulars who used to always stop by," Seidner said. "It was very heartwarming that they showed their support."

In the meantime, remodeling continues inside and suggestions are always open at the pub.

"It will be a spectacular bar when they get through," Marciniak said. "It doesn't feel like Ireland right now, but it will."

At a glance

What: Clarke Irish Pub

Where: 314 W. Main St., Waukesha

Hours of operation: 3 p.m. to midnight Sunday and Monday; 3 p.m. to 2 a.m. Tuesday through Saturday

Coming soon: An adjoining restaurant with a menu that will model the County Clare in downtown Milwaukee will open within the next month