Not So Knockwurst

Was it the deathknell for schnitzel? When John Ernst Cafe closed in 2001, it was the end, in some ways, of an era. One of Downtown’s “Big Three” German restaurants, Ernst was the 123-year-old establishment former Mayor Henry Maier frequented, where career servers spoke German to customers. But business had slackened by the ’90s, and there just isn’t as much gemütlichkeit in this town anymore. The old Milwaukee was a place like The English Room, the once-stately restaurant whose history dated to 1926, with those over-fussy servers. Or Grenadier’s, where if a guy didn’t arrive dressed in a suit jacket,…

Was it the deathknell for schnitzel? When John Ernst Cafe closed in 2001, it was the end, in some ways, of an era. One of Downtown’s “Big Three” German restaurants, Ernst was the 123-year-old establishment former Mayor Henry Maier frequented, where career servers spoke German to customers. But business had slackened by the ’90s, and there just isn’t as much gemütlichkeit in this town anymore.

The old Milwaukee was a place like The English Room, the once-stately restaurant whose history dated to 1926, with those over-fussy servers. Or Grenadier’s, where if a guy didn’t arrive dressed in a suit jacket, he had his pick from the coat closet. Back in ’86, the magazine’s then-critic Willard Romantini listed his 56 favorite restaurants, most of which are gone today. It’s sad to say goodbye to some old favorites, but thrilling to see how far we’ve come.

Think about fish, for instance. We’ve always cornered the market on beer-battered cod. Bay scallops were another thing. But by the early 1980s, River Lane Inn, Jim Marks’ homey North Shore seafood house, had changed everything, serving seven kinds of fish from the coasts. After that, it got easier for diners to find king salmon and fresh grouper without driving to Chicago. Elite restaurants like John Byron’s (where chef-restaurateur Sandy D’Amato spent some nine years as executive chef), Grenadier’s and Steven Wade’s Café also satisfied a growing demand for fresh fish. But Milwaukee being a city with respect for tradition, the fish fry is as big as ever, only you won’t see too many $5.50 all-you-can-eat deals anymore.

Restaurant prices remain a hot-button issue. From the first time we did a Cheap Eats story (December 1989), we’ve “wanted to eat like a king and still have a little change left for the Salvation Army bell ringers,” as Romantini wrote. And ethnic, especially Mexican, has always been the way to do it. But not until the South Side’s now-departed Rudy’s and Acapulco threw their sombreros into the ring in 1986 did we have much that was autentico. Since then, our melting pot has grown to include Middle Eastern and Thai, Vietnamese and East Indian restaurants.

Nothing did more for ethnic restaurants than the dose of ambiance they got in the mid-’90s. Those days were owned by designer Gary Wolfe, who made giant sculptural chile peppers protrude out of the walls at Mexican La Perla, crafted Roman-styled walls and pillars at Italian Mimma’s, and simulated an Athenian village inside Greek Apollo Cafe. “I’m not over the top – no one has let me get that far,” Wolfe told the magazine in ’98, but his flamboyant style peaked anyway. In the early 2000s, there was a push for a hip, mixed-media style less about comfort than making a statement. There was the retro bar chic of The Social’s old Second Street space and Sauce’s mix of Eames-esque furniture and sliding garage-door cool. The dexterous dudes from Milwaukee’s Flux Design have added steel detail to Brewers Hills’ airy, modern Roots Restaurant & Cellar. And they made the Third Ward’s Water Buffalo an arresting development of concrete, wood and steel. The city’s sort of surface crazy, apparently.

Several times over the years, this magazine has made some cows very nervous. Around the mid-’80s, “health-conscious Americans gave the beef industry the bird,” as Romantini put it. Sales of chicken surpassed those of beef for the first time in our country’s history. You could find healthy food in Milwaukee, if you looked hard enough – Beans & Barley on North Avenue, for example. But the city never really stopped embracing beef, as attested by the dizzying number of steak joints that have opened just in the last two years. Times have changed as to price, though. Six dollars for a baked potato? And instead of a nice juicy filet for $14.95, try $28.95 and up.

We’ve learned never to underestimate the importance of location. In the late 1980s, restaurateurs were beginning to take back the city – a “much-needed infusion of life,” Romantini declared in 1987. Brady Street had plastic surgery, changing its hippie/underground identity to the wining and dining reputation of today. It caused an offshoot of nearby establishments like Trocadero, whose partially enclosed patio is its saving grace.

Diners may gripe about Downtown parking, but the valets on Milwaukee Street are not sitting around growing muffin tops. Hotel Metro’s 1998 opening signaled a rebirth of the cool. The 65-suite art deco-inspired hotel set off a boomerang effect of commercial development. The Bianchinis – Marc, who founded Osteria del Mondo, and his wife Marta – are running Cubanitas, the crystal chandelier-topped Cuban dining room, a door or so from other hip spots. There’s the dark, drolly named steakhouse Carnevor. Across the street, Cosmo drinkers stare at one another’s shoes inside the clubs Tangerine and Kenadee’s.

Twenty years ago, Third Ward Caffe was considered trendy. The little Italian place is still there, but it ain’t trendy anymore. With condos now dotting the Milwaukee River, folks are no longer questioning why Milwaukee Ale House co-owner Jim McCabe put a brewpub in a Third Ward warehouse 10 years ago. Commercial property is at a premium, and restaurateur wannabes eye real estate like the hip corner bar The Wicked Hop and realize they were a few years too late.

There are exceptions to the “with the right location, restaurants will follow” adage. Mike & Anna’s thrived for years despite its obscure South Eighth Street location, but the concept (“nouvelle” cuisine in an un-haute environment) was novel in the ’80s. Year after year, it made critics’ best lists and was the playground of several chefs who’ve moved on to success elsewhere.

In the last quarter-century, we’ve lowered the coffin on other sad upscale demises: Marangelli’s, Vinifera, Steven Wade’s Café, Maniaci’s Café Siciliano, Claus on Juneau, Sally’s Steakhouse(a trip of a place) and the Clock Steak House. Miscellaneous casual joints I remember with a certain fondness: the Five & Ten Tap(for their fish fries), Boder’s on the River(ahh, the corn fritters), Oakland Cafe(those chocolate chunk cookies!), Bits of Britain, Jolly Vnuk’s, Jolly’s on Harwood, La Casita(was it after having too many Margaritas?), An Uptown Café(for breakfast), Continental Cafe. And ethnics? We can’t forget the late Cracovia(Polish), Khyber and Dancing Ganesha (East Indian), Atotonilco(Mexican), Olive Tree Café (Greek), Balkanian New Star (Eastern European), Zam Zam Café (Middle Eastern) and Pasta! basta! (Italian).

The memories are less fond for casualties like Celia; Fleur de Lis (“Fleur de Less,” we dubbed it in a review) and Boulevard Inn, in Cudahy Tower; Lohmann’s; Bavarian Wurst Haus; Brown Bottle Pub; and Third Street Pier.

I miss John Ernst Cafe. It had a flair missing in the German restaurants that remain. But I don’t think its passing means we’ve lost all our tradition. Rather, we’re evolving and becoming a more dynamic dining town – a melting pot of diversity and creative hands and minds. After 25 years, we can officially say Milwaukee has grown up.

From Art Museum to Icon

Arts enthusiasts will be looking for Russell Bowman to set a new tone and direction for what has been, until recently, an undervaAss underpromoted and … troubled institution,” Tom Bamberger wrote in February 1986. Bowman, then the museum’s new artistic leader, helped grow its budget, exhibitions and endowment.

Under the leadership of this “infectious art maniac,” Bamberger wrote in August 2002, the museum acquired more than 10,000 works of art and grew from fewer than 7,000 members to 22,000. Bowman also helped lead the planning for the Calatrava addition.

“Milwaukee needs a symbol. And this is going to top the St. Louis arch,” Joan Darragh, vice director of planning and architecture at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, predicted (April 1996). The Calatrava became Visit Milwaukee’s logo, but the museum was changed in ways that Bamberger, who spent years there as a curator, lamented. In an era when museums were yielding core values to financial concerns, he noted (October 2002), the MAM had become “an extreme example of this condition – an overbuilt museum with an underpowered art program.”

Rocking Out

Our April 1986 feature about a “cross section” of Milwaukee’s best bands numbered 57 groups, most of which played their last notes by the time “Family Ties” went into syndication. Amongst the dead (or mostly dead): Leroy Airmaster, Hot Canary, Azimuth, Gerard, E*I*E*I*O, Die Kreuzen, Locate Your Lips, Boy Dirt Car, Dog-Style Dandies and SPOW.

Blues stalwart Jim Liban had already been blowing the city down with his harp for nearly two decades when our feature on him was written in March 1984, and he’s still going strong today. “To play with authority, you’ve got to open yourself up wide to the spirit that specializes in turning your life into disaster,” Liban told writer Stephen Wiest.

Longtime musician Paul Cebar was profiled in September 1994. “The man is my biggest inspiration,” then-musician Paul Finger declared. “Everything’s so meticulous about Cebar. Every note is where it’s supposed to be. Every button is in the hole.”

“In the world of rock music, they are true originals,” wrote Dave Luhrssen in a July 1994 profile of the Violent Femmes. “Perhaps the most influential musicians from the metro area since Les Paul perfected the electric guitar.”

And what of Les Paul himself? For our February 2006 profile, reporter Mario Quadracci traveled to New York to sit down with the then-90-year-old legend and discuss wine, women and song. Paul still had big plans, but conceded, “I better hurry.”

Lives of the Artists

Comedic Genius: Actor/playwright Larry Shue “used his comedic Midas touch to transform vulnerability into dramatic success,” writer Harry Cherkinian observed. Shue had hit the big time with still-popular plays like The Nerd and The Foreigner.“I’m living the life I like right now,” he mused (February 1984). One year later, he died in a plane crash.

Mr. Intensity: “Zdenek Macal seems to personify the old-fashioned romanticism of the 19th century music he often conducts and the 20th century conception of the superstar conductor,” Bruce Murphy wrote (December 1989) of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra music director, who handled the post from 1986 to 1995. Macal, who still conducts around the world, was a skilled technician, but audiences gradually declined during his tenure here.

The Diplomat: Macal’s successor, Andreas Delfs, became music director in 1997 and turned into a key pitch man. “We tried to leverage his time, his face, his voice, his handshake as much as we possibly could,” former MSO marketing director Jill Evans told writer Tom Connors (September 1999). But musicians were divided about his conducting, with some feeling his youth handicapped him. Delfs will step down in 2009.

A Force of Nature: “Tom Uttech paints just landscapes, ignoring the fact that the art world considers it an unworthy subject,” Debra Brehmer wrote (March 2000). “Who are these turds telling me what I’m supposed to be doing?” Uttech scoffed. “He’s one of the major figures” in his field, said John Arthur, a national expert on landscape painting. “I’m yearning” Uttech explained, “to stop being myself in this body and stop being aware of my life and just be … the tree, landscape, all of it.”

Fred, Jesus & the Devil: “In his deeply felt paintings filled with saints and freaks, wounded animals and suffering everymen … Fred Stonehouse creates a bizarre sideshow that vividly captures the incongruity of human experience,” Connors wrote (September 2000). “People see his work and think he’s strange, intense and anti-religion,” his friend and fellow artist Mike Noland said. “But he’s actually just this really sweet guy.”

Master of Illusion: Still life painter Patrick Farrell is an eighth-grade dropout and young victim of sexual assault who became a self-taught phenomenon, the state’s most successful painter. “Although Farrell’s life has been quite messy, he appears to float benignly above it all, buoyed by the ripe poetry of his compositions,” wrote Debra Brehmer (August 2006).

Almost Famous

We predicted sure fame for some local performers. Wrong.

The band Gerard (March 1984) was “out to make the top of the Top 40 charts” and sure to get there, we concluded, belittling “the unthinkable possibility that they won’t make it big nationally.” Actually, it was quite thinkable.

“Big Time,” declared a cover story (January 1988) on rocker John Sieger, who “teeters on the brink of fame.” “I’m not asking to be Bruce Springsteen or anything like that,” the guitarist said after his band Semi-Twang landed a record deal with Warner Brothers. Request granted. Today, Sieger leads songwriting workshops in town, as noted in our December 2005 update, “School of Song.”

Then there was Keedy (October 1991), “Milwaukee’s answer to Madonna,” our cover story declared, and “with her dark, olive-shaped eyes and strong nose, a shoo-in for the lead role in ‘Honey, I Shrunk Isabella Rossellini.’” Keedy was as certain to hit stardom as, well, Gerard, the group with which she’d started out as a singer. By the mid-’90s, Keedy had fizzled. With her husband, musician Royce Hall, she later formed the band, The LuvByrds.