For years, Milwaukeeans celebrated momentous occasions with a trip to the Lakefront
Harbor House, expected to open in July, will bring the feeling of a New England seafood restaurant to the shores of Lake Michigan.
Filling the void left when Pieces of Eight closed in 2005 and its replacement, Harbor 550, closed in 2008, restauranteur Joe Bartolotta is hoping that Harbor House will get people dining on the Lakefront again.
"Everybody came to Pieces of Eight at least once," Bartolotta says. "Probably for a prom or homecoming. But for whatever reason, it never lived up to its potential. This is one of the greatest locations in all of the Midwest or on the Great Lakes but it's been a very under utilized asset."
Bartolotta plans to offer fine dining at the new location, but is wary of the high-priced, upscale image that the term suggests. Fresh seafood, like lobster, shrimp and crab, naturally comes at a higer market price than beef of chicken, but the ability to incorporate those products into other dishes will allow diners of all budgets to enjoy the restaurant.
"It's our job, as restaurateurs to paint a broad brush, offer a diverse menu and cater to a lot of types of customers," Bartolotta says. "There will be some vareity in pricing, which lets the guest make the decision instead of mandating how much a guest has to spend."
Bartolotta points to the Northpoint Custard Stand at Bradford Beach as an example. It's far from the common perception of fine dining, he says, but he considers the quality of the burgers and custard offered there to be on the same level as fine dining.
"It's a casual concept and it's a really good burger," he says. "But if you want to put it into a category, to me, it's a fine dining burger; a quality product. In my perspective, we only deal with quality products and quality raw materials. That's what our goal is here."
In addition to seafood offerings, the menu will feature sandwiches, salads, and other fare. Bartolotta says he envisions a thriving lunch business, a good after-work crowd for drinks and light appetizers as well as a good Sunday brunch turnout.
Diners will enjoy those meals in an open-concept restaurant with an exposed kitchen and raw bar. Roughly 160 people can be seated in the dining room, with space for another 90 people at the bar and room for 100 diners on the outdoor patio.
The building, opened in 1969, is currently gutted and undergoing a complete and total renovation.
The interior will be completely new, but at the same time will be a throwback to decades ago while still offering the same scenic views of Lake Michigan and the Milwaukee lakefront.
Bartolotta says the décor will include antique fixtures, end grain, hardwood floors with some old marble mixed in for good measure.
"It's going to be brand new, but you'll find some weathering," Bartolotta says. "We're really excited about the elements here."
Harbor House became a reality when Michael Cudahy took over the property about a year ago. The city owns the land, which was leased by Specialty Restaurants Corp. Michael Cudahy bought the lease for $1 million as part of a plan to build a School of Freshwater Sciences for UWM on the site.
When that plan fell through, Cudahy teamed up with Bartolotta to develop the restaurant - a plan, Bartolotta admits, that didn't come without some controversy.
"I'm not foolish enough to think everybody is excited about it," he says. "But I honestly think that at the end of the day, Milwaukee deserves a great restaurant on the water.
"People love to eat on the water, especially with the limited season here. People have cabin fever; they want to get out and enjoy the lake."