Very few restaurants in Milwaukee routinely feature a 30- to 40-minute wait early in the week.
In fact, I know of only one restaurant in the city where I can walk in for breakfast, lunch or dinner any day of the week and encounter a wait nearly every time.
Fortunately, the popular East Side eatery, Beans & Barley, 1901 E. North Ave., makes the wait worthwhile with a fun, hip and semi-organic grocery meets all things chic shopping area, and simple, delicious breakfasts, lunches and dinners.
The atmosphere at Beans and Barley is quiet and calming. Even the people waiting for tables seem at peace (unlike the frenetic crowds you find in some restaurant waiting lines), and while a good many of the diners here are regulars, I know many a person who ventures to Beans, as it is affectionately called, when seeking a bit of respite or just a pot of great tea.
Beans and Barley rightfully holds a place in the hearts of vegetarians. The menu lists myriad meat-free options attractive enough that some carnivores actually order them. Expect out-of-the-box vegetarian dishes including multiple iterations of Beans' popular burritos ($4.25 to $7.50), a tempeh reuben ($6.50), a walnut burger ($7.50) from Wisconsin's historic Trempealeau Hotel (walnutburger.com), and a variety of tofu-based breakfast and dinner offerings.
Recent visits brought the same serene dining experience I've come to expect at Beans, and while I do mean serene, I don't necessarily mean quiet. Beans is always abuzz with activity, but it all blends together while you're sipping your wine or a smoothie and becomes part of a casual and comfortable dining experience.
Soups are homemade and always feature a vegetarian chili. A cup of chicken Dijon ($3.50) came with a crusty roll and butter and paired tender shredded chicken with mushrooms in a rich, creamy broth.
A featured appetizer of baked feta cheese with Kalamata olives and sun-dried tomatoes ($5.95) was warm and crumbly with toasted pita points. Like most dishes at Beans, the simplicity of the appetizer's flavor pairings and fresh ingredients made it a standout.
A basic eggs-to-order ($4.95) tickled me pink since Beans offers gluten-free rice bread -- a rare find in Milwaukee -- as an option for toast. The dish was perfect in its simplicity, with two scrambled eggs and garlic roasted herb potatoes.
And while Beans' burritos may not be the best you've ever had, they are definitely the freshest, which makes them worth every bite. Chicken burritos ($7.50) plus the Mexican plate ($4) gave me a huge, fully stuffed, crispy flour tortilla with chicken, fresh tomatoes, onions, sour cream, black olives and guacamole. The addition of the plate of Mexican rice, guacamole and tortilla chips easily made this a meal for two, and was thick with the bright flavors of fine, fresh produce.
I left Beans and Barley stuffed, but not in the heavy, unpleasant way that sometimes sedates me after eating too much. Like most of the other diners there, I left smiling, and looking forward to stopping back soon for another fresh, healthy, and homemade meal.
Amy L. Schubert is a 15-year veteran of the hospitality industry and has worked in every aspect of bar and restaurant operations. A graduate of Marquette University (B.A.-Writing Intensive English, 1997) and UW-Milwaukee (M.A.-Rhetoric, Composition, and Professional Writing, 2001), Amy still occasionally moonlights as a guest bartender and she mixes a mean martini.
The restaurant business seems to be in Amy’s blood, and she prides herself in researching and experimenting with culinary combinations and cooking techniques in her own kitchen as well as in friends’ restaurants. Both she and her husband, Scott, are avid cooks and “wine heads,” and love to entertain friends, family and neighbors as frequently as possible.
Amy and Scott live with their boys, Alex and Nick, in Bay View, where they are all very active in the community. Amy finds great pleasure in sharing her knowledge and passions for food and writing in her contributions to OnMilwaukee.com.