By Molly Snyder Senior Writer Published May 10, 2024 at 10:01 AM

Get ready to soak up more bar articles, imbibable stories and cocktailing content, brought to by Miller Lite. For more of our Bar stories click here

Years ago, when Milwaukeeans didn’t have cellphones or GPS, locating Barnacle Bud’s, 1955 S. Hilbert St., was quite the challenge. Today, however, technology makes it easier to find the mostly open-air shanty and patio perched on the Kinnickinnic River.

And yet, Barnacle Bud's remains a secret find. A true hidden gem. As if Miami somehow converged with Milwaukee.

barnacle bud'sX
barnacle budsX

SkipperBud’s, a boat storage and repair facility that’s next to Barnacle Bud’s, originally developed the venue as a fun spot for boaters. But it didn’t take long for word to spread that Milwaukee had a public oasis with casual seafood and umbrella drinks that felt more like Key West than the north end of Bay View.

In 1993, Gene and Victoria McKiernan purchased the venue which, at the time, was a simple setup featuring an ordering window and a smattering of picnic tables.

Today, it’s still cozy and casual feeling, but now boasts a much larger food menu, drink list, oyster bar, 25-seat restaurant offering indoor seating and – most famously – two large patios that seat up to 100 people.

The decor is a whimsical, nautical mix of antique knickknacks, an old school dial phone, 50-year-old cans and bottles, amusing signs, Beanie Babies and myriad other random items given to McKiernan by friends and customers.

barnacle budsX

To add to the overall quirk of Bud's, the main patio sports a life-sized Gene McKiernan cardboard cut-out for selfie-taking. "I'm always here," says McKiernan.

Until this winter, Bud's had service from March to October and then closed for the winter. However, in November of 2023, McKiernan and company launched "Gene's Supper Club," a Christmas-themed supper club inside the cozy structure. The concept was well received and the unique, reservation-only dining opportunity quickly sold out.

gene's supper clubX
gene's supper clubX

"We will definitely bring back the supper club in 2024," says General Manager Yvonne Walton. "We will most likely open even earlier this year, like at the beginning of November, and run through mid-January."

But for now, it's all fun in the sun. 

barnacle budsX

The main patio is populated with umbrella tables along with two-seaters literally feet from the river. Patio entertainment includes watching smiling folks dock at the slips in boats of all kinds, SkipperBud’s massive forklift depositing and retrieving boats to and from the water and St. Mary’s cement ships floating to or from the industrial business in the distance.

Front patio diners will also catch a view of Downtown including the iconic Allen Bradley Clocktower and the gargantuan Komatsu Mining headquarters.

Barnacle Bud’s serves both lunch and dinner and offers an everyday (!) fish fry, Grouper Reuben (spelled on the menu “grooper”), crab cakes, burgers, fresh oysters and more. The 2024 summer menu is still a work in progress, but during a recent visit we enjoyed a shrimp po'boy with fries; the cod fish fry and peel-and-eat-shrimp. 

po'boy sandwichX
fish fryX
shrimp basketX

The drink menu is a delightful mix of buckets filled with Miller Lite shorties or “Coronitas,” cans or taps of locals and macros, Bloody Marys and a themed cocktail list including Pirate Punch and Dumpster Punch. 

“We cook the punch daily in a dumpster in the sun,” jokes McKiernan.

barnacle budsX

On Sundays and Tuesday, diners dig the Jimmy Buffet-esque sounds of Jim Tillman, aka "Jimmi T." Some guests, inebriated or not, regularly chime in with Tillman on tunes like the Eagles' "Peaceful, Easy Feeling" or Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" and might even accompany him on his musical washboard or spoons.

McKiernan bought his first bar in 1961 in Madison. He later owned one of the now-defunct Barnaby’s franchises and about a dozen bars in Milwaukee including Victoria’s on Potter, Ducky’s, Chump’s and one in Florida, the inspiration for Barnacle Bud’s.

Today he solely owns Barnacle Bud’s and McKiernan’s Irish Pub & Grill, 2066 S. 37th St., but says he is always looking around for interesting spots. “I’m always up for something new. I get bored easily,” says McKiernan.

Walton says a new focus of Barnacle Bud's this summer will be on expanding private party options and that they've hired a party coordinator.

"There's always been such an interest from our customers to have larger parties here, but we've always been so busy it was hard to manage parties on top of regular business," says Walton. "But now we're working to accommodate both."

barnacle budsX

Another difference this year is the lack of crawfish on the menu because it is now illegal to import non-native crawfish to Wisconsin because they are deemed invasive species. This new law also requires the popular annual crawfish boil to morph into a seafood boil. This year the all-you-can-eat event is set for Wednesday, June 19. 

Walton says they are also hoping to work out an agreement with neighbor Skipper Bud's so there is more slip space for Barnacle Bud's customers who want to boat in.

barnacle budsX

Despite some minor changes, Barnacle's Buds has the same plan for this summer as every summer: provide a casual spot that feels like a mini vacation that only lasts a couple of hours.

"We’re excited as always to embark on a new season," says Walton. "We have always had a very diverse clientele here, and now we look forward to welcoming customers who came in the winter for the supper club to the patio in the summertime. Hopefully, they'll find it to be what people always say: Barnacle Bud's is in the city, but out of the city at the same time."  

barnacle buds

Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.

Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.