Few new restaurants sprout in Milwaukee as a direct result of a civil war. Few Wisconsinites get married to a soundtrack of artillery fire in the distance.
But those are the roots of Arin Bert Coffee & Grill, which recently opened in a Downtown storefront that over several decades has housed Finch's Corned Beef, Five Dollar Deli, Philly Way, Wingz and Amazon Pizza. The address is 222 W. Wells St.
Arin Bert has two identities. It is a coffee shop serving a complete line of Alterra products, baked goods, frappes, smoothies and Italian sodas. It is also an Armenian restaurant that serves traditional cuisine from the Caucasus Mountains.
Owner Joseph Seifert says his closest Armenian competitor is in Glenview, Ill.
Named after a famous Armenian fortress the arch-enemy Turks never conquered, the informal Arin Bert features counter service. Beef, pork and chicken are ground or chunked, placed on skewers and grilled before being served as platters ($7.95 to $8.95) or in wraps ($5.95 to $6.50).
Platters come with sauce, two sides, rice pilaf or fries, and an Armenian flat bread called lavash. The sides include hummus, tabouli, carrot salad, potato-beet salad, pickled cabbage, and a warm red bean adjiga (paste). Wraps are accompanied by hummus, rice, sumac onion and sauce.
Falafel is also offered as a platter ($6.25) and wrap ($4.75). Ton, an Armenian style yogurt drink with salt and mint, is on the menu. Arin Bert opens at 6:30 a.m. Monday through Saturday, and a breakfast wrap of eggs, cheese and cucumbers is available in the morning.
Authentic desserts made on the premises include baklava and drunken cherry chocolate torte. Armenian baklava substitutes rose water or orange blossom water for honey, resulting in a less sweet pastry. The drunken cherry chocolate torte is dense but light.
Seifert is a Muskego native and attorney with a compelling story. Not knowing a word of Russian, he moved to Moscow in 1990 after Mikhail Gorbachev opened the Soviet Union to private enterprise.
"I was young and daring," he recently explained while having lunch at Arin Bert. "I was looking for business opportunities."
Joined by a partner, he opened a cosmetics factory, but when the partner was assassinated in 1993, Seifert knew his Russian adventure would be coming to a close. "The mob was out of control, and it was getting too dangerous to do business there," he said.
Seifert had fallen in love with an Armenian woman from the old Soviet republic of Georgia while he was in Moscow, and the two married in Georgia while a civil war was being fought around them. Manuchak Seifert came to the U.S. with her new husband. She is a registered nurse at Froedtert Hospital.
Meanwhile, her family was caught in a war zone, and the fighting took the lives of more than 150 of her relatives. At one point, Joseph Seifert traveled back to Georgia to bring Manuchak's then 11-year-old niece to the safety of the U.S.
The Seiferts were eventually able to move the niece's entire family – Manuchak's brother, sister-in-law and nephew – to Milwaukee, and that is how Arin Bert Coffee & Grill came to be.
Joseph knew restaurant management, having owned a supper club in Mosinee before he moved to Moscow. Manuchak's family included an aunt who was a famous Armenian pastry chef, and her brother, Razmik Kalenjian, had kitchen experience.
When the storefront below Joseph's law office in the Century Building became vacant, he saw an opportunity to set his Armenian in-laws up in the restaurant business. Razmik, his wife Susana and their two children, now adults, are all involved in Arin Bert.
The original plan was to operate just the Armenian grill, but the Century Building owner suggested to Seifert that the neighborhood needed a coffee shop, and the adjacent retail space was also vacant. A dividing wall was removed, and Arin Bert's concept was expanded.
About 55 can be seated indoors, and a few tables are placed on the sidewalk in pleasant weather. Seifert said he and his brother-in-law are partners in the venture, and they plan to eventually offer Downtown food delivery.
Arin Bert is open to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. A Sunday Armenian brunch may be added in the future. A website is under construction.
Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.
During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.
Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.