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Simple Times
Call for simple measures. A new cafe’s straightforward but inspired take on daytime dining.

Breaking bread at Simple Cafe's bar.
Photo by Adam Ryan Morris

Warmth, energy, happiness. Don’t underestimate the psychology of color. Not when the chair supporting your behind is painted orange. That wall over there? Indigo blue. The one next to it? Yellow. And the wall next to that? Green.

On weekdays, the East Side’s new breakfast-to-lunch joint, Simple Cafe, is up and at it at the crack of dawn – that still-dark, forbidding time of late winter. But this color wheel is like a chipper morning person. Coffee can’t meet cups fast enough. Juice is being poured. Bud vases hold pastel snapdragons. Servers are smiling like it’s a toothpaste commercial.

Seems there’s something to those colors, the cafe’s trademark. Would more breakfast places make Milwaukee a kinder, happier place? Maybe not kinder, but at least happier. For the early-morning crowd, the East Side choices are limited – Ma Fischer’s, George Webb’s, Beans & Barley and the Original Pancake House (which opens at 7 a.m.). But making inroads into the Milwaukee market was next on the slate for Young Cho and Tom Hartz, the owners of the first Simple Cafe in Lake Geneva. And in late January, they dug their earth-venerating heels into East Side ground.

Simple’s approach – comforting, farm-to-table, a bit left-of-center – gives many words on its website to the Wisconsin farmers and purveyors whose products are featured daily on the menu – Sassy Cow Creamery (Columbus), Yuppie Hill Poultry (Burlington), Hometown Sausage Kitchen (East Troy). And breakfast is a constant.

It’s telling that breakfast is the only meal with such chameleon-like abilities. Once you decide to eat pancakes or eggs and bacon for lunch, you’ve made the statement that rules are made for breaking. One of the best ways to shatter that glass ceiling? Simple’s Korean BBQ breakfast bowl ($9.95), which pulls its components of warm rice and fried egg from the more complex, spicy Korean dish called bibimbap. It also has a hippy, healthy vibe, with its brown rice, braised pork shoulder, Swiss chard and kale, broccoli, mushrooms and kimchi (fermented vegetables). Another creation you don’t see every day is the Louisiana-native eggs Sardou ($9.95). Perhaps richer than eggs Benedict, it starts with a croissant, picks up artichokes, spinach, mozzarella cheese and poached eggs along the way, then finishes with a cayenne-laced Creole hollandaise sauce.

 At 11 a.m., some of the world starts thinking about lunch. In Simple terms, this is illustrated by chicken and rice soup, grilled cheese and tomato soup, a club sandwich, Old School burger and others. A little ginger and thyme season the mild soup, a lot of rice (much more than chicken) thickens and creams it ($3.95/$4.95). The pesto grilled chicken on ciabatta ($9.95), topped with a handful of vivid veggies, isn’t going to shake the rafters, but it’s a warm, tasty two-fister.

Simple’s 3,000-square-foot space is narrow but lofty and airy. Communal tables are grouped in the front of the room; the back is divided between russet-red banquettes, wooden four-tops and coffee bar seating under the glow of some funky hanging lamps made with old enamel kettles and pots. With its individualistic mindset and menu mission, Simple has a close cousin in Beans & Barley, just a few blocks north. But Simple’s two-hour leg up in the morning could eat into Beans’ breakfast business.

Spring’s weather forecast is currently unavailable. But along with, presumably, snow and rain, it’s expected that there will be a rush on food served in a setting with very happy colors. Is that the simple truth?

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