For decades, Downer Avenue was one of Milwaukee's hippest strips -- especially in the '80s when the Coffee Trader, Café Demi and Brewster's were among the city's most cutting-edge hangouts, attracting young Milwaukeeans and suburbanites alike.
Mike Eitel remembers driving from Cedarburg to Downer Avenue as soon as he got a driver's license, and two decades later, is psyched to be a part of the scene again.
Eitel -- along with his "Diablos Rojos" restaurant group partners Scott Johnson, Leslie Montemurro and Eric Wagner -- will open Café Centraal in the former Gils' space, 2608 N. Downer Ave., around Nov. 1.
"Café Centraal will be a mix of the Coffee Trader, Gil's and Trocadero," says Eitel. "We're going to cater to anybody and everybody."
The bar and restaurant will focus on being "affordable, approachable and casual" and will offer breakfast, lunch and dinner -- including Sunday brunches -- as well as a full bar.
"This will be the kind of place someone could feasibly go to three or four times a week and enjoy different elements," says Eitel.
Centraal's features will be reminiscent of "grand cafes" in northern Europe that are often housed inside old buildings with an interesting history -- like fire stations and city halls -- and reflect the grandeur of old Europe. But that's not exactly what the Diablos are going for.
"The northern Europe theme will be subtle," says Eitel. "But we'll definitely serve Belgian beer."
Café Centraal's menu will be similar to Gil's, with an emphasis on soups, sandwiches, pizzas and nightly entrees specials. Eitel wants to keep prices down and quality high so everyone, from Lake Drivers to UWM students, feels welcome.
A full renovation is planned for the interior, which will include the old Optix on Downer space. (Optix is moving a few doors north.) Construction on Café Centraal will start next week.
Eitel says the group has big plans for the patio, including a possible resurrection of the old fountain that has remained dry for over a decade. Longtime East Siders might remember when the fountain routinely overflowed with bubbles in the late '80s, thanks to teen pranksters who filled it with detergent bought from the laundromat that predated Gil's in the space.
"We're rethinking the corner patio right now and want to make it something really cool," says Eitel.
Café Centraal will offer sporadic live music, and Eitel says it's possible they'll someday host a music festival in the spirit of Gil Fest.
"We think Gil was great for the neighborhood," says Eitel.
After 10 years, Michael "Gil" Rasmussen decided earlier this summer to close Gil's Café in order to spend more time with his family. After Rasmussen made his announcement, the members of Diablos Rojos -- who also own Hi-Hat, Hi-Hat Garage, Balzac and manage Trocadero -- decided it was a good fit for them.
Although Downer Avenue isn't quite the beacon of forward-thinking culture it once was, the street has enjoyed a small renaissance with the opening of the Original Pancake House earlier this year. The Pancake House moved into the old Coffee Trader space after it was vacant for a decade and has brought scores of diners to the area.
Centraal's lease also includes the walk-down, basement restaurant space that housed El Condor Mexican restaurant. Although at this point they don't have plans for the space, Eitel would like to someday utilize it.
"I can see it as a smoky, dark jazzy bar, like a European cave bar," says Eitel, lightly. "But we'll see."
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.