As few as 10 years ago, you would have been hard-pressed to find a restaurant with outdoor or patio seating. Yet, these days, a restaurant without a patio is more the exception than the rule.
Every year, more restaurants add – or augment—their patio seating. Whether it’s pushing restaurant seating out on to the sidewalk or constructing a full-on patio or veranda, Milwaukee restaurants are feeding the patio fever.
Joe Sorge of Hospitality Democracy says he went right to his guests for some insight into the "patio mania" in Milwaukee.
"Nearly all of them mentioned that with such a short period of time to enjoy the outdoors, they simply want to take as much advantage of the weather as they can," he says. "Many describe the perfect outdoor dining experience as a little taste of summer vacation. I love that mental image; we really strive to provide a get-away for our guests."
Nan Teske, who handles social media and marketing for Wolf Peach, agrees that a successful patio space encompasses far more than just a meal outdoors.
"Anyone with a sidewalk and a table can set up an umbrella; we offer something special," she says. "People are looking for an experience, not just a meal. From our Brewer's Hill perch, we are fortunate to have a stunning view of the Milwaukee skyline – yet we are nestled in a beautiful garden-like setting. It's the perfect place to soak up the sun or see the city lights; a great escape."
Sorge, who just finished a new and improved patio at Smoke Shack, says the space is a real boon in the summer, when barbeque season is at its peak.
"When the weather permits we serve outdoors from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily," he says. "Thankfully our patio gets lots of shade mid-day and plenty of sun in the evening. We were also able to make some changes at Smoke Shack to allow for us to book additional outdoor space for private events, rain or shine, it was really one of the main drivers of the expansion. It's an extremely popular request that we're happy to finally be able to accommodate."
Sorge’s patio is right next door to his building. But, in other parts of town, where space is at a premium, expanding upwards is the smartest option.
Take for example, Casablanca on Brady Street, which recently added a second floor dining room and veranda. Without expanding the restaurant’s footprint, diners can enjoy delicious Middle Eastern cuisine while catching a calm breeze underneath the pergola, or enjoy a few drinks and hookah in the comfortable lounge seating.
Melissa Bachhuber, co-owner of Odd Duck, surmises that patio lust might stem from Milwaukeeans’ desire for the days of the old German biergartens. "I wouldn't even think about opening a restaurant that didn't have a bit of outdoor seating anymore, it is such a hot commodity."
The new patio at Odd Duck has a fresh new look with new lamps, pavers, and permanent garden beds sporting mint, chives, basil, parsley, oregano and thyme, along with pepper and tomato plants. Five tables accommodate about 20 diners, along with a lounge area with a sectional couch.
"Time sort of stops on a patio, I guess," Bachhuber comments, "Which is maybe why people love them so much. It feels like an oasis in the city. We also have a loungey area out there for just drinking, if you just want to stop in for a glass of wine and sit outside, or if you are waiting for a table."
Time definitely stops on the gorgeous new patio at La Merenda, which expands the restaurant by 40 seats and offers diners a view of the restaurant’s new vegetable garden and outdoor fireplace. The attractively designed outdoor space offers semi-covered seating on a raised deck underneath a pergola.
An outside bar and restrooms flank one side of the patio, which overlooks a restaurant garden containing herbs, kale, chard, and tomatoes from Turtle Creek Farm and Pinehold Gardens. The space also contains two hazelnut trees, donated by the Victory Garden Initiative, and an Aronia bush, which will one day supply chokeberries which chef/owner Peter Sandroni says the restaurant is likely to use for cocktails. Sandroni also expects to espalier heirloom Milwaukee Apple trees along the property.
Sandroni, who agrees that the biergarten tradition is definitely making a comeback , also thinks that Milwaukeeans are becoming more well-traveled and food savvy.
"As the food scene here started to change, and more people with experience from all over the country came to Milwaukee," he says, "They brought with them their experiences from other places. Al fresco dining is part of that."
Sandroni hopes the patio will increase business during the summer months.
"Sales can dip up to twenty percent in the summer, due to a number of factors. But, weekends are still very busy. With the patio, we really hope to capture some of the people we have been forced to turn away on Friday and Saturday evenings," Sandroni says.
He also expects to use the patio space for special events during the warmer months. He is currently partnering with house favorite, Decero wines, to plan a grill-out for Friday, Aug. 23. The al fresco event will feature Argentinian style asada with Decero wines to accompany.
Tim Smith, general manager of the Intercontinental Hotel, which sports scenic patio dining and live music all summer long, suspects that people are just making the best of the summer.
"Outdoor dining weather is so limited in Milwaukee, and people here want to be able to spend as much time as they can outdoors," he says. "Restaurants want to be able to offer their guests what they are looking for in a dining experience. This time of year, that is outdoors."
Joe Bartolotta emphatically agrees.
"Winters in Milwaukee are brutal. We all get cabin fever and we can't wait to get outside," he explains. "And since the warm weather lasts about four months, we want to pack as much into those four months as we possibly can. And there's nothing like sitting on a great patio on a warm summer day."
And Bartolotta’s is catering to that desire. Pizzeria Piccola in Wauwatosa offers casual patio seating right next door, with live music from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, weather permitting. And if you’re feeling a bit more upscale, warm summer nights on the Harbor House patio promise comfortable seats with a gorgeous lake view, cocktails, fresh oysters and live music every Sunday from 4 to 7 p.m.
"We've already had two artists here and our guests have absolutely loved it," says Chris Adams, multi-unit director of the Bartolotta Restaurants, "There's an amazing positive energy that comes with patio season, and not only do the guests love it, but the restaurants do, too. It's a break from the normal routine and it reminds us all of how great summer is."
And more patios are on their way. Braise, which currently offers limited sidewalk dining to its patrons, plans to add a rooftop garden and patio by mid-summer. It will be closed June 30 to July 8 to accommodate construction.
Pizza Man, which plans to reopen on Downer Avenue in July, will also sport a second story patio space, while BelAir Cantina in Wauwatosa, which is scheduled to open in late June or early July, plans to have two patios, one in front and one behind the building.
Wolf Peach is also planning to make some changes to their patio space, including the construction of a pergola to cover the lower patio.
"It will change the feel of the space dramatically, almost creating a story-book garden sort of ambiance," says Teske. "We have also commissioned seven gorgeous custom wood tables from a local artisan, adding approximately 25 more seats to the lower patio this month. Next year we have plans to expand the patio and add another 20 seats."
Sorge also reports embellishments on the horizon for Water Buffalo’s riverfront patio, as well as a refresh for the Swig sidewalk café. To make the most of the summer, Sorge says they’ll be holding an outdoor tasting event this summer at all four of their downtown restaurants.
"We're planning to feature all of our outdoor spaces as part of the fun," he says. "So keep an eye out for that."
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.