Each year, I find myself watching the ebb and flow of dining in Milwaukee. The restaurant business is remarkably volatile, and it’s not unusual to see favorites come and go, even after a good long run. Inevitably, those losses also mean gains in terms of variety on the ever-changing scene.
Such was the case in 2017. The year was one of sea change for the for the city’s dining landscape. And, much as 2016 was a year that wrenched so many musicians tragically from the world’s grasp, 2017 was a year that may well be remembered for its losses.
The year was filled with myriad goodbyes, the first of which was the long-time East Side favorite Cempazuchi. It was a place that held fond memories for many and a restaurant which, when it opened in 1999, was among the first to introduce Milwaukeeans a greater, and more varied, culinary picture of Mexico.
The next blow came in April when it was announced that Karl Ratzsch, a Milwaukee institution which had served the community for 113 years, had shuttered. It was a particular blow for a city whose very identity has been built upon a foundation of Germanic heritage. It was a lesson in loss for everyone, and a reminder that we can't take our beloved traditions for granted.
By summer, news broke that Hinterland Erie Street Gastropub had served its last plates. It had been among the first restaurants in the city to combine modern fine dining with rustic flair. And, in its heyday, the venue was among the city’s most beloved, largely thanks to the work of multi-year James Beard semi-finalist nominee, Chef Dan Van Rite.
Similar tears were shed in the autumn when the city said farewell to All Purpose, a favorite Walker’s Point restaurant whose exceptional wine list and well-executed small plates had endeared itself to a host of diners. Despite its shorter tenure in the city, it was a place that had helped to shape the way diners saw the Milwaukee scene.
The year’s end was also rife with news. First, we found that Izumi’s – Milwaukee’s longest running sushi restaurant – would be closing. And, just last week, we learned that the 50-plus-year Wauwatosa staple, John’s Sandwich Shop, was no more.
Fortunately, even the most bitter of closings brought with it a wave of new (with this list being just a taste of all the places which opened during the year).
We saw the rapid development of South 5th Street in Walker’s Point, where spots like Fuel Cafe offered new life to a swiftly changing neighborhood. The East Side gained multiple venues including new classic spots like The Original. And the Third Ward expanded the diversity of its offerings with hot spots like Shake Shack and Sweet Diner.
We saw a surge of new healthy offerings. Freshfin Poke made is mark on the East Side, steadily growing over the course of the year and forging plans for two additional locations. Bowls set up shop in the Third Ward, giving the neighborhood a healthy, fast-casual option unlike any it had seen before.
The city also saw an expansion of its plant-based offerings with an expansion at Urban Beets, the establishment of Strange Town with its delectable international eats and funky vinyl collection, and the addition of On the Bus to the Milwaukee Public Market.
A city once bereft of barbecue became one in which the bar for smoked meats was raised, as places like Doc’s Commerce Smokehouse opened Downtown, and Iron Grate BBQ Co. expanded its reach with its own location.
Meanwhile, the city went wild for steaming hot noodle bowls. As trail-blazers like Ardent’s Red Light Ramen settled into a steady rhythm, the city also embraced new spots like Kawa Ramen & Sushi and Yokohama on the East Side and Artisan Ramen Downtown.
And, in a town known for its bounty of chef-owned restaurants, we saw a surge of openings from new young chefs including Chef Michael Quinn of Maison, Dane Baldwin of The Diplomat and Miles Borghgraef of Birch + Butcher. And each one has brought something new to the city, enhancing the variety and depth of the scene.
And there are more on the way, including game changers like Snack Boys, breakfast and brunch spots like Toast, Korean food at Char’d, and a new menu and fresh new look at Von Trier, a restaurant’s whose German theme will be preserved, hopefully for years to come.
My New Year's resolution
In fact, in an increasingly saturated market, Milwaukee continues to see a boom of new and diverse options, including expanded ethnic options, unique concepts and an ever-growing collection of both fast-casual and mid-tier restaurants.
Of course, our bounty of riches is only as good as our ability to support it. So, as we enter into another new year, it will be among my top resolutions to not only support these restaurants with my patronage, but also push them to become the best they can be.
I hope you'll join me.
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.