We’re playing a game.
“Wilma Flintstone,” I say.
“Howdy Doody,” my friend volleys back.
“The Joker. And Michelle Obama,” I counter.
The game is Name the Figurine On the Big Piece of Art Behind the Bar. I’d guess many people who venture inside Taylor’s People’s Park play this game.
The raison d’être of this unaffected restaurant is represented by the wall-mounted artwork that runs the length of the bar. Co-owner Dan Taylor even gave the piece a name – People’s Park – an homage to the Berkeley, Calif., park known in the late ’60s as a counterculture haven. He says he bookmarked the name for a future business after spending time in Berkeley and absorbing its openness and free spirit.
As for the Waukesha lure, Dan and his brother/business partner, Jim, were drawn to the charm of the once-vibrant downtown and the size of the 1860s-era building. They opened People’s Park in late 2008. The corner location and narrow layout is similar to the brothers’ other business – Taylor’s on the corner of Jefferson and Wells in Downtown Milwaukee.
But what the Waukesha bar has that their Milwaukee business doesn’t is that alluring back-bar masterpiece, components of which Dan has been collecting for decades. Plastic toys, lamps, tribal art, old liquor bottles and kitschy collectible dolls like the Pillsbury Doughboy. Each piece has a face. Collectively, these faces embody the diversity that is People’s Park.
As a separate venture, Jim owns a pair of Oscar’s Frozen Custard establishments. In creating the menu for Taylor’s People’s Park, the brothers took Oscar’s simplicity, minus the negative connotations of fast food. This is a silverware-and-cocktail-glass joint, serving a classic, modest – and moderately priced – menu. It doesn’t lean fancy. It leans familiar, with a few variations on the burger, and substantial, fresh-tasting salads.
The menu starts out somewhat prosaic, with appetizers like a pretty good bruschetta topped with a slice of prosciutto ($6.95) to tender, grilled Thai chicken skewers with peanut sauce ($6.95). There are even two steaks – a nice surprise in texture and flavor. One is Cajun-blackened, the other served with a brandy au poivre sauce ($14.95 each).
The fried pot stickers have an appealingly chewy wonton sleeve and tender pork sausage filling (served with a thick, molasses-y soy dipping sauce, $6.95). The sandwiches arrive on soft ciabatta rolls, which stand up to the juiciness, say, of the half-pound Central Park burger, doctored up with sautéed onions and mushrooms ($9.95). It’s a good burger – mine a tad on the well-done side, but still moist – improved by the side of thin, nicely crisp sweet potato fries. The tenderloin cutlet on the pork sandwich is optimal two-fister texture (with provolone, onions and mushrooms, $9.95). Staying neatly in the bun, it doesn’t present a struggle.
Dan and his brother plan to incorporate a few lighter options into the menu by summer’s end, things to stand alongside the nifty Frankie’s Garden – a toss of romaine, goat cheese, dried cranberries, avocado and walnuts in a soy/rice vinegar dressing ($7.95). And the $14.95 8-ounce filet with chunky truffle-butter mashed potatoes and sautéed veggies is a sweet deal – postulants of big plates will agree.
As I drive up Main Street one afternoon, I see balloons of many colors fastened to the entrance. Inside the room, white ceiling fans whirl and windows usher in the sultry summer air. Servers clad in black T-shirts crisscross the narrow room with trays of burgers and chicken Caesars. Easy, breezy.
There’s been talk on and off of a renaissance in downtown Waukesha. It would be a wonderful thing for many storefront businesses if it were to happen. But the key to a successful street is having the right fit. Will you groan if I say Taylor’s seems tailor-made for this spot?
Taylor’s People’s Park: 337 W. Main St., Waukesha, 262-522-6868. Hours: Mon-Thurs 10:30 a.m.-11 p.m.; Fri-Sat 10:30 a.m.-1 a.m. Prices: starters $5.95-$9.95; salads, sandwiches, steaks $6.95-$14.95. Service: prompt, amiable. Dress: Anything goes. Handicap access: Call ahead. Credit cards: M V A DS. Reservations: accepted for six or more Sun-Thurs.