National trends nourish Milwaukee's dining scene
October is the third annual Dining Month on OnMilwaukee.com. All month, we're stuffed with restaurant reviews, delicious features, chef profiles, unique articles on everything food, as well as the winners of our "Best of Dining 2009."
Undoubtedly, there is a basic trio of characteristics underlying any city's dining culture regardless of current trends: tradition, geographic location and population. These factors are intricately intertwined to feed and define another, and shape the flavor of our dining scene.
In Denver, food picks up on neighboring southwestern and mountain influences. In Boston, it takes advantage of ocean proximity and focusing on seafood. In Portland, progressive political and social trends make inroads on menus for hyper-focused local, sustainable eating. And, here, the predominantly German influence coupled with locally produced goods push beer, cheese and European traditions onto our plates.
Milwaukee's dining scene -- like the ones in these other cities -- is influenced by a number of national trends -- local, sustainable sourcing of ingredients, specialization and dining districts -- that have changed both the way we eat and the way we think about eating.
Local, sustainable eating
What may very well have started in the Pacific Northwest and came to typify Portland's dining scene, simultaneously sparked a trend nationwide.
"There's a heavy emphasis on regional cooking, paying particular attention to the farm-to-table connection," says Grant Butler, a staffer at Portland's Oregonian newspaper. "A lot of Portland restaurants are 'locavore' focused, trying to glean as many ingredients as possible from local sources."
Local, local, local. If any trend has made inroads into uprooting the affects of tradition, location or population, it is the exploding passion for local, sustainable food.
The trend was sparked in cities like Portland, New York and Austin, but phrases like "locally grown," "sustainably-raised" and "fresh daily" have since plunged onto nearly every menu nationwide.
For any sizable city, it's nearly impossible to ignore the emphasis on regional cooking and this goes for chefs, diners and restaurateurs alike.
"It is becoming increasingly common to see regions or states listed on a menu next to the items," says Kyle Cherek, host of the television show "Wisconsin Foodie."
"It's also becoming less of an anomaly to see restaurant menus change distinctively based on season."
We've leaned on Wisconsin staples like cheese, beer and beef in the kitchen for decades. And now, as we see a re-emergence of favor for locally grown foods, we see those same products coming back to the forefront, only this time, the trend is to elevate them.
"I think consumers are being educated on the value of local because we go the farmers' market, we get to meet the farmer that grew the spinach or made the pesto," says Madison Magazine's Shayna Miller. "Consumers can then learn to appreciate the craftsmanship of local farming and more importantly, the absolute freshest local ingredients."
Wine and cheese pairings are more accessible and craft beers dominate restaurant taps and pour their way into entrée recipes. Residents have come to cherish the precious seasons for Door County cherries and morel mushrooms. As everything moves back toward do-it-yourself, restaurants have returned to making even the basics from scratch and increasing the buzz about Slow Food and local sustainability.
"(In Boston) many of the area restaurants that are traditional stalwarts focus on seafood: Union Oyster House, Legal Seafoods or Jasper White's Summer Shack because that is what's local to us," says William McAdoo of the blog, "Boston Foodie."
"Boston is truly a very international dining scene. But, the overall trend is toward more locally sourced and produced ingredients."
Resisting the recession through specialization
The drive toward locally grown products in restaurants is an obvious one -- we've all heard about it. What's perplexing is not that environmental conditions have finally scared us enough to source closer to home, but that restaurants have been able to make such sizable leaps forward in such incredibly down economic times.
At first glance, it's a dichotomous relationship. Restaurants all over the country have closed their doors in the last two years (specifically in Milwaukee, places like The Social, Annona Bistro, Jean Pierre's) yet the push for higher quality, hand-crafted products continues.
"You are seeing creative reaching and risk happening all over the city," says Cherek. "The one influence I think for sure that has taken hold is one of quality. With shows like 'Wisconsin Foodie,' The Food Network, foodie-ness coming more into mainstream, there are more great restaurants economically accessible to a lot of people; there is less bad food out there these days."
So, how is the growth of quality local food at a time of economic restriction explained? The unanimous answer is that even in times of economic crisis, people still like to go out and usually, that involves food and drink.
"I think, if anything, the recession has driven what type of restaurant can stay successful but Denverites are very, very social. And, so even when the economy ebbs, people still go out," says Denver Post food critic Tucker Shaw.
The same is true in Madison, Miller says.
"Despite the fact that business slowed down, we didn't have a lot of restaurants close. Retailers felt the hit pretty hard but strangely, restaurants still did (pretty) OK. I think it's because people felt that dining out was still an affordable luxury. And the food is so darn good here -- we like to treat ourselves from time to time."
It's difficult to adequately quantify the effect of the recession on the dining industry. Temperamental by nature, the restaurant business is affected by dozens of other factors including seasonal change, fad diet trends and holidays, even in times of strong economic stability.
Making local, higher quality food available at a time when people are watching their budgets demanded newfound creativity on the part of chefs and restaurateurs. In Milwaukee, Coa focuses on street food, Hinterland and Roots offer small plates and tasting menus, Crazy Water offers nightly specials on pasta and seafood and Sobelman's specialized its classic burger when it opened Tallgrass Grill.
"There are food carts all over (Portland) now, and they've received a lot of national attention because they produce really great food and have low prices because they've got such low overhead," says Butler.
The same trend toward economy is seen in Boston, according to McAdoo.
"Trends here continue to be in downsizing and economy offers. Many restaurants have extended prix fixe offers usually only seen during Restaurant Week. So, a three course meal for $30."
Dining as more than a meal
As evidenced by television shows, chef's dinners, cooking classes and foodie blogs, dining is no longer just about eating.
It's become a full service experience with chefs, corporations and brands all dedicated to increasing the buzz about specific culinary experiences. Chain restaurants such as P.F. Chang's China Bistro and The Cheesecake Factory have become grander in scheme, while indie restaurants, such as Crazy Water, Carnevor and Transfer, fill the niche of cozy exclusivity.
As more and more eaters look to bask in an evening of culinary entertainment, there's an ever-growing buzz around dining districts.
This is perhaps the trend that Milwaukee is fighting to pick up on. There isn't a Chinatown, Little Italy or dockside seafood market here; our "dining districts" often aren't tied to ethnic neighborhoods, with some exceptions.
Instead, Milwaukee offers streets where restaurants have flourished in collaboration rather than competition -- Water Street or Broadway in the Third Ward, Milwaukee Street, Brady Street or National Avenue in Walker's Point are just a few examples.
Cities like Denver and Boston focus residents and visitors into dining districts teeming with bars and restaurants.
"Denver's Higland neighborhood is perhaps the hottest area," says Shaw. "It's a zone popular with young families who like to walk to restaurants and who also like to know where the cheese was made and who grew the lettuce."
A city divided into quadrants, Portland's dining districts are eclectic and distinct. Representing the diverse aesthetic of the city, areas like the Pearl District, Hawthorne Avenue and Alberta Street each offer distinct eateries in a range of price points.
"The Pearl District is a former industrial area that's been turned into one of the top dining destinations in the city and old warehouses are converted into posh eateries. " says Butler of Portland's Oregonian. Northwest 21st Avenue is a more classic restaurant row, with more than 40 places to eat and drink within a 12-block radius, ranging pubs to high-end places, he explained.
In Milwaukee, map out the top 20 restaurants in the city and you'll find not more than a few located within walking distance of one another.
"Often restaurants follow development, but I would say Bay View and Walker's Point have got the most organically occurring dining districts. Places like Cafe LuLu, Honeypie, Crazy Water or La Merenda opened where they could out of the owners' and chefs' love for food, not because they were at the best of busiest corners," says Cherek.
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