By Lori Fredrich Senior Writer & Dining Editor Published May 10, 2012 at 9:03 AM

If you think "modern" is always better, a new restaurant in Walker's Point will have you thinking again. C. 1880 unites the best of the past and present in a farm-to-table restaurant concept that's sure to please the most discerning of palates.

Walk into Chef Thomas Hauck's new space at 1100 S. 1st St. and you'll be greeted by a cozy, rustic atmosphere filled with reproduction prints of patents and formulas for Tesla's A/C power conversion, pictures depicting Milwaukee farms at the turn of the century and photographs of Milwaukee's once-thriving shipping and fishing dock at Jones Island.

Each detail pays homage to Milwaukee's heritage, while making full use of local resources.

"Why get a team out of Chicago that you'll never see again?" remarks Chef Hauck. "It's pretty neat to see something that started with a single email saying that I was opening Circa and I wanted old pictures, maps, photos and old-school lighting. This is what you get."

The interior, designed by Libby and Patrick Castro of Fox Point's LPW Design, pulls together turn-of-the century sensibility with modern accoutrements, including rustic tables made of Douglas fir manufactured by Matt O'Connell, a furniture artisan who operates out of a shop at 138A E. Rosedale Ave., in Bay View.

A native of Milwaukee, Hauck grew up in Port Washington. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, Hauck honed his skills in France, training at the Michelin-rated L'essentiel in Chambéry, and then in Perpignan.

Upon returning to the states, Hauck worked with Michel Richard at his flag ship restaurant, Citronelle, in Washington D.C. In 2011, he moved home and worked at The Pfister Hotel and Mason Street Grill before fulfilling his vision to open C. 1880.

The restaurant, which emphasizes fresh, local produce and seasonal offerings, could have found its home in just about any building. But, the inspiration for the Circa concept derived from the space itself. Previously home to the Olive Pit, the building has housed numerous bars, restaurants and a coffee shop since it was built in the 1880s.

"It had such character, such charm, explains Hauck. "So, when we found the building we asked ourselves, 'What was going on in Milwaukee in 1880?' Turns out we were neck-and-neck with Chicago. For two weeks in 1880, Milwaukee City Hall was the tallest building in the world. (Ed. note: City Hall was completed in 1895 and was the tallest building until 1899.) We had this epicenter for commerce and agriculture right here. I mean, that's a cool period, a cool time. Why not use that? Circa 1880."

Hauck hopes that the restaurant will serve to showcase the best of Milwaukee, Wisconsin and the entire Midwest region.

"We do things really well here (in Milwaukee), but we don't bang our chests and brag," he says. "But, we can compete with anyone. We've got it here. Great beer, great meats, great farmers. Even the great restaurants in Chicago are getting their produce from here, from Wisconsin."

Hauck's ever-changing menu will feature regional specialties and Wisconsin products all year long: meats from Strauss, Black Earth and Underground Meats, Wisconsin cheese products and produce from Braise RSA. Even the coffee will be locally made – a special "old-school rustic roast" from Anodyne Coffee, which will be served chemic style at the table. They'll do the same with old-school teas from Rishi Tea.

"When tomatoes are good, we'll serve tomatoes. We'll have them everywhere because it's awesome. For two weeks, we'll go crazy on tomatoes. You'll get your fill while you can."

Right now, it's ramp time. So, you'll find them smattered just about everywhere on the menu – riding alongside the rhubarb and angelica on the foie gras appetizer, accompanied by spring asparagus and parmesan cheese on the beef cap entrée, and strewn atop smoked potatoes and tender crackling pork jowl.

When ramps fade from the scene, Hauck anticipates asparagus will take center stage on the menu for three or four weeks until the next round of seasonal produce makes its appearance.

"A seasonal menu keeps everyone on their toes. There's that push, that drive, that new energy. You're constantly pushing and trying something new."

Hauck says that one of his favorite items on the spring menu is the Guinea hen, a dish that might be overlooked by the average diner.

"Chicken before Purdue and Tyson wasn't something you made every night. It was a special thing; the family gathered on Sundays and ate chicken, and it was good. Guinea hen is what chicken used to be. We open the breast and create a roulade, poach it sous vide and then we roast the leg and serve it with a sorrel cream sauce. You get the bounty of spring – ramps, fava beans, shiitake mushrooms. Super fresh."

When it comes to cocktails, Circa will maintain consistency in its local theme, focusing offerings on locally brewed beer and regionally produced distilled spirits and bitters. Bartender Dustin Drankiewicz, previously of DISTIL, says he takes a no-nonsense approach to cocktails – which means focusing on quality rather than trendy ingredients.

"Our goal is to complement and showcase the spirit itself," Drankiewicz says. "I'm a neighborhood guy. I want to create really good, classic cocktails with a Midwestern twist."

Drankewicz's cocktail menu reflects not only his respect for quality basics but also a flair for creativity, as evidenced in their signature Old Fashioned made with house-made lily water and a tequila-based cocktail featuring Taylor's falernum, Rose lemonade and Drankewicz's grandmother's recipe for strawberry balsamic preserves.

When it comes to wine, diners will find a nice selection of varietals, which will change with the food menu and provide a liquid complement to Circa's seasonal offerings. According to Nicholas Reagan, general manager, wines available by the bottle will tend toward classics, with by-the-glass pours reflecting more of a "funky, fun palate" that showcases unique blends and delicious sparkling wines.

Upscale, yet comfortable, Circa offers diners a chance to kick back with some of the best of the best. And, according to Hauck, top-notch cuisine in a laid-back atmosphere is what Circa is about.

"I want diners to leave with the feeling that they just found a new friend," Hauck explains. "You know when you discover the new band before everyone else, and you feel like now you helped launch this thing? It's your secret and you want to tell everyone else."

Hours at C. 1880 are 5:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, and 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, with seating until 10. Reservations are recommended.

Lori Fredrich Senior Writer & Dining Editor

Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club. 

When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.