Wander the "The Streets of Old Milwaukee" at the Milwaukee Public Museum and you'll recognize the names of landmark businesses in Milwaukee history; places that are icons of the city.
Just along the street on the left, before the bend, is The Comfort, a restaurant opened on West Water Street -- now Plankinton Avenue -- in 1902 by German immigrant Charles Mader.
While The Comfort isn't a household name anymore, once Mader moved his restaurant up and over to 3rd and Highland and renamed it Mader's, it really began to work its way into the Milwaukee psyche.
Now, it's Milwaukee's oldest restaurant and even The New York Times has touted its "Old World elegance." Culinary writer Shirley Fong-Torres wrote that, "Today Mader's "Knight's Bar" is the holy shrine of the German-American brew heart. Few places anywhere give a traveler the sense of having found the soul of a city."
Before it closed a few years ago, John Ernst Cafe, which opened in 1878, was the city's oldest restaurant. Following Mader's is another famed German eatery, Karl Ratzsch's, which opened in 1904. It also underwent an early name change after debuting as Hermann's Cafe.
Red Circle Inn in Nashotah and Brass Ball Inn in Paddock Lake vie for the title of the state's oldest restaurant. Both opened in 1848.
"I covered the food beat for more than 25 years, and I never run out of things to write about because so many restaurants fail," says dining critic Willard Romantini. "Anybody that's been around for that long obviously gets my respect. You can't knock it, they're obviously doing something right if they've been around for 100 years."
So, what's the secret at Mader's? How has it survived for more than a century in an industry known for trends and relatively short-lived businesses?
General Manager Dan Hazard, who has worked at Mader's for two decades, believes the family aspect is a major factor.
"One of keys is that we are an independent restaurant with a single owner," he says. "His name is on it. Victor Mader is the third generation (of Mader's owners)."
In part, it's also due to tourism, and perhaps also to a certain something – a mystique – that has aged like fine wine.
"There are some Milwaukee folks," says Romantini, "but just like all those places up there – The Spice House, the cheese place (Wisconsin Cheese Mart) – there's a lot of tourist trade. The place is a museum. There's a gift shop, they sell Hummels."
Hazard agrees that the restaurant is still a draw for tourists, who still flock to Old World 3rd Street.
"Certainly the location hasn't hurt us," he adds.
But the location, clearly, isn't Times Square or the Champs Elysees. Tourists can't likely keep any Milwaukee restaurant alive for 105 years. Certainly not on their own.
Mader's knows it must adapt to get to its 205th anniversary and Hazard says that in recent years the restaurant has boosted its catering business – Midwest Airlines is a major client – and its presence at festivals.
"We have a more varied menu now and we even have vegetarian items," Hazard says. "We've diversified a little bit."
He notes that since changing its name from The Comfort, Mader's has been willing to adapt, noting that during World War II when anti-German sentiment was widespread, the business changed its name from Mader's German Restaurant to Mader's Famous Restaurant.
When it comes right down to it, however, Mader's keeps diners coming back because it keeps its ears open.
"We listen to our guests," Hazard says proudly, " and we provide what they want."
Romantini, for one, has noticed.
"They've been trying to adapt, (unlike) most of the other German restaurants in town," he says. "They've tried to lighten up a little bit over there. They changed one bar to a sports bar, they do the food now for Midwest Airlines, when you walk by there's a sandwich board outside telling you (there are healthy menu options)."
So, does Romantini eat there?
"The last time I was in the place was two or three years ago," he admits. "It's not my kind of cuisine – and I lived in Germany for a couple years growing up – but the food is good."
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.