By Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host Published Dec 05, 2023 at 11:03 AM Photography: Lori Fredrich

Since Zócalo Food Park opened its doors at 636 S. 6th St. in 2019, the Zócalo Tavern has played a major role in bringing people together and instilling them with a sense of community and belonging. 

But thanks to a variety of recent renovations, completed in collaboration with the folks at THREE SIXTY, the tavern has been reimagined. And it’s more beautiful and welcoming than ever before, capturing the spirit of what the Danish would call hygge: a place to get away from the daily rush and be together with the people you care about.

Overhead view of Zocalo TavernX

The original tavern, which was designed with the help of local artist and MIAD graduate Gloria Santos Ruiz, was intended to capture both the aesthetic and welcoming vibe of Latina artist Frida Kahlo’s La Casa Azul (Blue House), the home where she was born and in which she lived for the better part of her life. The Blue House was not only the center of Kahlo’s creative universe, but a place where she orchestrated countless parties and entertained a multitude of guests. 

“When we planned the renovations, we wanted to respect the work that Gloria had put into the space,” notes Zócalo co-founder Jesus Gonzalez. “And we wanted to preserve the overall feeling of the space. But we also really wanted to warm it up and make it more comfortable for folks who want to linger.”

As a result, the spirit of La Casa Azul is still alive and well inside the Tavern where green doors are trimmed in red, with deep blue running up the walls and over the bar’s ceiling. Meanwhile greenery provides a nod to the gardens at La Casa Azul, while also offering welcome contrast to the deep wood tones that run throughout the space.  (The overall transformation is pretty dramatic; just check out these photos from when the tavern opened in 2019).

The copper-topped bar has been refaced with rustic boards, painted blue to match the walls and ceiling. New neutral-toned bar stools with supportive backs and padded seats have replaced the former metal stools. Bright green shelving has also been installed behind the bar.

New Zocalo barX

In the immediate vicinity, the former counters and metal stools which faced the windows of the tavern have been replaced by thoughtfully built metal and wood booths, which generously seat two with their wide padded seats and accompanying tables. 

New booth seating in Zocalo TavernX

The lofted area just beyond the bar has also been transformed. Deeply warm orange walls display photos of Frida Kahlo's life, forming the backdrop for soft seating areas that are meant to encourage socialization and human connection.

Lofted lounge at Zocalo Food ParkX

Meanwhile, the dining area and meeting place at the back of the tavern has been similarly transformed. Moss green walls pop against the dark wooden paneling, which now showcases comfortable wide wrap-around banquettes with padded seats and back support panels upholstered in triangular patterns expressed in orange and red.

Dining area at Zocalo TavernX

The result is a space that’s infinitely more cozy during the winter months, supplying plenty of space for conversational cocktails, meals and meetings. But it also maintains its bright airy feel, which will be even more apparent during the summer months thanks to the bar’s operational garage doors, which allow both clement open-air quarters and a seamless connection to the outdoor areas at the food park.

Manager Rudy Montoya has also rolled out a menu of thoughtful, expertly crafted new cocktails, including a new spicy cilantro margarita, a blueberry mojito and a Chai Espresso Martini made with locally made Twisted Path Chai Liqueur.  Guests will also find an emphasis on locally crafted tap beer, an element that Montoya says is intentional.

“We’re so centrally located,” he says, “We’re accessible not only for locals, but also others who are visiting the city. And we want to be sure that they have a true taste of what Milwaukee has to offer.”

Artful heated winter huts

But the new bar menu and aesthetic changes at Zócalo Tavern aren’t the only changes you’ll see when you visit.

“Everything we’ve changed has been intentional,” notes Gonzalez. “Every piece of furniture was built with intention and similarly we’ve taken a look at our service and made changes for the better. We want the experience at Zocalo to be memorable… to be as good as possible.”

As a result, guests will find an emphasis on service, particularly table service in the bar, dining area and even in the outdoor huts, which provide a unique indoor/outdoor vibe.

This year, the full service huts have been given a fresh new look thanks to a partnership with local artist Francheska Gomez Rodriguez of Karaya Arte.

An outdoor hut at Zocalo
Photo: KO Photography

Each heated dining space has been transformed with holiday and winter elements inspired by various Latin American countries including Brazil, Venezuela, Columbia and  Puerto Rico. 

One of the heated huts at Zocalo
Photo: KO Photography

Each heated winter hut is ADA-compliant and can accommodate a group of up to 12 people for comfortable winter dining. Reservations for the huts are currently available online, with rates based on both the group size and the timing for the reservation.

“We want to make Zocalo a third space for people in Milwaukee,” says Montoya. “We want it to be that comfortable go-to spot where people can grab a meal or drink, attend live events or watch sports. And everything that we do supports that.”

Events @ Zócalo

Guests can look forward to a number of upcoming events including a Winter Market featuring a variety of local artists and makers at The Shop (located behind the Tavern just to the north) on Dec. 14 from 5 to 8 p.m.  The Tavern will also host a comedy night with comics from All Day Laughs on Saturday, Dec. 16 beginning at 7 p.m. Tickets can be purchased online.

Zócalo Food Park is also available for private parties and gatherings of between 20 and 100 guests. Catering, bar services and more are available. For more information or to inquire about hosting your event at the food park, check out their guide to private events.

Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host

Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club. 

When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.