The flat-screen-endowed bar at 8-twelve.
Centering your restaurant around famous athletes is no guarantee of success.
Years ago, former Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre aligned himself with something perhaps even closer to a Milwaukeean’s heart than football – red meat. But his Water Street steakhouse didn’t go well, lasting a mere three years. More recently, the Third Ward restaurant endorsed by Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun changed its name and concept from grill to Italian joint, and did so just a year into its now two-plus years of existence.
Brookfield’s 8-twelve MVP Bar & Grill is the latest in the genre. With the novelty of not one but two Wisconsin sports golden boys thematically driving it – Braun and Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers – SURG Restaurant Group is certainly swinging for the fences. (There is wisdom in this. When baseball season winds down, football heats up.) But what allows a sports star-linked restaurant to knock one out of the park? Hanging jerseys on the walls isn’t enough. Menu items with the star’s moniker aren’t the answer either. You might say serving “awesome food,” but history seems to say there’s no easy answer.
At 8-twelve, there isn’t an overt sports approach to the ambiance besides the copious flat-screen TVs tuned to sports. Just outside the entrance to the building, which was previously SURG’s Charro Restaurant, sits a wooden carriage, looking like it rolled up from a pasture in a rural Midwestern town. The restaurant’s décor incorporates farm implements and barn wood from Hidden Creek – the New London, Wis., farm run by SURG co-owner Mike Polaski. (Hidden Creek also supplies beef for the menu, from the Brauny burger and house-smoked beef brisket to the beef stroganoff on the $25 three-course Supper Club menu.) Those rustic materials tie into the Badger State/classic comfort food menu, including a Wisconsin cheese board and Lakefront Riverwest Stein beer-cheese soup.
But this isn’t a sports bar.
The sister of Ryan Braun’s Graffito (which also has a Florida location), 8-twelve is the newest part of SURG’s growing empire. SURG’s Omar Shaikh tried to downplay 8-twelve’s opening as the date approached (announcing it hours before on Twitter), but even still, getting a primetime reservation has been tough.
Post-opening in early July, if you wanted a reservation but weren’t willing to grab the 5 or 9 p.m. slots left on opentable.com, you could take your chances as a walk-in.
On the packed-house night of my visit, the crowd was sports-fan dominated – team jerseys and shorts the apparel of choice, perhaps underdressed for the spot’s more lavish $10 specialty martinis and $49 18-ounce bone-in rib eye. On the opposite end, price-wise, there’s the chicken BLT and garlic mustard pulled pork sandwich (both at $12).
While Shaikh wandered from room to room, a cell phone fastened to his ear, my dining party made quick work of the two meaty little lobster and lump crab cakes, topped with matchstick pieces of green apple, crème fraîche and a waffle potato chip ($14). The buttermilk fried chicken ($17) offered a jacket of crispness around the juicy dark and white meat. And its side of smoked tomato mac and cheese was appropriately creamy and smoky, though not particularly cheesy. The 8-ounce filet ($35) – with roasted garlic mashed potatoes and roasted Brussels sprouts – was grilled to a respectful medium-rare. A tender, enjoyable steak.
Masterful cuisine isn’t going to clinch 8-twelve, but better-than-average food and service will help. (In that first month, keeping a handle on a restaurant with few lulls was a tough undertaking.) The venue can use any props it can get. Brookfield is close enough to Lake Country to pull from the restaurant-starved crowd out there. But Blue Mound Road’s notorious traffic issues don’t do 8-twelve any favors. It might be up to Braun and Rodgers themselves – who are expected to make occasional impromptu visits – to help their number-sake soar. Seems fitting, doesn’t it?