For the 10th straight year, October is Dining Month on OnMilwaukee, presented by the restaurants of Potawatomi Hotel & Casino. All month, we're stuffed with restaurant reviews, dining guides, delectable features, chef profiles and unique articles on everything food, as well as voting for your "Best of Dining 2016."
It’s tempting to write this in a very careful, roundabout sort of way. But instead, let’s be frank.
We all know Milwaukee is often identified as a segregated city – and, most of the time, it is. White and black folks have their favorite places, and they don't often overlap. But sometimes they do. And when they do, it works.
Take Elsa’s On The Park, for example. On any given night, the popular Downtown bar and restaurant, located at 833 N. Jefferson St., has a very diverse group of diners. Chris Collins, the manager at Elsa's, says it has always been that way, but he has no idea why.
"It’s just a mystery to us," says Collins. "We can’t figure out why it happened or why it works, but it does and for that we’re very happy."
Interestingly, the Kopp’s Custard location on Port Washington Road – which is also owned by Elsa’s boss Karl Kopp – is frequented by black and white customers, too. Part of the reason is location, but it’s more than that. Word of mouth and repeat positive experiences have brought back all types of people time after time.
Like Kopp's, Junior’s Frozen Custard, 6005 W. Appleton Ave., and Northpoint Custard on the lakefront are also known for drawing a diverse clientele.
McBob’s, 4919 W. North Ave., is another Milwaukee establishment that generally attracts an equal number of white and black customers. Bar manager Sam Johnson says it stems from the location of the bar, which is situated between very different neighborhoods from the integrated Washington Highlands to the segregated central city.
The vision and actions of the McBob’s staff and patrons also create a safe and fun space for many different people. It’s easy for white-owned establishments to discourage black people from entering their bar or restaurant by posting a "dress code" that clearly targets African-Americans or to make them feel uncomfortable through poor service or frequent "looks" once they are inside. McBob’s doesn’t do this. Ever.
"It’s just amazing that we have such a tremendous wealth of diversity here," says Johnson. "The owner (Christine McRoberts) really embraces everyone here. She opens up conversations. She cares."
Occasionally, there will be an altercation at McBob’s – it is, after all, a bar – but Johnson says the tension comes from alcohol, not racial differences.
"We don’t hire people nor welcome people who have issues with a particular group," says Johnson. "We do our best to keep bigotry out on all sides, and we’re successful at it."
McBob’s inclusiveness extends to everyone. A few years ago, a LGBTQ newspaper named McBob’s the city’s best lesbian bar.
"We were surprised by that, but we really appreciated it," he says. "Good customers are good customers."
In the past five years or so, the clientele at 5th Street Mexican restaurants – namely La Fuente and Botana’s – have changed. At one time, the Walker’s Point cantinas were loaded with white suburban diners, but today, they have a more city-based crowd that includes many more black and brown diners.
La Fuente owner Jose Zarate does not know why this happened. He’s not disappointed in the demographic change, but he wishes his restaurant attracted the massive crowds it did at one time.
"Things are not what they used to be," Zarate told OnMilwaukee in 2014. "Our customers were mostly suburbanites. There were a lot of people from around here, too, but so many from the suburbs. I really don’t know (what attracted them)."
Perhaps with more dining options in the suburbs now than there used to be, suburban residents are choosing to dine closer to home. Or it could be another "white flight" situation, where white diners stopped feeling comfortable at the Walker's Point eateries when the influx of black diners began.
Many barbecue restaurants successfully see a variety of Milwaukeeans because it's a style of cuisine that appeals to both black and white diners. Ashley's Que in Walker's Point and Nino's Southern Sides, 4475 N. Oakland Ave., have a very diverse clientele. Speed Queen, 1130 W. Walnut St., is also popular with white and black customers, but the North Side neighborhood might be a deterrent for white diners if there wasn't a drive-through window.
Jake's Delicatessen, 1634 W. North Ave., is also a hub for an array of diners. Jake's, which has been around for roughly 60 years, embodies the reality of the neighborhood. It was once in the heart of a strong Jewish community, which later became primarily an African American neighborhood and yet it remains a thriving business that attracts a diverse clientele.
Milwaukee Street clubs and restaurants are often populated by different groups of people, too. In part, it might be because of the Bucks’ tradition of spending time and money on that block. The now-defunct Eve was a very successful, diverse establishment, and today, places like Carnevor, 718 N. Milwaukee St., and nearby neighbor Plum, 780 N. Jefferson St., have a similar vibe.
JB’s on 41, a bowling alley and restaurant located at 4040 S. 27th St., is another extremely diverse Milwaukee entertainment spot. Both black and white families and groups of friends bowl regularly, particularly on Saturday nights.
"I’ve never seen anything bad go down at JB’s. It’s a place where people really get along," says South Side resident and JB’s regular Jake Kowalski.
There are certainly other diverse bars and restaurants not mentioned in this article that are making Milwaukee more inclusive, less segregated and a better city. If we care about this issue, perhaps we should support these places – and step outside our comfort zones to create more. After all, everyone has to eat, and food, as OnMilwaukee's food editor Lori Fredrich says, "is a universal unifier." Let's do this, Milwaukee.
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.