Counter Culture: Milwaukee’s Lunch Counter History

Counter Culture: Milwaukee’s Lunch Counter History

If those stark Formica counters could talk…

This is an archived post. Contents were accurate at the original time of publication.

The American lunch counter – dominion of short-order cooks, brash waitresses and soda fountain menus – is way older than any of us. Students of the counter say the first references to the term go back to the 1860s and that years of this kind of dining have cemented “BLT” and “mayo” in the American vernacular.

That makes the counter sound pretty culturally significant. Especially when we’re talking about food in its simplest, least fashionable form. Clearly, these places fill an economic need. In a city where we prize value, lunch counters like Webb’s, Miss Katie’s Diner and Solly’s have held on, while a newer wave of counters – Beans & Barley, Cafe Lulu – have updated the image, with a modern or reminiscent edge. Okay, so beyond getting a budget breakfast, what’s the appeal? I ask a friend of mine, who jumps at the chance to loiter at Goldmann’s [now closed] lunch counter (and rifle through piles of anything charmingly antiquated in the ladies’ lingerie department).

“It’s the companionship,” she says, as though there couldn’t be another, better explanation.

There’s a more precise way of expressing that, though. It’s the state of being part of a community and, at the same time, an observer of it. Because fellow counter colonists may not be people you have any intention of talking to. It’s that you’re together – elbow to elbow, in some cases – each having a meal at this particular place and time. That can be a form of solace, if not a lesson in the human condition.

I can also hear my aunt talking. She’s a no-nonsense kind of person – doesn’t like pretension, couldn’t care less what the spinach linguine is tossed with. She’d admit that the food at most lunch counters isn’t going to win any awards but would argue that it’s sincere and down to earth. Mac and cheese is mac and cheese. And honest food is respectable food.

And while we’re talking about Goldmann’s, it’s hard not to feel a bit of awe in its nostalgic presence. It’s like visiting a living history museum. Milt Pivar, the department store’s co-owner, says the 109-year-old Mitchell Street establishment has looked pretty much the same as long as he’s known it, and he’s 76. When you see the lunch counter, you’ll know what he means. It wears the years on its counter and chrome stools. The servers wear them on their faces. The “World Famous” diner (so says one of the retro signs) is really three U-shaped counters in the back of the store, behind the handbags and hats and next to the hard candies and chocolates. There’s bound to be folks puffing away after cleaning their plates, and it’s hard to escape the smoke. But Goldmann’s is a place lost in time. Health-conscious meals are still several decades in coming. Instead, diners hunch over eggs, fast food-size burgers, grilled cheese, beef chili, dinners (smothered roast beef or mock chicken) and ice cream creations. The truth is that a good people-watching seat and a sundae are enough for me.

People might ruminate about what makes a dining experience. I often say it’s so much more than the food. With lunch counters, at least the really retro ones, it’s not even about the food. I understand why Solly’s Grille puts people into a fever – from a feel-of-the-joint standpoint. The waitresses look after you. You push open the door of the quaint khaki house with a wraparound porch and the warmth seeps through your clothes. Two little U’s of counter space meet congenially under glowing stained-glass lamps. It’s like there’s time just to sit, read the paper, chat a little and, most importantly, eat the species of sandwich for which Solly’s is known: the butter burger. Hit with a pat of butter after a stint on the grill, these burgers send juice racing down your wrists. They’re either worth a sonnet or a harangue from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (4629 N. Port Washington Rd., Glendale, 332-8808).

Same thing with Real Chili. You love this oily, heavily seasoned chili or you hate it. But if the affection is deep and soulful, it’s because of a lot more than the finely ground beef. It’s because James, with his baseball cap and chili-stained fingernails, is dishing up your helping, always with a side of oyster crackers. Ordering food to go is never as much fun as eating each singed spoonful on a chrome stool while James goes about his business of spooning and serving and pedestrians pass the Wells Street windows without looking in (419 E. Wells St., 271-4042).

There’s another part to lunch counters I hadn’t considered before my most recent visit to Benji’s Deli,– that there might be a perception about where you sit. Benji’s, for example, can slide you into a booth or put you at a table. But it’s not the same. As my waitress of late noted, “Sitting at the counter is cooler.” It’s a statement. It opens the floodgates of conversation. It builds confidence. At Benji’s L-shaped counter, it’s easy to just be – stick your nose in a newspaper and tune out the world, if you want, which is easy to do if you’ve got a plate of hoppel poppel or a Reuben sandwich (4156 N. Oakland Ave., 332-7777).

There are certainly other places to consider for the counter experience: Ted’s Ice Cream and Restaurant, two counters with chrome stools and babies-to-old folks appeal (6204 W. North Ave., 258-5610); Miss Katie’s Diner, a spacious (but smoky) counter in the back room, classic carhop-type menu, plus Pitch’s barbecue (1900 W. Clybourn St., 344-0044); and, of course, George Webb, a people-watching mecca and king of the cheap/greasy breakfast (multiple locations).

Blue Plate Redux

One more thing, before you’re knocked blissfully on your duff by retro-hip lunch counters wielding worn furniture and swill coffee. Who said a lunch counter had to be old – and serve mediocre food – to be good? Three places come to mind as morphing the lunch counter image.

Since opening an adjacent bar, Cafe Lulu has banished smoking from its lunch counter, a warm yellow room with orange stools left from its George Webb days. The counter forms an ample L, facing a wall shelved with old cookbooks and flea market knickknacks. And eating is a worthwhile pursuit. Don’t miss Lulu’s homemade potato chips and peanut butter cookies (2265 S. Howell Ave., 294-5858).

It’s not the conventional lunch counter image – diners hunched over their tempeh Reubens and fresh-made organic carrot juice. But it’s a Beans & Barley image. If you’re not at the modern metal/wood counter by choice, you’re there by default – because the dining room was too busy. Reading materials are as varied here as the people – newspapers, textbooks, novels, self-help books. Very much a comfort zone for single diners (1901 E. North Ave., 278-7878).

Poco Loco was also a lunch counter in a previous life. Its theme now is festive Southwestern – get the Margarita train moving and everyone loosens up. The graceful curves of this counter mean it’s hard to avoid interacting with the staff. Diners jaw on tamales and tacos and decide which is more interesting – watching the servers earn their tips or eavesdropping on conversations (4135 W. River Ln., Brown Deer, 355-9550).