You know these places, these classic restaurants of Milwaukee that are catalogued in Jennifer Billock’s new book of the same name.
There’s Mader’s and Jack Pandl’s, Solly’s (pictured above in the 1930s) and Saz’s, and the restaurants owned by the Bartolotta Group.
But there are so many more, too, like Snug’s and Pieces of Eight and Abu’s and Gimbels Tasty Town.
From diners to high-falutin’ restaurants to bakeries, coffee shops and custard stands, Billock covers many in her paperback, “Classic Restaurants of Milwaukee,” out now from The History Press.
As Billock prepares for a Zoom-based event on Tuesday, Dec. 1 with Historic Milwaukee, we asked her about the book and dining in Milwaukee across the decades.
OnMilwaukee: This isn't your first book, is it? Tell us about the others.
Jennifer Billock: No, it isn't. I also have two cookbooks with Michigan State University Press which modernize Civil War-era recipes for today's home cooks; a history book with Arcadia Publishing called "Images of America: Keweenaw County" (in Michigan's UP) that covers the history of that county from the early 1800s to the 60s or so; another history book with Arcadia Publishing that's a modern history of Kenosha, covering the 1950s to early 2000s; and another book with The History Press called "Ghosts of Michigan's Upper Peninsula" that investigates the history of common ghost stories throughout the UP.
How did you come to write one about Milwaukee's classic restaurants?
I was looking for another book to write, and also writing a lot of restaurant reviews and food writing in general. I had been eating out in Milwaukee since childhood, so it seemed like the perfect project to combine my love of history, food writing, and the city. Luckily, my publisher agreed.
Do you have a favorite among the restaurants in the book; one that means the most to you?
Yes! Mader's, for sure. I have a lot of memories of eating there with my family when I was growing up. Whenever we went to Milwaukee, we went to Mader's to get a giant pretzel and sit in that huge chair right at the entrance. It's a real nostalgic experience for me.
Were there any surprises? What did you come away thinking about Milwaukee's dining scene through the years; does it seem to be at a high point now or will it never be as good as the old days?
I had no idea the Public Natatorium was a restaurant until someone in the Old Milwaukee Facebook group tipped me off, so that was a real surprise for me. It was such a phenomenally bad idea but I think adds some great color to the history of restaurants in the city. I would consider Milwaukee at a high point right now for dining out.
Obviously people will always have nostalgia for the golden days of dining in their younger years, but the food coming out of the city right now is more inventive with every new spot, it seems like. Chefs are breaking out of the stereotypical Midwestern food mold and really creating something special.
What is it about these kinds of places that people cherish so much even long after they're gone?
It's a few things. First, nostalgia is definitely a factor. If you grew up going to the same restaurant for years with the same group of loved ones in your life, that's definitely going to stick in your brain as a special place.
Second, the community people cultivate at these places sticks with you. Oriental Drugs for example - it was a real gathering place for all walks of Milwaukee life, and people built lifelong friendships based entirely around that food counter. That's something that holds a part of your heart forever.
And third is the food itself. I still dream about the best chicken sandwich I've ever had, and I haven't had it since I was a teenager. Smell and taste always bring back a flood of great memories.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.