For years on my peripatetic trips to Manhattan, I have savored the unending number of charming hole-in-the-wall restaurants, bars, and cafés that New York has to offer. And I have silently wondered why Milwaukee, a solid mid-tier city, does not have more similarly small, intelligently inventive spaces. While they are common in America’s metropolises, littered like archipelagos across urban neighborhoods, they are not so scarce in smaller cities that I am willing to accept urban density as an explanation for why our city does not have more of them. Milwaukee has several incomparable selections, but the general paucity is a shameful representation of the superlative cooking talent in this town. Is it that too few yearn, as the saying goes, to hang out their own shingle?
In major cities, real estate is at a premium, and necessity is the mother of invention. I have seen spaces the size of 3rd Ward condo walk-in closets fashioned into bistros. Milwaukee offers a multitude of small, promising spaces for practically nothing. Are there not scads of would-be restaurateurs who could scratch together the shekels it would take to outfit the vacancies and give us additional little authentic places in which to dine? I have no concept of what a restaurant business plan might look like, nor the overhead needed to open even the smallest of doors. I know that my friends at Odd Duck said they saved for twelve years before opening their anomalistic Bay View success. Still, I can’t satisfy the itch that more cramped but creative culinary spaces ought to be happening in our city and would raise the bar in a positive way. I think there are magic beans everywhere, and no need for cows to be traded in.
These tight little spots I love to sup at range from polished to hodge-podge; however, they often share common threads. Snug square footage is certainly part of the story, but there is more to it. Most of these independent gems have a chef as either owner or business partner, meaning the chef and team are vested in every aspect of the place. From the dishes to the dishes. From the fingernails pressed into the produce checking it’s freshness the chalk beneath them after composing that days’ specials board. They are the restaurant. Their pulse it’s self same.
On the dining side, there is the near-forced metaphysical relationship you have with the other diners. The experience is cozy and compressed but not overwrought; these establishments offer us a warm, engaging culinary cloisters of which we become a part for the duration of dinner. The tone and tenor of the dining room, from the symphony of kitchen sounds to the conversation of a nearby couple become a convivial soundtrack to your meal.
I am charmed by and proud of Milwaukee’s La Merenda, Sanford, Circa 1880, Industri Café, Odd Duck, Braise, and even Lake Park Bistro and many more. We’ve got dozens that are the right weight for catch and release, but what we’re missing are the hundreds of minnows in our dining scene that are present in other cities. They serve as incubators for culinary talent and as an edifying refuge from bigger kitchens. They are dress rehearsals for something greater, culling the culinary entrepreneurs who are in love with the idea of having a restaurant but need to live it. So here is my call to action for the New Year, my wish for our city’s dynamic, punching-above-its-own-weight dining scene: let’s have more of them.
I want more like The Social, late of Walker’s Point, before it expanded and went the way of the buffalo. More of the now long late Di Salvo’s on Webster Avenue, where the Italian mother was sautéing and marinating for the day’s menu in the basement up until the day they knocked through the wall to expand. More like Three Brothers, with its small table lamps, sacrosanct family recipes, and the unyielding presence of an unused bar running the length of the entire restaurant, silently telling the story of a place repurposed for a better, more grand existence.
I want more like The Noble, with its earnest hit-or-miss menu and self-possessed décor, Victorian through mid-century. Any more thought and The Noble would veer into self-righteous hipsterville; any less and the friendly glow of the place would be gone. More wine bars like Indulge Wine, where you can get your proverbial Boy Scout badge in oenology without having your passport stamped to enter the nation of Snob.
I want more like Pastiche and Café Centro, with their honest and satisfyingly wrought brands of European fare. More like Chez Jacques’ in its first location: wry, intimate, small menued, and bereft of anything more than simple French food.
I want more like Crazy Water, where the heat of the open corner kitchen greets you with your first step in the door, whether it is July or January. More like Pasta Tree, when it was just one shotgun room, with a crowded host stand five feet in from the door, and elegantly dressed diners forced to scoot down the length of the sofa they would be sharing with strangers for the course of dinner.
I want to mix more closely with the people of my city—break bread and have other people’s crumbs share my space. I want to know the abbreviated menus intimately, because they surround me at every table. I want more places where two steps in, you are already in the dining room. You are in another world; you are in a moment; you are in a place that you have to share in all the right ways.