is the Zen?
Is it possible that there’s more to Milwaukee than Miller
Park and bratwurst? Promoting the city’s underground
dance music scene infused with his own Chicago House and Midwest
rave roots, James Amato heads the bookings and marketing at
the East Side’s Mantra Lounge. The space was revamped
in 2004 to create an atmosphere described by local press as
“Buddah meets Hendrix and Tiesto in India,” complete
with a lotus flower-inspired DJ-worshipping booth, Buddhist
themed rooms and a sunken dancefloor with free-spirited projections.
In a neighborhood with a German-style bar (Von Trier), a movie
theater, Pizza Man (more than 200 California wines by the
glass) and a popular coffee shop, not to mention a row of
bars, this is a nice surprise.
Three lit tiki torches guided us down a dark concrete stairwell,
which Mantra visitors must descend to enter. Upstairs is Beans
& Barley, a natural-foods market and restaurant. There
are no windows in Mantra because of its basement setting,
and so we are curious to see how well it’s lit. Supposedly,
Mantra’s redesign packs a lot of Zen, chi and soul into
The beats, and the tiles, were pulsing on the dancefloor when
the place got kicking. The DJ, a local, was hot, but there
seemed to be more buzz about the bigger name DJs in the line-up
for next weekend. I danced plenty, and grabbed a drag of hookah
whenever the floor got a bit too crowded.
Intrigued by the new décor rumored to be inside of
Mantra, we paid a visit on a Saturday night during a holiday
weekend. Okay, maybe it’s because in two days it’s
a holiday. Or maybe this place is just lame. But why are there
only two women strutting their stuff on the dance floor? By
11 p.m. the place isn’t even packed. There isn’t
even a crowd of desperate, gangly and obnoxious men to look
at these women. How sad.
The first lyric I hear is “I can’t
wait for the weekend to begin,” but, um, it already has.
And since when does eighties music jive with a décor
that looks like it was ripped off from an Indian club?
The dancefloor is super small and narrow. The DJ booth is tiny,
nothing special, and tucked into a corner of the dancefloor.
Behind it is a tight section of chocolate-brown booths and ottomans,
which I’m guessing is where folks chill. I check out the
bathroom and practically fall over and out of my heels when
the Xlerator (air dryer) blasts on as I attempt to dry my hands.
I order a Grape Crush martini, deciding to forego the chocolate-covered
Cherry Kiss martini. Once I get my drink I chill out and notice
the air conditioning is working really well in here. I head
up to the elevated lounge. A beaded screen allowing streams
of light and turquoise color through is delightful, making me
feel a bit like a VIP. It reminds me of ocean waves, and I finally
find the Zen.
I used to party at this place when it was ESO2, just another
ho-hum club, only tucked under Beans & Barley, a place I
know well (I’m a vegetarian). Back then, to be honest,
the club was usually too crowded for me to notice the décor.
Now I do. And I like it.
Even though the sound is turned off on two flat-screen televisions,
I like how the screen splices into four-color waves and stripes,
making the Hindi special even more obscure. It’s like
that film Monsoon Wedding but without the captions. There is
also a beautiful mirror with what looks like henna around the
Later we check out Mantra’s other sections: the Empress
Room, the Martini Bar and Club. In what looks like the Empress
Room, chocolate-brown and khaki and gold colors dominate the
space. Low-hung amber lights are wrapped in messy wire, creating
a pretty cool effect. This room is where we see the biggest
crowd, but it’s mostly couples snagging some alone time
I like the neighborhood, a lot. So it was nice to stumble upon
a club that has no cover on a Saturday night, has a beautiful
design scheme and good martinis. But if the playlist improves
that would be even better.