By Lori Fredrich Senior Writer Published Dec 31, 2019 at 11:01 AM Photography: Lori Fredrich

Today marks the final day of 2019, a year that was filled to the brim with numerous restaurant openings and countless tasty new dishes. But it's not the first year which I could describe that way; the last decade has been smattered with an embarassment of riches when it comes to food and dining.

As we move into 2020, it seems apropos to take a look back at how far we’ve come. After all, the Milwaukee dining scene in 2010 was a far cry from what it is today.

2010

It’s tough to imagine a world without Blue’s Egg. But until 2010, the city had never seen a restaurant that put so much thought into the morning meal. The same is true of Harbor House, which introduced an entirely new sort of Lakeside dining, complete with a larger selection of both East and West coast oysters than the city had ever seen. 

That same year, Chef Michael Engel brought his unique blend of French and Mediterranean fare to Bay View in the form of Pastiche. And Milwaukee saw the beginnings of the pho craze with the opening of numerous Vietnamese restaurants including Pho Viet, Pho 43 and Hue in Bay View.

The one that got away

The Eatery on Farwell also opened in 2010, making a splash with its accessible menu of comfort food selections, which included notable vegetarian and vegan options, daily brunch, an amazing happy hour and a menu that paid homage to both the traditional Wisconsin tavern and supper club. 

2011

This year brought the city an interesting combination of restaurants to the scene. The burger scene was ineffably changed by the addition of Oscar’s Pub & Grill, which has continued to woo burger lovers with options like the aptly named "Big O." Lowlands Group also expanded their reach to the Historic Third Ward, giving the city one of its first high profile rooftop patio spaces with Cafe Benelux. And after much anticipation, Dave Swanson blazed trails with the opening of Braise, a restaurant which not only assisted in putting Walker’s Point on the map as a dining destination, but also took farm to table dining to a new level.

This was also the year that Nanakusa, a restaurant which elevated Miliwaukee’s sushi scene, closed its doors. But it definitely paved the way for the addition of Screaming Tuna, an innovative spot that’s taken innovative sushi (particularly sustainable sushi) to the next level.

The ones that got away

A few restaurants that opened in 2011 were ahead of their time. The first was Beta by Sabor, a short-lived but notable restaurant-within-a-restaurant which offered folks a look into the not-so-distant dining future with their menu of forward-thinking small plates, craft cocktails and frozen desserts made with their innovative nitro-cream machine. Such was also the case with Verduras Tea House & Cafe, a well appointed Third Ward stop that specialized in loose leaf teas and a menu of vegetarian soups, salads and sandwiches. Both would be right at home in Milwaukee if they opened today.

2012

2012 was a memorable year that birthed a number of restaurants with impressive staying power. Among them was Odd Duck, a Bay View spot that stretched diners’ palates with its inventive menu of ever-changing globally inspired small plates. The restaurant was among the trail-blazers which prepared the city for the slew of more adventurous restaurants that came in its wake. 

Among the others which opened the same year were The Noble, which set a bar for the survival of tiny, unique eateries; Rumpus Room, which opened with an edgy menu that bucked the more traditional Bartolotta’s model; and Kanpai, a modern Japanese concept which would satiate the city’s increasing desire for fresh, inventive sushi.

The one that got away

A restaurant which opened in 2012 to much fanfare, but also left an immense void in its wake when it closed in 2018, was c.1880. It was a restaurant which not only marked the homecoming of Chef Thomas Hauck (now with Lowlands Group), but introduced the city to a style of fine dining which was as artfully presented as it was delicious.

2013

Although 2012 was a tough year to follow in terms of innovative new spots, the city’s dining scene made a big stride with the opening of Bavette La Boucherie, a forward thinking concept which combined an upscale cafe with a sustainably focused butcher shop. As time passed, it would be a restaurant which would showcase the wonders of phenomenally prepared fine dining fare at mid-level prices.

Meanwhile on the East Side, Chef Justin Carlisle opened Ardent, a unique chef-driven spot which would earn him accolades from both diners and the James Beard Foundation. In December of the same year, he’d open Red Light Ramen, a late night pop-up ramen shop which would pave the way for the ramen craze in Milwaukee.

The year also marked the return of Pizza Man after the original location was destroyed in a tragic 2010 fire. Its new East Side location would not only mark the return of countless favorite dishes, but also (unknowingly) pave the way for Ca’Lucchenzo, the restaurant Zak and Sarah Baker would open in 2019.

Other restaurants which came on the scene in 2013 included Divino Wine & Dine and Simple Cafe on the East Side, along with Black Sheep, a restaurant which originally opened as a wine bar with a "haute dog" menu, but which bloomed two years later into a successful concept under the leadership of Mike Sorge and Wes Shaver in 2015.

The ones that got away

The year also brought forth two beloved spots which weren’t destined to last. The first was Wolf Peach, a Phoenix of sorts which sprung from the ashes of Roots Restaurant and Cellar and offered unique hilltop dining with a view to diners until its unfortunate closure in 2018. Milwaukee also saw the rise of AP Bar & Kitchen, a memorable small plates spot from Crazy Water’s Peggy Magister which would make a name for itself with both its creative menu and stellar wine list before closing in 2017.

2014

Looking back, this was a very good year for Milwaukee overall, with openings that included a laundry list of excellent restaurants, many of which consistently earn top spots on my dining list.

Bay View saw the transformation of Mama DeMarini’s into Goodkind, a restaurant which would set the bar for both craft cocktails and shareable plates in the area. Similarly, Lazy Susan would bring voice to Chef AJ Dixon’s cooking, creating a casual restaurant with a menu that’s friendly to diners of all stripes.

Maxie’s & Blue’s Egg owners Dan Sidner and Chef Joe Muench also took a leap, opening Story Hill BKC in a former uniform store on Bluemound Road. The restaurant upped the ante for dining in the area, while simultaneously introducing an innovative new concept, a wine & spirits shop right in the restaurant itself. 

Meanwhile, Tochi opened its doors in Shorewood in January of 2014 (right on the heels of the launch of Red Light Ramen), transforming the former Anaba Tea Room into a punk rock ramen shop which would introduce Milwaukee to a feast of both traditional and creative takes on the Japanese noodle soup. 

At the same time, Walker’s Point continued to establish itself as a dining destination with the addition of Morel, a restaurant which would showcase Chef Jonathan Manyo’s talents for showcasing thoughtfully prepared local fare. 

The ones that got away

Among restaurants that opened in 2014, but which have since closed or reconcepted are Pattaya Thai (which occupied the building which is now home to Miss Molly’s Bakery & Cafe) and Locavore, the locally focused restaurant at Potawatomi Hotel & Casino which closed in 2016 to make way for Canal Street Cafe.

2015

This was another great year for Milwaukee dining, with a diverse range of high profile restaurants making their debut. After a successful run of pop-up dinners, Chef Greg Leon and his partner Orry opened Amilinda, a Downtown spot which offers a combination of intimate service and a menu of dishes inspired by the cuisines of Spain and Portugal.

In Riverwest, Company Brewing upped the ante for brewpub fare with an opening menu of innovative bar bites that went well beyond the usual. And Bay View got their first taste of The Vanguard, a bar and eatery which put the unexpected into one of Milwaukee’s most stereotypical foods: the sausage. The East Side also got a treat when Tony Kora and siblings JJ and Tammy Lert debuted Rice N Roll Bistro, a casual restaurant serving up a combination of traditional Thai dishes and beautifully presented unique sushi.

In 2015, no one was quite ready for the imaginative dining experience that accompanied the opening of Merriment Social. Dim sum style service? Burgers served up on housemade Japanese milk buns? All served up in a boisterous, fun environs? But as time wore on and the Merriment Social concept evolved, it's become one of the most fun, inventive restaurants in Walker's Point.

Meanwhile, Bass Bay Brewhouse shook things up in Muskego with a modern version of the classic Wisconsin Supper Club. The resulting restaurant offered a rustic, casual environment and lake views combined with a casual menu showcasing a variety of dishes from burgers and fried chicken to prime rib and one of the area’s best fish fries. 

Tochi also saw a (re)opening in 2015, when Chef Gregg Des Rosier moved his punk rock ramen concept to the ramen-starved locale of West Bend, Wisconsin.

The ones that got away

When Giovanni’s reopened on Old World Third Street in 2015, it marked the comeback of long-time restaurateur Giovanni Safina and a menu of beloved Italian dishes; but the return was short-lived, with the restaurant closing its doors in 2017. Two other notables, Irie Zulu and Supper, also made their debuts in 2015, both closing after three-year runs.

2016

The true restaurant boom began in 2016, with nearly 40 restaurants opening their doors across the city. Chef Aaron Patin, formerly of SURG, took on the art of smoked meats with Iron Grate BBQ Co. Chefs Dan Van Rite (of Hinterland) and Daniel Jacobs (of Wolf Peach & Odd Duck) introduced the city to their take on Chinese-American and Asian-inspired fare at Dandan in the Third Ward. Third Coast Provisions reintroduced the city to opulent fine dining with an inspired seafood menu served up in an atmosphere that’s as comfortable as it is beautiful.

Bartolotta’s alum Chef Evan Greenhalgh put his Internationally inspired cooking chops to work at Easy Tyger, the small plates spot focuses on an eclectic mix of Asian inspired dishes. Meanwhile, the owners of Movida branched out with Hotel Madrid, a dining destination which offers diners a simultaneously more rustic and upscale view of Spanish cuisine.

The city also welcomed a small rash of unique additions, from C-Viche with its menu of Ibero-American fare to Urban Beets, which has assisted in changing the way the city viewed plant-based cuisine. 

Meanwhile, the pizza scene grew with the additions of Wy’East Pizza on West Vliet Street and Fixture Pizza Pub in Walker’s Point.

The ones that got away

Of course, 2016 also saw a few openings that were heart-breakingly short-lived. We bade goodbye to Hello Falafel in Bay View, a restaurant which offered us two years of fresh, inventive Middle Eastern flavors. We also saw the final stretch of Karl Ratsch, which reopened in 2016, but closed the following spring, leaving nearly 100 years of memories in its wake. It was a closing which taught us all a number of valuable lessons.

2017

Diners’ tastes change, and 2017 showcased openings that catered to a new era of dining needs. The Tandem redefined the model for inner city restaurants while offering diners a menu of comforting staples like fried chicken and oxtails. The Original brought comforting Southern-inspired fare to the East Side, along with an emphasis on stellar service. Strange Town brought a chill retro vibe, complete with vinyl records and globally inspired plant-based fare.

That same year, Birch + Butcher introduced Milwaukee to its first taste of spectacular hearth-fired cooking. Meanwhile, The Diplomat showcased James Beard nomination-worthy comforts in its menu of well-executed shareable plates. 2017 also marked the long-awaited arrival of Santino’s Little Italy, a restaurant that would mark a new era for the North edge of Bay View.

The city also saw the introduction of restaurants including Boo Boo’s Sandwich Shop, Bowls, Laughing Taco, marking the arrival of the national fast casual dining trend in Milwaukee. Freshfin Poke also brought the city its very first poke restaurant, a concept which has since expanded to include three additional locations.

The ones that got away

Spots like Yokohama, the modern ramen and karaoke spot, and the beautifully appointed Kindred in Bay View would also open this same year. But both would give up their ghosts, paving the way for new restaurants in their wake.

2018

No lie. 2018 was a spectacular year for Milwaukee. Among the 60+ restaurants that opened in 2018, there were countless notables.

When Snack Boys opened in Walker’s Point, they set a precedent for spots that deliver fun takes on cuisine with an eye for expert technique. The folks from Dandan branched out with their fun, modern take on classic French fare at Fauntleroy. Breakfast was made new (and fun) again at Uncle Wolfie’s Breakfast Tavern. And Bartolotta alum Chef Andrew Wilson opened his first restaurant, Brandywine, in Cedarburg.

We also saw Wolf Peach alum, Chef Kyle Toner, take the helm at Glass + Griddle, Milwaukee’s biggest and most beautiful beer hall yet. And before the year was over, Don’s Diner slid into the fray with its retro diner atmosphere and upscale-casual fare.

In West Allis, the arrival of Sze Chuan set the bar high for traditional Chinese fare in Milwaukee, gaining a slow-but-steady following of loyal fans. Momo Mee also made a splash in Walker’s Point, introducing Milwaukee to a menu of housemade noodles and dumplings, including the coveted xiao long bao.

Crossroads Collective made its debut as the East Side’s first food hall, giving birth to favorites like Frida, Egg & Flour, Heaven’s Table BBQ and Raw Bar. The East Side also welcomed the addition of Celesta, a dedicated plant-based restaurant which deals in inspired comfort food fare.

And the year wasn’t without drama. Among the most confusing scenarios of the year was the closing of the Original Crawdaddy’s, which had reopened in a new location on Greenfield Avenue. Late in 2018, the restaurant reopened as Crawdaddy’s on Greenfield, but under new ownership.

The one that got away

Long time North Side restaurant, Silver Spring House made a triumphant comeback in 2018; unfortunately, the restaurant doors closed again this fall after just 18 months in business.

2019

Expansion of the scene slowed only slightly in 2019, with right around 50 restaurants opening their doors in the past year. Among them are stars like Ca’Lucchenzo, which offers diners a taste of both excellently prepared Italian pastas and a level of service that makes dining there a joy. The Iron Horse Hotel introduced a new favorite in Ash, a cozy casual spot with a mouth-wateringly good menu of hearth-fired fare.

Meanwhile, longtime Buckley’s Chef Thi Cao partnered with Bryan De Stefanis of Big City Greens to open Wild Roots, a forward-thinking restaurant in West Allis. Chef Jodi Janisse-Kanzenbach also took a leap, closing her longtime restaurant Cafe Soeurette in West Bend open Prec1nct Tap + Table, an inspired casual restaurant in Germantown.

Breakfast returned to Silver City with the opening of Orenda Cafe, a cheerful cafe offering healthful, comforting takes on breakfast and lunch dishes. The city also saw the milestone opening of Zocalo Food Park, a community hub and the city’s first food truck park, featuring vendors including Bowl Cut, Mazorca Taco, Fontelle’s Eatery, Ruby’s Bagels and Scratch Ice Cream.

A number of existing businesses also secured their very own brick and mortar locations in 2019. Among them were Chilango Express,  Press. Waffles and Triciclo Peru, each of which offer their own unique takes on casual fare.

The city and surrounding area also saw numerous high profile openings including Punch Bowl Social Downtown, and Wahlburgers and The Pivot Room (WhirlyBall’s signature restaurant) in Brookfield.

Finally, in 2019, Chef Jonathan Klug partnered with Ronald Mellantine to reopen the Original Crawdaddy’s under the name The Original Crawdaddy’s Roadhouse. (Yes, there are now two restaurants with the name Crawdaddy’s; however, both have different owners).

The one that got away

Burgerim came in with a splash in February of 2019, but disappeared just as quickly, leaving an empty storefront on Old World Third in its wake.

Lori Fredrich Senior Writer

Lori Fredrich (Lo) is an eater, writer, wonderer, bon vivante, traveler, cook, gardener and girlwonder. Born and raised in the Milwaukee area, she has tried to leave many times, but seems to be drawn to this quirky city that smells of beer and alewives.

Some might say that she is a little obsessed with food. Lo would say she is A LOT obsessed with food. After all, she has been cooking, eating and enjoying food for decades and has no plans to retire anytime soon. 

Lo's recipes and writing have been featured in a variety of publications including GO: Airtran Inflight Magazine, Cheese Connoisseur, Cooking Light, Edible Milwaukee, Milwaukee Magazine and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, as well as on the blog Go Bold with Butter, the web site Wisconsin Cheese Talk, and in the quarterly online magazine Grate. Pair. Share.