A vibrant restaurant scene is a measure of a city's growth. With standouts like these 19, the future's looking bright.
Esquire magazine recently called out the “cities of Wisconsin” for taking the bloody mary “too far.” Ho! We had a very different reaction to the over-the-top bloodys served around town. We embraced them as a Reason to Love Milwaukee in our October 2014 issue. Of course, it’s not unusual that Milwaukee’s perception of a “trend” is different from those held in the nation’s big cities. Transcending trends is something we do very well here.
We also know how to open new restaurants, of many stripes, judging by the number of newbies that now occupy our neighborhoods. Plentiful real estate in Walker’s Point has made it a hotbed of restaurant development in the last few years. Bay View is also a hub. But our 19 top arrivals of 2013-14 illustrate a wide geographical playing field, presenting a reason to fill up the tank and cruise to places like to Port Washington.
One thing we know how to do with a restaurant compendium is blow it out with extras – from restos-to-come in 2015 to the stories behind the restaurant names. Consider this a 10-page goodie bag (Reader’s note: Full feature available in print).
5901 W. Vliet St., 414-727-0860
Small plates are Christian Schroeder’s chef d’oeuvres. He loves making them, loves crafting new ones, which he did at the Third Ward’s Prodigal prior to helping the owners of this revamped Cafe Perrin. Schroeder’s plates are elegant and unexpected, and the menu will continue to evolve. Hits like braised shortribs and waffles will continue their run, and the nightly specials (recent example: duck five ways) is the proving ground for items on the regular menu. Sous chef Sean Pickarts keeps up the pace with his desserts, including a stunning apple terrine. $7-$16.
Try this: Duck five ways (natch); wild boar meatballs with creamed polenta.
Behind the Name: From the French verb “nourrir” (to nourish). “We want people to feel like they’re being taken care of while they’re here,” says executive chef Christian Schroeder.
Quotable: Nourri’s Christian Schroeder, who attended Wisconsin Lutheran College on a golf scholarship, on the parallels between cooking and sport: “The structure of golf, the rules teach honesty and integrity. You can carry that over to the importance of being a mentor in the kitchen.”
2860 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., 414-763-5272
Back in the day – as in, the 1990s – there was drama in the pizza-making Bay View DeMarinis family. The sons branched off to open Dom & Phil’s DeMarinis Original Recipes, while the female contingent ran Mama DeMarinis, both attracting their separate audiences until Mama’s closing. Veronica Cieslak, Mama’s granddaughter, has dusted off Mama’s recipes at Little DeMarinis. A hefty, medium-thick crust gobbed with cheese and other toppings? Stop right there. Pizzas $9-$25.
Try this: “The Works” pizza, which includes Little D’s homemade sausage.
308 N. Franklin St., Port Washington, 262-268-7600
The owners use every physical asset of the restaurant’s setting – a late-1800s brick building in downtown Port Washington. The ornate entrance leads to the bar on one side and the parlor-like dining room on the opposite side. A Grafton farm’s harvest greens up the comfort food menu (when possible) created by executive chef/co-owner Dan Wiken, who had a long tenure at Milwaukee’s Packing House. Mount a flight of stairs and you’re in the TreeHouse Lounge, a funky, snug set of rooms for cocktailing and supping on a separate small-plates menu. After a 40-minute car trek, this 2013 arrival just feels meant for lingering. Mains $10.95-$23.95.
Try this: Kale and wild mushroom stroganoff, and sirloin filet with brandy demi.
COMING SOON: Former Blue Jacket chef Chad Meier and wife, Missy, match cooking wits at Meraki (939 S. Second St., Walker’s Point) – fine dining minus the tablecloths and stuffy service. Blast-off date should be before the end of 2014.
430 S. Second St., 414-897-0747
The open floor plan keeps owner Jonathan Manyo and his cooking staff on display, whether you’re seated at the bar – scoop up the couple of seats nearest the open kitchen if you really want to feel the heat – or at a table in the dining room nibbling duck liver mousse on toast. Deep, hedonistically rich is the savory food profile Manyo excels at. The menu changes in small or larger ways to reflect the cuts of beef, lamb, rabbit or duck they’re working through. Mains $18-$28.
Try this: Lamb loin chop; rainbow trout.
2659 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., 414-539-3593
Diners pass an unofficial “hipster crossing” on the threshold of Vanguard, the newest of the new on this list and a more loosely defined restaurant. When the doors first opened in early November 2014, chef Shay Linkus – “spirit animal Dom DeLuise,” as he’s titled on the menu – ground out half of the estimated 25 expected sausage creations, plus sides like chicken nuggets, baked potato balls and poutine. You can customize the toppings on your hot dog, brat, hot banger, cheddarwurst, etc., or order a “styled” link. This joint is no-frills – the plateware is a paper product. After giving the counter dude your order, grab a seat at a table or the bar (and wait for your order to come to you), give your drink edict (bourbon, beer, Negroni punch?) to the bartender, and watch bizarrely arresting videos on the flatscreen of Hulk Hogan during his wrestling heyday. Sausages $4-$8.
Try this: Piri Piri pork smothered in pickled cactus, blue cheese and hot sauce.
Quotable: The Vanguard’s Shay Linkus sees possibility in, well, everything: “Me and [chef] Paul Zerkel were screwing around at Odd Duck and eating Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. We thought about it: ‘Brats call for evaporated milk. We could turn the Cheetos into a dust and use it in the sausage.’”
2215 E. North Ave., 414-271-1093
The Handle people don’t keep their love to themselves. The May ’13 arrival turned a Spartan ground-floor-corner-of-an-office-building into a sweet haven. Sandwich man Chris Benedyk finds riveting ways to work an egg yolk into a dish, like white potato-bok choy soup topped with a runny circle of sunshine. And of his two-fisters, he says, “I just try to make them boys as tasty as can be.” Along with Ally Benedyk’s ice creams, this love train is hot – and cold – to handle. Small plates $5-$14; sandwiches $10.
Try this: The signature Love Handle sandwich, whose ingredients vary.
Behind the Name: It was “fitting for the next stage of our lives,” says Chris Benedyk, whose wife, Ally, was three months pregnant when they opened their sandwich shop. “It’s also got a tongue-in-cheek thing going on” in that it refers to something “on the overindulgent side.”
524 S. Second St., 414-224-5300
To capture what Spaniards are eating and drinking was the goal of the Movida partners, whose de facto ringleader is Andrei Mikhail, a Milwaukee native who spent 15 years living abroad, mostly in Madrid. Mikhail is also the chef here, and no surprise, the focus is tapas and other small bites. (Even the paella is served in small portions.) Highlights from the changing menu are tostas (toasted bread with a topping); pork-beef meatballs with romesco sauce; and jamon croquetas (ham fritters). Reflecting the Spanish love of gin, the bartenders are serious mixers of the gin and tonic. $3-$15.
Try this: Beef tartare “bite” with duck egg, guindilla pepper and manchego crisp; the lomo (pork tenderloin) tosta with Brie and pickled apricot.
AP Bar & Kitchen
814 S. Second St., 414-672-6000
Oyster shells, rye whiskey, burbling conversation. AP has an alluring bar, manned by a team of food-minded drink-makers. The shared- and small-plate routine is more bistro-ish than La Merenda and Odd Duck. Crazy Water maven Peggy Magister runs AP with nephew Justin Anthony, who isn’t afraid to stock the wine list with unfamiliar labels that push people out of their comfy place. $7-$32.
Try this: Pork buns with pickled jalapeno and kohlrabi; fried chicken; lamb Bolognese with pappardelle.
1751 N. Farwell Ave., 414-897-7022
Accolades do not equal financial stability. It took months before Justin Carlisle’s subterranean outpost, which opened in October 2013 (see “Birth of a Restaurant”), had more than a handful of diners. After a steady winter and spring, Ardent had a quiet summer. A tiny dining room with no patio, and reservations required? One of the city’s toughest tables to get suddenly wasn’t, and not by choice. Carlisle’s audience is only 40 percent local, he says, dismayed. The launch of late-night ramen in December 2013 – when the fine dining curtain falls away and the noodle-slinging begins – came with the modest hope it would “pay for the amount of PBR” the chefs and their friends drank. It exceeded expectations and built faith that Ardent could pay for itself. Carlisle’s commitment to running a restaurant on his own terms is matched by his resistance to using food industry buzzwords (no, we didn’t just say “farm-to-table”). “The whole point,” he says, “is to learn how my grandma cooked… to learn history.” His cattle farmer father supplies the beef; a dairy farmer friend supplies the milk and in turn, the butter; another friend, the eggs. It’s history repeating itself. $5-$22.
Try this: Milk course (a roll, butter and Muenster cheese, using milk from the same dairy), and the featured beef preparation.
Behind the Name: The word “reflects how we [the chefs] feel about what we do,” explains owner Justin Carlisle. Plus, it “begins with an A, so it’ll be at the beginning” of alphabetical restaurant listings.
2597 N. Downer Ave., 414-272-1745
The investors who’ve recaptured the essence of Pizza Man’s North Avenue cave updated it for the 21st century. Two floors of Downer Avenue joie de vivre delivered by Rinka Chung architects. Pizza, laid out on a cracker-like platform, is still the main attraction, but it has a supportive cast in the starters (onion ring loaf, fried sausage-stuffed olives), seasonal salads (e.g., beet, burrata and orange) and pastas (some new, some old, most of them good). And the $39 three-course dinner for two is pretty genius if you freeze up at ordering time. The big news this year was that the East Side will no longer be the Man’s only stomping grounds. Spring 2015 is the estimated birth date of Pizza Man at the Mayfair Collection, whose kitchen will be overseen (like the East Side’s) by exec chef Zak Baker. Pastas, pizzas, entrées $14-$27.
Try this: Carbonara, artichoke à la mode pizza (with cream cheese); tiramisu.
COMING SOON: Company Brewing scooped up Stonefly Brewing’s vacated digs in Riverwest (735 E. Center St.). With Bavette’s Karen Bell behind the kitchen wheel, the Third Ward butcher will supply its crosstown sibling with succulent pieces of meat from every part of the beast. Projected rollout: February 2015.
2457 S. Wentworth Ave., 414-763-4706
For a long time, the goal of married chefs Paul Zerkel and Lisa Kirkpatrick was to “open something small.” In this barnwood-wrapped building amid the little lot lines of residential Bay View, they seem to have it. This time of year, the dining room is especially cozy. It wraps around the bar, with the western-most tables close enough to the kitchen to feel the anchoring heat from the meat roasting on the Rotisol rotisserie. From chicken and lamb, the rotisserie has progressed to duck and other game. The couple’s business partners, Jessica and B.J. Seidel and Katie Rose (all of Burnhearts bar acclaim), sure know how to build a bar program – with a smart list of craft beers and indelible cocktails in a city that now offers a sea of them. $7-$26.
Try this: Rotisserie chicken; spicy crab pasta with ghost pepperoni.Behind the Name: The partners were roaming through the Elkhorn flea market, when Lisa Kirkpatrick spotted an old label for a brand of canned peas. The label read, Goodkind. “It ended up working for all of us,” says Kirkpatrick.
COMING SOON: Brocach Irish Pub gave this two-floor brick building the boot earlier this fall, ceding 1850 N. Water St. to a Brit. Red Lion Pub on Tannery Row is immersed in the British pastimes of drinking (ale), watching football (soccer), and eating (pasties, fish and chips). The crystal ball opening estimate is early December.
Bavette La Boucherie
330 E. Menomonee St., 414-273-3375
From the beginning, owner Karen Bell was framing this Third Warder as an old-fashioned butcher shop. She didn’t expect the food menu to seduce as much as the handmade sausages. Bell, a chef who ran a restaurant in Madrid and resuscitated the menu at MKE’s Café at the Plaza, says running Bavette as a butcher shop alone, in this location, “wouldn’t have sustained” it. Sausage-making and meat-cutting aren’t hidden in a back room, but are right out in the open for customers to see. “Constantly expanding” is the motto for a business that’s equally comfortable serving a corned beef tongue Reuben as it is a shared plate of lamb heart carpaccio with dates, mint and almonds. Charcuterie, shared plates, sandwiches $5-$20.
Try this: Rabbit rillettes with pickled apricot; rustic lamb pâté; steak sandwich with any topping.
Behind the Name: “Bavette” refers to flank steak or sirloin tip. The part “that’s hard to say, ‘La Boucherie’ [French for butcher shop], “has kind of fallen off,” says Karen Bell, who bestowed the name. She also liked the feminine sound of “Bavette.”
Quotable: Says Bavette’s Karen Bell: “My challenge is the limitation of not having a kitchen. That’s why the menu changes every day. I like that, but it’s hard sometimes. I’ll think, ‘What are we going to do? What do we have an abundance of?’”
Potawatomi Hotel & Casino, 1721 W. Canal St., 414-847-8510
The dark sky is a close driving companion this time of year. But the glow radiating from the Potawatomi tribe’s new hotel is like the moon in high-rise form. The 19-story hotel arrived, dining establishment in tow, accenting the in-vogue theme of seasonal, locally sourced ingredients. Former Prodigal chef Van Luu is the don of Locavore’s kitchen, and shows love for Wisconsin farms and food producers. The menu fluctuations should keep Luu on his toes. $10-$32.
Try this: Roasted Berkshire pork; Pinn-Oak Ridge Farms lamb chops.
1515 W. Mequon Rd., Mequon, 262-241-5990
Before Salotto entered the suburban landscape, there was some expectation, in executive chef Andrew Miller’s mind, that the massive, red-tiled wood oven would drive customer decision-making and make pizzas the top seller. The oven does fine work, and the pizzas are deliciously (and lightly) charred and chewy on the edges. But Miller’s kitchen is as busy, if not more, with the beautifully executed handmade pastas and mains, including a classic Adriatic-style seafood stew. Pasta, pizzas, entrées $9-$35.
Try this: Slow-roasted lamb loin with chanterelles; ponzarotti (deep-fried half-moon-shaped raviolis) stuffed with burrata cheese; tagliatelle with prosciutto and roasted chestnut cream.
221 N. Broadway, 414-308-1600
Shortly after the deep-fried debut of doughnut shop Holey Moley in summer 2014, the AJ Bombers/Smoke Shack people turned out Onesto next door to their small-plate joint Swig. Throw in another property – Water Buffalo – and that’s a lot of Third Ward real estate controlled by Joe and Angie Sorge’s company, Hospitality Democracy. Along with baking doughnuts, the company is making the breads, pastas and most of the cheeses for Onesto. Ambitious, to say the least. That’s led to mixed results at Onesto, whose menu plays up light sauces on pasta and appetizer spreads served inside little jars. There’s much more on the menu, and the shakiest spot (pastas) seems to be improving over time. Pastas, mains $14-$28.
Try this: Honey-roasted bruschetta; seared scallops with cauliflower and pistachio pesto.Behind the Name: “We happened upon ‘Onesto’ [Italian for ‘honest’],” says co-owner Joe Sorge, “and it encapsulated other words we wanted the restaurant to be like, as in ‘true to form.’”
2378 S. Howell Ave., 414-988-7086
A standard, immutable menu was never in the cards for this Bay View place, brought to you by former Centro Cafe chef A.J. Dixon and her renegade kitchen. Dixon shakes up the list weekly without a lot of repeats. Her varied successes tend to be simple, comfort food: shepherd’s pie, fried green tomatoes with pickled shrimp, and sloppy joes on cheddar cornmeal biscuits. Yes, lazy Susans are worked into the design scheme, along with a campy collection of salt and pepper shakers. Shared plates $6-$20.
Try this: Halibut or skate wing; wild boar tacos; pie fries.
COMING SOON: The natty Brown Bottle at Schlitz Park (221 W. Galena St.) is back, Cyril Colnik metalwork and all. Comfort food and classic pub fare sound like a smart entry point to winter. Lunch service was set to begin in mid-November, followed a few weeks later by dinner.
869 W. Layton Ave., 414-744-9000
This Indian-Pakistani place near Mitchell Airport may have a low-budget, strip-mall location. But it’s what’s on your plate that’s worth paying attention to. And that could be the dal (legume) of the day, tandoori chicken and the golden, buttery, pillows of naan. $9.99-$18.99.
Try this: Mutton biryani laced with tender lamb and whole cardamom pods.
Le Rendez-Vous at the Point
N52 W35002 Lake Dr., Okauchee, 262-468-4038
You don’t expect mussels in Pernod-spiked cream sauce in a Lake Country watering hole-eatery. Nevermind the sports bar aura, the dining room has been Francophiled un petite peu with copper kettles and replicas of the Eiffel Tower. It’s a surprising change for the old Bertrand’s Point Comfort Place. If steak au poivre doesn’t suit, owner and Paris native Maxime Weltzer can set you up with a hamburger and frites. Entrées $9.50-$27
Try this: Onion-bacon tart; seared scallops with maque choux, crab cake and sweet potato puree.
Story Hill BKC
5100 W. Bluemound Rd., 414-539-4424
The three-pronged venture – wine store (“B” for Bottle), restaurant (“K” for Kitchen), coffee shop (“C” for Cup) – had its coming out in early August 2014 with a strong customizable menu. Only want a little bite? Try the chicken meatballs with green peppercorn sauce. Feeling generous with your dining pal? Share pumpkin agnolotti with sage and brown butter. The “Pass” items are meant to feed a crowd, but who are we kidding? Two hungry bellies could make a substantial dent. Valentine coffee is the chosen roast, and wines are marketed as competitively priced. The Maxie’s/Blue’s Egg guys have taken a copious bite here, but it’s so different from the sibling businesses. And so charming. Plates $4-$29.
Try this: Butter-flake rolls; Connie’s chicken salad; Story Hill steak.
Quotable: “The neighborhood was dying for something other than sports bars,” says Dan Sidner, co-owner of 50th and Bluemound’s Story Hill BKC.
Ann Christenson is Milwaukee Magazine’s dining critic. Write to her at email@example.com.
Hear Ann Christenson on WUWM’s “Lake Effect” Dec. 9 at 10 a.m.