I Watched Milwaukee’s Restaurants Pivot During the Pandemic. It Gave Me Hope.

Restaurants responded to the pandemic quickly, refocusing their businesses and redefining their role in the community. Our dining editor explains why this makes her hopeful.

Uncle Wolfies Breakfast Tavern is one of the restaurants trying to stay alive by offering their menu for curbside carryout.

It’s late March. During my new ritual of nightly walks, I do a lot of thinking – mostly about how different things were just weeks ago and wondering if they will ever be “normal” again, whatever that means. 

One evening, I pause to observe the carryout process at Pizza Man on Downer Avenue. Cars are queued up on the street, and their occupants go in one by one when their order is called. I abruptly take a step back, to ensure an appropriate social distance, when a customer rushes out of the restaurant. Already, this has become a reflex action, but it is still fresh enough to feel surreal.

What feels even more surreal, and is more difficult to adjust to, is not eating out. Writing about restaurants is my career, but eating in them satisfies something deeply personal in me. As someone who is inherently introverted but also likes to be around people, that cozy spot at the bar or a table inside a local haunt is my comfort zone.

When I was a child, eating out was only for special occasions. Meals were at the kitchen table with my immediate family. It was the same for most of my peers. It’s a different situation today, or at least it was until the pandemic. I wonder what it will be like a month, two months, one year from now. Will packed dining rooms entice us or make us feel fearful? If a server refolds your napkin and places it neatly on your chair while you visit the restroom, will that feel invasive?

During all this collective chaos, I find myself thinking about one restaurant in particular that is so deeply woven into the fabric of Milwaukee – Three Brothers. When I phone co-owner Milunka Radicevic, whose grandfather founded this Serbian institution in 1954 inside an old Bay View Schlitz tavern, she, her mother and brother are trying to run their business in a way they’ve never done before. The burek and goulash they bring out to customers’ cars are still prepared with love and steeped in tradition, but it’s not the same. What’s missing is the experience: the dining room – really, an extension of the family’s home – with its wooden tables and the shadowy light of vintage table lamps, the mismatched china, the glass of slivovitz (plum brandy) from the bar. Milunka feels the disconnect. “It’s such an un-Slavic thing to not hug people,” she says, her voice laced with emotion. Before I finish writing this article, the family decides to temporarily close Three Brothers and shift its focus to preparing meals for those in need.

Hotel Madrid is one of the restaurants trying to stay alive by offering their menu for curbside carryout.

Another restaurant giving back is The Tandem. The near North Side establishment started with curbside service but quickly segued to serving free community meals – as many as 350 a day – to needy families. Tandem has had help from restaurants like Strange Town and Goodkind that couldn’t make the curbside option work and still had coolers full of perishables. “Our whole schtick has always been community first, so this is a natural progression for us,” says owner Caitlin Cullen.

I ask Cullen if she thinks things will ever return to “normal.” She says she doesn’t and even questions whether they should. For some of us, dining out was a perk of having disposal income – income that so many in our community don’t have.

There will be restaurants that don’t make it through this “safer at home” period, and I feel heartbroken for them. But I also feel hopeful that this period will create new business models that bridge some of the gaps. There will always be the need for places that feel like home, in all its incarnations. Going forward, perhaps we will see more restaurants that feel like home for a broader section of our community. After all, as we’ve been reminding each other, we’re all in this together.

This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s May issue. 

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Ann Christenson has covered dining for Milwaukee Magazine since 1997. She was raised on a diet of casseroles that started with a pound of ground beef and a can of Campbell's soup. Feel free to share any casserole recipes with her.