By Drew Olson Special to Published Jun 13, 2008 at 5:29 AM

The phrase "comfort food" means different things to different diners.

Whether it's meatloaf and mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, pot roast, potpies, chicken noodle soup or peanut better and jelly, some foods evoke happy childhood memories and make people feel safe and happy upon consuming them.

John O'Hare knows the feeling very well, and he wants to share it with everyone who walks through the door at the Cheesy Grill, his restaurant at 2155 Miller Park Way, West Milwaukee.

The Cheesy Grill, which opened earlier this year, specializes in a pillar of the "comfort food" lineup -- the basic grilled cheese sandwich - which is augmented with optional add-on toppings and side dishes like tomato soup, chili, French fries and macaroni and cheese.

"It's definitely comfort food," O'Hare said. "We hear that all the time. People say ‘It's just like mom used to make at home.'"

Skeptics who question the concept may wonder why people would visit a restaurant to eat a sandwich they can easily assemble at home.

A single bite of the Cheesy Grill's "Classic" grilled cheese -- three slices of American cheese melted to a gooey perfection between two pieces of fresh egg twist white bread and sold for just $1.89 - provides the answer:

Simply put, Cheesy Grill makes grilled cheese better than you can make at home. What's the secret? Is it the various spatulas that adorn the wall and logo?

"There is no secret that I'll disclose," said O'Hare, who spent 20 years in the investment business before opening the restaurant.

"I did realize from experimentation, though, that it's hard to make a good grilled cheese at home. You have to get the pan at just the right temperature. You have to use the right amount of butter..."

Employees at Cheesy Grill use a roller to apply melted butter. That ensures the right amount and even distribution.

"That's a big part of it," O'Hare said, divulging one secret. "When I use a butter knife at home, I get big chunks of butter on there. It's hard to make it even. We also have our grills at the right temperature. If you've ever had a bunch of kids at home and made multiple grilled cheese sandwiches, you find that the third and fourth one are better than the first. That's because it takes awhile to get the pan at the right temperature. We make a lot of them."

Unlike other outlets, the Cheesy Grill uses three slices of cheese. "I've gone to diners and café's where they'll charge $4.99 for a grilled cheese with two slices," he said. "It's $5.95 for a grilled cheese with a tomato."

At Cheesy Grill, the basic sandwich sells for $1.89 and is available on white, sourdough, marble rye or wheat bread provided fresh daily from Miller Bakery. For 30 cents, diners can upgrade to Swiss, provolone or cheddar cheese.

Optional toppings include tomato (59 cents), onion and jalapenos (39 cents each), pepperoni, salami or an all beef hot dog (79 cents), ham (89 cents) and bacon (99 cents).

"Tomato is the number one add," O'Hare said. "Ham and bacon are second. Some people like jalapenos. I like them."

Asked if there were toppings requested by customers, O'Hare laughed. "We get a lot of people asking for avocados," he said. "At least once a week, someone will come in and tell us that we should have avocados. I tell them we won't do it because they cost about a dollar apiece."

O'Hare estimates that half of his business each day comes from sandwiches and that 60 percent of those sales are grilled cheese. The second most popular sandwich is the "Cheesy Joe," which is a mixture of American cheese and Sloppy Joe mix.

"That's been a really popular item," O'Hare said.

Cheesy grill offers creamy tomato soup ($1.79 for a cup, $2.19 for a large), chicken noodle ($1.99 / $2.39) and chili ($2.79 / $3.49).

"People love the tomato soup," O'Hare said. And the chili is really a good deal. I went with a higher quality chili because, to be honest, I tried some of the less expensive ones and I didn't like them at all. I won't serve something that I don't like."

Though people may not crave soup in warmer weather, O'Hare isn't anticipating a drop-off in sales. After getting request from customers in his first few weeks, he added a shake / slushee machine.

"We're finding that when people don't order soup, they will order fries or a shake," he said. "They're substituting something else. But, we don't think it's going to be a dropoff. And we have plenty of cold days in Wisconsin."

For O'Hare and his wife, Penny, who are considering adding more locations, quality is the most important part of the restaurant equation.

"Our biggest thing is getting the quality right," he said. "We use the best French fries you can buy. We use real cheddar cheese sauce on the fries and on the macaroni and cheese. One of the best compliments we've had so far came from someone who said that our macaroni and cheese was as good Noodles and Co. I like Noodles a lot. That was a real compliment.'

So far, compliments have outpaced complaints. A sign on the wall reminds visitors "Fresh food takes time. We think you'll agree, it's worth it."

"Quality is the big thing," O'Hare said. "The French fries go down with your order. We make each sandwich fresh. Even it's not busy, it can take three or four or even five minutes to get your order. If it's crowded, it can be eight to 10 minutes.

"We're a fast, casual concept restaurant. But, we're not fast food. Most people understand that."

"In a way, it's like Culver's. You go there for a burger and you have to pull up and wait. Or, you wait for it inside. I'm a fan of Culver's. I like their burgers. But, I'd rather wait a little longer for a sandwich that is fresh than get one that right away that has been sitting on a shelf."

If the first few months are an indication, O'Hare's plan is working.

"From a business standpoint, I am today where I thought I would be after six to eight months," he said. "People are starting to figure us out."


Drew Olson Special to

Host of “The Drew Olson Show,” which airs 1-3 p.m. weekdays on The Big 902. Sidekick on “The Mike Heller Show,” airing weekdays on The Big 920 and a statewide network including stations in Madison, Appleton and Wausau. Co-author of Bill Schroeder’s “If These Walls Could Talk: Milwaukee Brewers” on Triumph Books. Co-host of “Big 12 Sports Saturday,” which airs Saturdays during football season on WISN-12. Former senior editor at Former reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.