Despite Milwaukee’s impressive European heritage, there are only a handful of restaurants attempting to preserve the food of the old country. But, later next month, Riverwest will be adding a dining destination to the mix.
Café Vocar, 932 E. Wright St., aims to celebrate the confluence of a variety of those old world European cultures.
Michael Vocar, owner and chef at the café, is no stranger to the food of the "old country." His mother, a chef herself, was Croatian, and his father was Bosnian.
"My last name is Slovenian," Vocar tells me. "There is also some Austrian and Hungarian in our family."
Vocar grew up in the kitchen, cooking alongside his mother.
"It’s been my life," he say. I was 4 years old when my mother dragged me into the kitchen to help with my sister’s wedding. I mixed the buttercream frosting. My payment was licking the spatula."
He goes on to describe the colorful history of cooking in his family, which includes tales of relatives who cooked for the French consulate in Europe and a family history which trails through Austria, Hungary, and France.
The café, Vocar says, will be the embodiment of this history.
"The restaurant celebrates the past. Nostalgia," he says. "It’s very old world. It celebrates the people in our lives who we remember … dishes that your grandmother made. It’s homage to our parents, grandparents, the European history of the city."
For Vocar, that means a menu containing old world classics like Hungarian goulash, beef stroganoff, chicken in puff pastry, wiener schnitzel, cabbage rolls and traditional southeastern European dishes like cevapcici – minced meat grilled sausages.
Appetizer options will include quesadillas, savory crepes and bureck, phyllo pastry filled with Feta cheese.
Sandwiches will reflect traditional comfort food options like grilled cheese with tomato bisque, wild mushroom panino and chicken salad served on croissants or sourdough bread.
"We’ll have burgers and fries. But, it will be a really great burger. We’ll focus on the patty and the meat. Too many people focus on the toppings, but the meat is vital."
And for those with a sweet tooth, Vocar says dessert options will include Tiramisu, cheesecake, tortes, sweet crepes and the "best plum dumplings in the world," consisting of potato dough wrapped around ripe Italian plums and baked.
Dishes will be made with locally grown fruits and vegetables, and Vocar says the meat for the restaurant will also be sourced from local, sustainable farms.
The building itself also pays homage to the past. Built in 1894, the structure served a wide variety of purposes for the Riverwest neighborhood. It was a fruit market, a soda parlor, and most recently a bar called Lenny’s.
It’s a cozy little spot. Vocar has decorated the space in calm, welcoming colors. Dark floors meet parchment colored walls decorated with art from local artists, which Vocar says he’s hanging for free.
"It’s about community," Vocar says. "The focus here is on food, talent, ideas and education. At this point, the focus is on my cuisine. However, as we get established, I want to feature dishes from other chefs working here."
Vocar says he’s currently working with a number of chefs, one who specializes in Sicilian cuisine, another who focuses on Americana and comfort food, and yet another who has a talent for soups and salads.
"I like to say that the kitchen is more of a coop," he says. "There won’t be one star chef in this kitchen."
Vocar also plans to offer a variety of cooking classes – from beginner level courses, to more advanced offerings. But, above all, his goal is to keep the offerings affordable and highly interactive.
"I’ll charge five or ten dollars at most," he says, "but the goal would be to keep them free. I also want people to feel comfortable coming here and sharing their ideas, exchanging recipes. I want people to learn from one another, not just from the chefs."
In addition to classes, Vocar hopes to offer a variety of community oriented offerings.
"There is a neighbor here in Riverwest," he explains, "Her name is Irene. She’s lived here all of her life. I’d love to set up events – coffee with Irene – so that she can sit with customers and share the history of this community."
He’ll also be working with Brian Quinn of the Milwaukee Culinary Resource Center to offer monthly classes for elementary school children on preparing food from scratch.
"I want Café Vocar to be known as the little beacon in the night," Vocar says. "Tiny, small, but here for everyone."
Café Vocar is planning to be open by the end of July. According to Vocar, hours will be Wednesday and Thursday from 5 to 10 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays from 5 to 11 p.m. an Sundays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. Cooking classes will be scheduled in the evenings on Mondays and Tuesdays.
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.