For the eighth straight year, October is Dining Month on OnMilwaukee.com, presented by Locavore, the newest restaurant at Potawatomi Hotel & Casino. All month, we're stuffed with restaurant reviews, delectable features, chef profiles and unique articles on everything food, as well as the winners of our "Best of Dining 2014."
In 2002, Mitchell Wakefield and Joe Volpe opened Tess, 2499 N. Bartlett Ave. Today, Wakefield owns the restaurant with his wife, Ashley.
Wakefield's family owned and operated The Harp Irish Pub from 1979 until 2008. He took over the business in 1994 and ran it until opening Tess eight years later.
Inspired by a friend with Celiac disease, Wakefield developed a menu at Tess that is 75 percent gluten-free. As gluten-free diets became more common over the last five years many other restaurants added gluten-free items to accommodate customer's needs, but Tess continues to offer one of the most extensive gluten-free menus in the city.
Despite an "off the beaten path" location and an often challenging economy, Tess has continued to flourish for 12 years. Wakefield attributes this to positive word-of-mouth advertising and consistently good food and service.
OnMilwaukee.com recently chatted with Wakefield about gluten-free eating, the possibility of him opening a second restaurant someday and more.
OnMilwaukee.com: Tess was a pioneer in gluten-free menu offerings. What inspired you to offer gluten-free items?
Mitchell Wakefield: Tess has been Milwaukee's premier gluten-free dining destination since we first opened and we feel like we still are. About 75 percent of our menu is always gluten-free, including our desserts, which usually prove the most difficult as gluten is so common in pastries.
The gluten-free items on our menu are clearly marked with an asterisk and our entire staff, including bartenders, are trained on the subject, especially the danger of cross contamination.
The impetus for us focusing on gluten-free dining actually is rooted in another Shorewood High School graduate, Chris Dresselhuys, and his father. Mr. Dresselhuys is a Celiac and expressed to us when we were first opening the restaurant and designing the first menu how difficult and / or awkward it can be to go out to dinner, whether for business or pleasure, as a celiac. He told us how he would have to call ahead to talk to chefs about his condition or upcoming visit or worse yet, place his fate in the hands of a usually young and uninformed server and hope that the server would make sure with the kitchen that his meal was gluten free.
Once we were alerted to this, did a little research and realized that this was an emerging affliction in the U.S., it became a no-brainer as something that we would emphasize on our menus.
OMC: Where does the name come from?
MW: The name comes from Joe Volpe’s – my original business partner – grandmother's name, Tess Sardino. When we were deciding what to name the restaurant back in 2002, my criteria for a name were three things: one syllable, must sound classy and must have a story behind it. The name "Tess" fit all three and I suggested to Joe that we use it, if he was OK with it. Joe moved on to other endeavors, and his grandmother is gone now sadly, but we decided to stick with the name.
OMC: Ever think about opening another restaurant?
MW: Another restaurant is definitely on the radar. Since Tess is only open for dinners and after getting rid of The Harp, I have a severe itch to do something else that is more full-service. Unfortunately, the economy wasn't so great the last couple of years for opening a restaurant, but we're seeing that slowly come back and we are constantly keeping our eyes open for locations and niches in the dining scene that Milwaukee needs filled. I'd say that within the next two years we will have another operation off the ground.
OMC: What has been the key to Tess' success?
MW: I feel that the key to our success has been consistency. While our approach to food has changed over the years with different chefs that have come to work for us, we feel that we have maintained a restaurant where people can come in and count on us to provide an outstanding, locally-sourced meal with first-class service.
We feel that while we are considered a fine dining restaurant by most, we try to maintain a fun, loose ambience that creates accessibility for all, whether they are celebrating a very special occasion or just want to stop in and enjoy an appetizer and a great craft beer at the bar. And of course, we feel that our outdoor dining space is one of the best in the city.
OMC: What do you think about the location of Tess?
MW: Being off the beaten path and not Downtown, we often still have people that are 'discovering' us even though we've been open over 12 years. Although it's definitely part of the charm of Tess, being isolated in a residential neighborhood, it can be a challenge to get the word out about the restaurant since we don't have a large advertising budget.
OMC: Where do you and your wife live these days?
MW: My wife and I live on the East Side, by Boswell Books, with our two cats. We currently do not have any kids but haven't ruled it out either.
OMC: How has Tess changed over the years?
MW: Individually, Tess as a restaurant hasn't changed all that much. With the exception of different culinary approaches and styles that our four or five different chefs have brought to the table throughout our 12 years, I feel that our service has maintained a very high level and our ambiance, atmosphere and decor hasn't changed a whole lot – with the exception of some changes that we do to our patio and garden every year.
I do feel that the restaurant scene as a whole has changed significantly though since we opened in 2002. Obviously, small plates are a recent phenomenon that doesn't seem to be going anywhere for a while. Craft beer and cocktails are now the norm at most restaurants. Organic food is huge now. Food allergies are a real thing and something that all staff members must be aware of and trained on. It used to be that they just needed to know how to do the Heimlich Maneuver.
High-end restaurants must use locally-sourced food whenever possible and beat their chests about it. This is something that we've always done since we've opened – working with farmers that is. We just thought that that was the best way to do it and how it should be done. We never made a big deal of it and still really don't. Only recently does it seem that it's almost become a contest as to who can use the most esoteric, most local ingredients that are sourced from the most exotic, yet local, of locations – if that makes any sense!
OMC: What’s the current menu like?
MW: Of course, much of it is gluten-free, as we previously touched on. It is fresh and locally-sourced whenever and wherever possible.
The menu today is set up very similarly to how its always been which is we break it up into four distinct courses: appetizers, salads, entrees and desserts. People can order one course or multiple courses. In each category we have what we call signature dishes – things that stay on the menu through the seasonal and other changes we do throughout the year.
For the appetizers, our crab cake and mussels preparation have been on the menu since day one. We tried to change the preparation on our mussels once about seven years ago, but the backlash from our customers was unbelievable. We actually had several say that they would not come back until we changed them back. For salads, our Tess Salad is our house salad and has been on since day one. We also always have an incarnation of an arugula (rocket) salad.
For entrees, we consider our house made ravioli, the beef tenderloin and the cioppino – a San Francisco-style fish stew in a classic red sauce – to be our signature offerings.
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.