A renaissance is happening in Milwaukee (no, I’m not talking about the oodles of craft breweries popping up). People are renovating some of Milwaukee’s historic spaces and turning them into innovative and thoughtful food and drink establishments. Two spots in particular, I’m very excited about:
(1848 W. Fond du Lac Ave.)
Chef Caitlin Cullen is trying something that’s never been done before. And honestly, she’s pleasantly surprised that it’s been working for the past four months. The Tandem is more than a restaurant or a pub, a spot for the community to gather and place for people to receive valuable work training on the job. Cullen also learned how to cook on the job at the Third Ward’s Bavette.
Fatefully, just months after she moved home to Detroit, Karen Bell, her former boss at Bavette, called Cullen and urged her to learn about this new restaurant being developed in Milwaukee.
The Tandem is in the former Wally Schmidt Tavern space, a North Side favorite from 1935-1968. The building was built in 1893, and its original terra cotta roof and leaded glass windows are still intact.
The building had been vacant for 12 years when Juli Kaufmann of Fix Development and Jeremy Davis of Walnut Way Conservation Corporation set out restore it. Much of the interior original features are still in place, like a patterned hex-tile floor, wood molding, millwork and wrought ironwork.
When Cullen learned that Kaufmann was taking on the restoration, she visited the neighborhood and knew it would be a great spot for her to bridge the segregation gap in our city and offer jobs to residents looking for work. She subscribes heavily to the belief that if you don’t like the way things are, do something about it.
She chose the name Tandem after the bar once run by her twin uncles and hopes to mimic its ambiance, which made everyone who walked in feel like a regular.
We visited on a Thursday night and were greeted by a team of eager staff members (ranging in age from 12 to 50) ready to take care of us. The space is warm and welcoming with a diverse crowd.
Cullen describes her menu as “down-to-earth food with fresh-from-the-earth ingredients.” In addition to her specialty, chicken – prepared either Dominican roasted, Georgia fried or spicy Memphis fried – there are salads, sandwiches and rotating specials.
The menu went through a few different edits before she landed on fried chicken and other comfort food classics. She had feedback from partners in the neighborhood as to what would and wouldn’t be popular.
The Tandem serves lunch and dinner, Tuesday-Saturday from 1 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sunday brunch from 10 a.m.-3 p.m.
(785 N. Jefferson St.)
You won’t find the Phoenix Cocktail Club unless you’re looking for it. Tucked back among the many clubs and bars catering to the masses on Jefferson, The Phoenix beckons a different kind of clientele. It’s refined and unpretentious with a clever and curious menu of drinks and food. The cream city brick exterior and wooden door flanked by two stately white pillars are original, but the interior has been gutted and reconstructed with décor from the 19th century. Look for the address because you won’t find a sign. It’s been open for about 10 weeks now and Beverage Director Adam Sarkis has been happy to see that more often than not, people are ordering the specialty cocktails off the menu.
Known as the William A. Webber House, the Greek revival-style townhouse was built in 1858. It started as a residence before becoming a bar and restaurant. For the past several years, it has been vacant. The owners of the neighboring Bad Genie undertook the renovations and now lease the space, but because it is a federal historic site, they had to follow specific regulations.
A majority of the interior décor and fixtures are relics from the late 1800s and early 1900s, like the back bar, which was acquired at an estate sale, and the church pews. The black walnut floor laid in a herringbone pattern is a beautiful contrast against the cream paneling and exposed cream city brick.
Paying homage to another historic spot in the Cathedral Square neighborhood, the owners chose the name the Phoenix Club for the private social club that was on Jefferson Street from 1885 to 1910. It was actually a Jewish fraternal organization that hosted private parties and had a bowling alley, billiard hall and card tables.
Elegant, but chill and not stuffy in the least, the Phoenix Cocktail Club has a clean, minimalist look.
The cocktail menu is broken into four categories: inspired cocktails, colors, slushies and mood. The Peace in Bed, the Kill Bill and Rico’s Last Tattoo are some of the most popular cocktails. The Kill Bill, a bourbon-sour cherry slushie, even comes with a comic book created by the staff.
Sarkis admits to listening to a lot of Wu Tang Clan as he was doing research for the menu. “There is also a lot of Tiki and Kung Fu influence,” he says. It sounds random, but it works.
Snacks and entrees rotate on the food menu, but the kimchi pork pot stickers and bibimbap are staples.
The Phoenix is open 5 p.m. to bar time Tuesday through Saturday, with food service until 10 p.m. weekdays, and midnight Friday and Saturday. Happy hour is 5 to 7 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday, with $6 Daiquiris and Old Fashioneds.