Let Us Now Praise Milwaukee’s Beloved Restaurants

Absence makes the heart grow fonder, or so the saying goes. That is certainly the case when it comes to our local dining establishments. After having endured so many months without them, let us take a moment to show them the appreciation they deserve.

Food can be powerfully seductive, but it’s only part of the appeal of dining out. Restaurants offer a sense of community, fellowship, shared experience. It’s something that can’t be contained in the paper bag of a curbside pickup order. And after months of isolation, it’s what I yearn for. 

Showbiz is tough, I’m sure, but from where I sit, I think running a restaurant might be even tougher. The heartbeat of these businesses, our homes away from home, has changed for now, but most are evolving with the pandemic demands, working harder than they ever have. I love to sit at the pasta bar in Tosa’s Ca’Lucchenzo and watch fresh pasta being rolled and cut, and I hope to return to that soon. In the meantime, relaxing on their patio, with co-owner Sarah Baker and her servers attending to my every need, is food for my soul, as much as her husband Zak’s expertly crafted pasta sates my appetite. 

As we all start inching back to life, I welcome the return of so many restaurant “homes,” from DanDan to Third Coast Provisions, Le Rêve to Honeypie, Buckley’s to Strange Town. For this feature, I had the tough task of whittling down the list to 12 establishments that represent the variety of excellent dining experiences here in Milwaukee. Our support is crucial to their recovery. Read on and you’ll understand why. 

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Goodkind

WHY WE LOVE THEM: For making us feel so comfortable while gently nudging us out of our culinary comfort zone

(Photo by Adam Ryan Morris)

WHEN IT OPENED in 2014, everything about the space indicated reinvention. It had once been a pizza place (Mama DeMarinis), a corner tap and a blacksmith shop. The owners pooled together a lot of experience – chefs Paul Zerkel and Lisa Kirkpatrick, bartender extraordinaire Katie Rose and Burnhearts bar proprietors BJ and Jess Seidel. A dream teamGoodkind is tucked into a residential enclave in Bay View that feels more homey than hip, and I like that. Without being too precious or trendy, the menu consistently offers a lot of things I want to eat. There is always a new discovery, unless I fall back on the spicy crab pasta, dependable in its deliciousness. Pre-pandemic, if I was feeling a little down, this was the place that could dependably turn that around. Now more than ever, we need this type of fortification, a place where we leave with our bellies full and hearts emboldened. (2457 S. Wentworth Ave., goodkindbayview.com) 


The Tandem

WHY WE LOVE THEM: For always putting community first

Caitlin Cullen (Photo by Chris Kessler)

DETROIT NATIVE CAITLIN CULLEN says the idea of a business that didn’t have the social focus of giving back never made sense to her. Naming the restaurant after a bicycle built for two also highlights how she approaches running The Tandem – as a team. It was her staff she immediately turned to when the pandemic hit. They all agreed to abandon curbside carryout after two days and shift to offering free meals for the many residents of our most impoverished neighborhoods. That quickly grew to serving hundreds of meals each day, many of them prepared by other local restaurants, themselves struggling to survive. Thanks to much-needed support earlier this year from the international nonprofit World Central Kitchen, Cullen was able to pay 46 supporting businesses enough to keep them solvent. Even after the safer-at-home order had been lifted and restaurants were able to reopen with limited capacity, The Tandem was in no hurry to do so, continuing instead in its new mission. Said Cullen in mid-June: “For now, [serving] 5,000 or so meals per week is telling me not to slow down feeding folks just yet.” The Tandem’s fried chicken makes me think of long picnics in the shade, hearing a chorus of warblers and breathing in the aroma of grass, flowers and warm food. The Memphis fry covers the juicy meat in a thick, crunchy, slightly spicy shell. It’s so good with their hearty, tomatoey baked beans. (1848 W. Fond du Lac Ave., tandemmke.com) 

The Tandem’s Greens 

SERVES SIX TO EIGHT  

INGREDIENTS 

1 lb. of slab Nueske’s bacon, cut into small cubes  
1 small pinch crushed red pepper flakes 
1 yellow onion, chopped 
1 red onion, chopped 
2-3 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced 
3/4 bottle dry white wine 
1 cup apple cider vinegar 
3 cups hot water 
1/2 lb. butter 
Salt to taste 
5 bunches collard greens, cleaned and picked into small pieces 
3 bunches kale, cleaned and picked into small pieces 

DIRECTIONS 

Cover the bottom of a large, heavy-bottomed stockpot with chopped bacon and crushed red pepper and heat over medium-high heat. Cook bacon approximately 10 minutes or until it starts to look browned and is letting off grease. The bacon will be sticking to the pan in some spots – that’s just fine! Add the onions and a large handful of salt, and cook – stirring regularly – for 8-10 minutes until onions start to turn translucent. Add the garlic cloves and cook for one more minute, until fragrant. Add the wine and cider vinegar and bring to a boil. Let the liquid cook for 2-3 minutes before using the liquid to scrape the bottom of the pot clean. Reduce to low heat and add the butter and a small handful of salt. Once the butter has melted, add the greens and the water, and then cover. Simmer on low for 2-3 hours, checking to make sure the greens are cooked through. The kale will cook quicker than the collards, so be sure to taste both types of greens in the pot. 


Bavette La Boucherie

WHY WE LOVE THEM: For the care and artistry they bring to everything they do 

Photo by Chris Kessler

AFTER KAREN BELL moved back home to Milwaukee from Madrid (where she ran her own restaurant), she consulted for various restaurants while building a plan to open a butcher shop. That might have seemed an unexpected choice for a woman, but Bell was and is passionate about preserving this time-honored profession. Bavette was originally going to focus on being a whole-animal butcher shop, with a small café, but the weight shifted as customers gravitated to Bell’s menu and demand for more grew. Honoring the animal comes first; indeed, it is broken down right there behind the bar for all to see. That sentiment carries over to the menu, which incorporates everything from lard (in the maple-roasted nuts) to tongue (in the corned beef reuben). Her sandwiches – like the Cuban with pressed ham and bacon and banh mi with pork and kimchi sausage – are divine. With her second location, at Mequon Public Market, now closed, Bell is a steadying presence at her flagship space, which also serves a terrific grilled, grass-fed burger every Wednesday night on the patio. (330 E. Menomonee St., bavettelaboucherie.com) 

Corn Cakes With Curry Crab & Melon Salad 

SERVES SIX TO EIGHT 

FOR CURRY CRAB & MELON SALAD 

INGREDIENTS 

1 tbsp. olive oil 
1 tbsp. sliced green onion  
1½ tsp. curry powder  
1 pinch of saffron (optional)  
1 tbsp. lime juice  
½ cup mayonnaise  
1 tbsp. chopped mint   
1 tbsp. chopped basil  
1 lb. jumbo lump crabmeat, picked through  
2 cups watermelon, seeded, large dice or chunks  
½ cup cherry tomatoes, halved, or large diced heirloom tomatoes  
4 oz. arugula  

FOR CORN CAKES 

INGREDIENTS 

1 cup boiling water  
1 cup plus 1 tbsp. corn meal  
1 3/4 cups cooked corn kernels 
2/3 cup all-purpose flour 
2/3 tsp. baking powder 
1 tsp. salt 
A pinch of pepper 
1 tbsp. chopped fresh thyme 
2 eggs, separated 
1/2 cup cream 
1/4 cup milk 
1 tbsp. butter 

DIRECTIONS 

Make curry mayonnaise: In a saucepan, heat oil. Add the onion, curry and saffron and cook over low heat until the onion is softened, 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in lime juice. Let cool. Stir into mayonnaise. 

Make the corn cakes: Pour the boiling water over the corn meal to sweat for 10 minutes. Purée 3/4 cup of corn with cream in a blender until smooth. Mix the yolks, milk, thyme, salt and pepper and corn/cream purée together. Combine the bloomed cornmeal with the flour and baking powder. Fold the wet ingredients into the dry. Beat the egg whites and fold them into the mix along with the remaining corn kernels. Heat butter in saucepan and ladle 1/4 cup of corn cake batter and spread slightly. Cook until browned on the bottom and starting to bubble around the edges. Flip the cakes with a spatula and cook on the other side for about a minute until lightly browned on the reverse side. 

Dress and assemble the salad: Combine the curry mayonnaise, chopped mint and basil, arugula, diced watermelon and tomato, pinch of salt and gently toss. Taste for lime or seasoning. Serve on top or alongside corn cakes.


Sanford

WHY WE LOVE THEM: For the serenity of its dining room, which, coupled with the incomparable cuisine, makes for a transcendent experience 

(Photo by Kevin J. Miyazaki/PLATE)

OF ALL THE REINVENTIONS that came out of COVID-19, this cozy-elegant New American restaurant, piloted by James Beard Award-winning chef Justin Aprahamian, is worth noticing. Sanford’s elevated cuisine doesn’t easily lend itself to a takeout box. So they mixed it up, creating a new, curbside/carryout identity with dishes we never thought we’d see, like a burger. (Of course, one night that creation was a foie gras butter burger.) I feel very protective of Sanford, as if it is somehow mine – and I bet there are a lot of people who share that feeling. It’s the dining room where my every need is anticipated (needs I didn’t even know I had), where the food has never been short of superb. And I want that feeling back. Reopening isn’t “as easy as flipping a switch,” read one of Sanford’s Instagram posts, so rest assured if things are still quiet in the dining room, it’s because they’re waiting until they can ensure the experience is safe for everyone. (1547 N. Jackson St., sanfordrestaurant.com) 


Cloud Red

WHY WE LOVE THEM: For breathing life into the rather staid community of Shorewood

(Photo by Adam Ryan Morris)

TEN YEARS AGO, you probably couldn’t have sold locals on a neighborhood bar that served a mostly veg-centric menu with spring rolls and deep-fried cauliflower. But diners have come a long way, and Cloud Red’s arrival in Shorewood came at just the right time. It’s a farm-to-table Cheers, with owner Rebecca Goldberger a modern Sam Malone who makes every customer feel like everybody knows their name. As for that free-thinking bar food menu, the house-fried chips and chunky salsa are a simple combo you’ll want to snack on at home or on the patio. Big props to the grass-fed burger, pulled pork nachos and grilled steak salad for getting me through many a weeknight when I didn’t feel like cooking. (4488 N. Oakland Ave., cloudredmke.com) 


Three Brothers

WHY WE LOVE THEM: For providing comfort and warmth, served up Serbian style  

Milunka Radicevic making her roasted red pepper salad in the kitchen of Three Brothers (Photo by Chris Kessler)

CO-OWNER MILUNKA RADICEVIC, whose grandfather opened the restaurant in 1954, is the keeper of memories. Raised in the dining room by her parents Branko and Patricia, she knows that creating the timeless, memorable experience requires a master’s attention to detail. Diners are treated to Serbian-Milwaukee hospitality and Old World dishes prepared so many times, love is folded into them. (Oh, those lovely seasoned Serbian sausages and that flaky cheese burek.) When restaurants shut down because of COVID-19, the Radicevics – Milunka, along with her mother and brother, Branko Jr. – converted Three Brothers to a carryout model. Which seems like a difficult accomplishment for a restaurant so tied to the sit-down experience. But these carry-outs of comfort did so much to dispel the gloom. (2414 S. Clair St., 414-481-7530)  

Roasted Red Pepper Salad 

SERVES FOUR 

INGREDIENTS 

6 large sweet pointed peppers (Carmen or Shepard) 
3 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil  
3 tbsp. red wine vinegar  
4 garlic cloves 
Salt to taste  
3 tbsp. toasted pine nuts  
1/3 cup pitted Kalamata olives  
2 ounces Serbian cheese (goat cheese, similar to feta) 
6 basil leaves, torn  

DIRECTIONS 

Set oven rack in the top position, preheat broiler and line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Place the peppers on a prepared baking sheet and broil 5-10 minutes, rotating the peppers until well charred. Remove the peppers from the oven and place in a bowl. Cover tightly with plastic wrap (so they steam) and cool until lukewarm.  

Peel the skin from the peppers, without rinsing under water. Remove the caps from the peppers and carefully remove the seeds and inner membrane, leaving the peppers whole. Place peppers in a bowl and add the olive oil, red wine vinegar, garlic and salt.  

Refrigerate for at least 1 hour, or overnight.  

Heat a small skillet over medium heat. Add the pine nuts and cook, stirring frequently, until golden, about four minutes. Transfer nuts to a small bowl to cool. 

Transfer the marinated peppers to a serving dish. Sprinkle the pine nuts, olives and crumbled cheese over the top. 

Top the salad with the torn basil. Priatno, enjoy! 

*Note the peppers may be placed on a grill and charred and blistered to perfection, placed in a bowl, covered with plastic wrap and peeled.


El Señorial

WHY WE LOVE THEM: For transporting us to the warm, welcoming kitchen of a family home in Latin America 

(Photo by Aliza Baran)

IN A CITY with a wealth of authentic Mexican food, El Señorial offers variety and fresh flavors under a wide umbrella of affordability. The name translates to “stately” or “noble,” but there’s nothing fancy about this welcoming spot. It’s comfortable and homey, with bright murals breaking up the wood paneling. The parrillada is what many diners come here for, and with good reason. On paper, that’s a sizzling platter of grilled meats (steak, Mexican sausage, beef ribs) served with rice, beans, sauces and tortillas. This is simple, and simply beautiful, food. (1901 S. 31st St., el-senorialmexican-restaurant.business.site) 


Lucky Ginger

WHY WE LOVE THEM: For bringing an oasis of urban vibrancy, with a Southeast Asian flair, to the Third Ward

(Photo by Chris Kessler)

THAI FOOD IS readily found here, and Lucky Ginger isn’t reinventing the wheel of Southeast Asian favorites. It has, however, created a throb of urgency for it, the idea that eating something simple like its wonderful pork dumplings is like experiencing a treasured dish only those “in the know” have tasted. The layers and textures in each bite bring me across the world to a small, warm kitchen overseen by a kindly chef who dotes on customers. An order of those meaty, pan-fried wonton beauties and a bowl of creamy tom kha soup are an essential set. But this place is a sleeper hit for Thai specialties like drunken noodle and yum nua (beef salad). Even without being back to “business as usual,” the 5-year-old restaurant hosted a Lao popup by Racine-based SapSap in late June, lending more depth to the Lucky Ginger love. (221 N. Water St., luckygingermilwaukee.com) 


Odd Duck

WHY WE LOVE THEM: For creating a space that is welcoming to all 

Photos by Chris Kessler

THE INTRICATE CORK tables inside this Bay View dining room hold so many memories of meals shared. When I think of dining here, I see multiple forks and spoons reaching for a dish. You never leave unsatisfied. There’s also this sense of being part of “the in-crowd” and yet feeling individually special. That takes skill that co-owner/front-of-house warrior Melissa Buchholz has in droves. The restaurant’s shutdown reinvention has included lots of things to keep us happy, from chef-curated market baskets (including chef’s recipes) to a carryout menu featuring cheese and charcuterie boards and a selection of small plates (lamb shawarma, braised pork cheeks, salt-roasted beets) and cocktail kits. One Odd Duck menu item gives customers the chance to give back: a pay-it-forward option ($20) that provides a meal for a local front-line worker or first responder. (2352 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., oddduckrestaurant.com)  

Duck Egg & Chestnut Mushroom Frittata 

SERVES FOUR 

A frittata is basically a baked omelet, and owners Ross Bachhuber and Melissa Buchholz also love to eat them for a quick dinner with a side salad. You will need a medium-sized, oven-safe nonstick or cast-iron pan.  

INGREDIENTS 

4 duck eggs (or 6 regular chicken eggs) 
1 tsp. fresh chopped rosemary 
1/4 tsp. red chili flake
Salt & pepper to taste 
2 tbsp. olive oil or butter 
6 chestnut mushrooms, de-stemmed & sliced (or a cup of any other mushroom) 
2 tbsp. goat cheese 

 DIRECTIONS 

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Whisk eggs with salt, pepper, chili flake and rosemary. Over medium flame, heat butter or olive oil, add mushrooms, cook until browned and tender and liquid has evaporated, about 5 minutes. Pour in egg mixture and add goat cheese in several dollops. Bake for about 20 minutes until set. Allow to cool for a few minutes, slice and serve. You can add absolutely any other vegetables, some bacon or really anything! 


Damascus Gate

WHY WE LOVE THEM: For being the only place in town where you experience traditional dishes prepared by Syrian immigrants 

(Photo by Chris Kessler)

DAMASCUS GATE HAS cooked its way into our hearts. The message is one of welcome, an invitation to sit down and experience traditional Arabic foods such as a mixed meat grill and mujaddara (lentils and bulghur). I will never forget the moment I discovered their flatbread – thin, tender sheaths of bread, wonderful for picking up dollops of hummus and baba ghanoush. The family grill platter is aptly named – a heaping serving of rice, meats and vegetables. So good, you may smile guiltily at how much you eat. You might realize that across the world from where you are seated, contentedly dining, many people may soon be sitting down to a meal similar to yours. That conjures up an emotional feeling of belonging. The restaurant continued to operate during the spring lockdown on a carryout basis. It also was part of the free meals initiative called Hungry Hearts, created by Bay View’s Tippecanoe Lutheran Church. Inspired by The Tandem’s efforts, these meals fed those in need, many of them immigrants living in the Mitchell Street area. (807 W. Mitchell St., damascusgatemilwaukee.com)  


Daddy’s Soul Food & Grille

WHY WE LOVE THEM: For serving up traditional soul food in a soulful community living room 

(Photo by Dominic Inouye)

YEARS AGO, chef/owner Bennie Smith started a healing initiative at Daddy’s that is more crucial than it has ever been: He welcomes police officers in to enjoy a meal at 50% off and engage in meaningful conversation with other diners. It’s one of the transforming effects of dining at Daddy’s. You feel part of a community here, a community of people who love food and care about Milwaukee. In homage to some of the best in the library of Southern soul foods, Smith offers a different special each day, including barbecued ribs, smothered pork chops, and chicken and waffles, and on Sundays, Smith goes the full nine yards with his soul food brunch buffet. Eating catfish, black-eyed peas and collard greens in Daddy’s dining room feels like being a valued guest in Smith’s home. (754 N. 27th St., daddyssoulfoodandgrille.com) 


Bartolotta Restaurants

WHY WE LOVE THEM: For celebrating our every mood and remaining a consistent arbiter of excellence in fine dining 

Ristorante Bartolotta dal 1993 (Photos courtesy of The Bartolotta Restaurants)

THE ANNIVERSARY of the passing of co-founder Joe Bartolotta came in April, when all 10 of the company’s restaurants were closed due to the pandemic. Company leader Paul Bartolotta has steered the group through its slow, safe, careful return. When the first restaurant reopened – Ristorante Bartolotta dal 1993, in early July – it was with a new, socially distanced courtyard called La Terrazza and a prix fixe menu honoring the culinary traditions of chef Paul’s beloved Tuscany. It signaled the welcome return of a company that has brought joy to even the simplest occasions in life. It also has been the springboard for so many other restaurants I love, as ex-pat chefs have opened the excellent Diplomat on Brady Street and Brandywine in Cedarburg, to name just a couple. I’m excited for so many things to return – Juan Urbieta’s hand-made pappardelle with duck ragu at Ristorante, John Raymond’s steak with pommes frites at Lake Park Bistro, John Korycki’s whole roasted branzino at Harbor House and Nick Wirth’s creative take on seared foie gras at Bacchus. (bartolottas.com) 


This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s August 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.