October is the fourth-annual Dining Month on OnMilwaukee.com. All month, we're stuffed with restaurant reviews, delicious features, chef profiles, unique articles on everything food, as well as the winners of our "Best of Dining 2010."
Those of us mourning the end of T-shirt and shorts weather have to adjust to a lifestyle change. It can be a cold slap in the face.
But restaurants that do a significant outdoor dining business in the summer have to change the way they operate when chilly days and cold nights chase autumn customers indoors. Staffs may be downsized, menus are often tweaked and revenue can fall.
"I tell my people that opening the patio every year is like opening a new restaurant," Ryan Hartman, the managing partner of Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery, says. The patio along the Milwaukee River doubles the size of his operation, he added.
Rock Bottom adds 50 to 60 persons to its payroll every summer to accommodate its outdoor business. That includes extra kitchen help.
The patio is so popular, according to Hartman, a 5 p.m. summer thunderstorm can cost the brewpub-restaurant thousands of dollars in lost income.
Milwaukeeans are patio dining wacky. When the Horny Goat Hideaway, the South Side bar and restaurant that is home base for the Horny Goat Brewing Co., inaugurated its outdoor dining area June 1, its business immediately quadrupled, according to Dave Reese, who is moving up from facility manager to brewmaster this fall. "It was a crazy summer," he says.
The patio at El Fuego, another South Side eatery that does a big margarita business, first opened in 2009, and it was such a hit, the restaurant's owners expanded it for this past summer. At 250 seats, it was still a frequent sell out this year.
The obvious question here is how do businesses that feature outdoor dining and drinking adjust to frost, ice and snow? The answer is: in many ways.
Mequon's Highland House, which can accommodate 150 customers on an outdoor dining deck and a smaller number on a bar deck, goes into denial this time of year. "We push it (eating and drinking outside) as late into the year as we can," says co-owner Tom DeMarsh.
"We have a nice southwest exposure, two fireplaces, eight heaters and heating under the dining deck." Two fire pits and more heaters are deployed on the bar deck, which serves appetizers.
The Highland House also provides blankets to customers, a common practice in Europe DeMarsh discovered while traveling there. "Europeans are used to sitting outside on cooler days," he reports.
The fireplaces and fire pits are particularly popular this time of year, according to the owner. "People are like bugs. They are attracted to fire," DeMarsh says.
How late in the year have customers chosen to be seated outdoors? "We've had someone out there in December," he replies.
After the last rugged soul has moved indoors, the Highland House still has what DeMarsh calls a "transition room" that can seat 70 diners. It has floor to ceiling windows that offer a panoramic view of the outdoors.
El Fuego has something similar, according to manager Melissa Bausch. The summer patio features a waterfall and two fireplaces, which are kept lighted in the winter. Some tables inside the restaurant have good views of the patio.
With the fireplaces blazing and snow covering the waterfall rocks, "it almost feels mountainy," Bausch says.
Like the Highland House, the Horny Goat Hideaway confronts falling temperatures without giving ground. It constructed during the summer three fire pits and a glass-enclosed patio bar which can be heated and seats 55. It will be joined this winter by an insulated heated tent.
The bar and restaurant's popular volleyball courts will be turned into an ice rink this winter for broom ball leagues.
Water Buffalo in the Historic Third Ward takes the opposite approach to winter. General manager Mike Velasques says Water Buffalo's open air seating along the Riverwalk and E. Buffalo St. doubles the size of the restaurant. When the outdoor tables and chairs are put into storage, the staff takes a bit of a breather.
"Our servers can spend more time with customers," he says. And the kitchen can relax and produce food that requires more time to prepare. The menu is tweaked. Think comfort food.
The Horny Goat Hideaway, which specialized in appetizers, sandwiches and individual pizzas during the summer, is also going in that direction, according to manager/brewmaster Reese. "We know we will be doing lower volume, so our kitchen can do more," he says. "We will be adding hardy items like pot roast to the menu."
Ditto for Rock Bottom. Old favorite chicken fried chicken and pot roast will be back.
Here's a new harbinger of spring you can test next year. Look for the first robin. Watch for opening day in Miller Park. And keep an eye out for the first customers on Milwaukee dining decks.
Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.
During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.
Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.