The last time I set foot inside the building that now houses Rustico was during the week or so that it was a now-departed Mexican restaurant called Borrego's. Last night, I returned for a social / work dinner, and the experience couldn't have been more different.
I remember suggesting to our group of six that we try this new Mexican restaurant, located at 223 N. Water St. It turned out to be a debacle from the moment we walked in until the moment we left. The experience was so bad, in fact, that I scrapped the review I had planned to write, as I was sure that if I wrote it honestly, I might put Borrego's out of business.
It turns out the restaurant didn't need my help, nor did its successor, the Riverwalk Bistro, or its predecessor, Onyx.
Indeed, this gorgeous space seemed jinxed, and going back to OnMilwaukee.com food writer Amy Schubert's review of Rustico from last summer, I might've been dissuaded from even checking it out last night. She didn't have a great experience at the time, but noted that owner Brian Zarletti had a flare for opening quality restaurants, and perhaps Rustico just needed a little time.
Fortunately, whatever kinks the restaurant needed to work out, it did, and I had great service and a really nice dinner. Finally, the quality of the restaurant did justice to its excellent location.
Since our dining critic is far more qualified to write a proper review than I am, I'll defer to hers, and instead, I'll talk about the other stuff that made an impact on me. I remember that Borrego's turned the downstairs bar into a speakeasy-themed mockery that smelled disturbingly of sewer gas. Thankfully, Rustico killed the gangster motif and got rid of the odor. Now, the restaurant is quiet and subdued and tastefully decorated with art created by one of the restaurant's managers.
Similarly, I remember the atrocious service at Borrego's. This time around, both the waitress and the manager were attentive, friendly and approachable, knowledgeable but not pushy. It's the kind of place I'd to visit again in the summer, when I can bop from Water Buffalo to the Ale House and finally back to Rustico.
I'm searching my mental archives for a restaurant space in Milwaukee that has undergone such a subtle yet important transformation, and I'm coming up empty. Rustico got it right last night, and it leads me to believe that there aren't as many "cursed" locations as foodies would have you believe.
Maybe it's not so much where you're located, but what you do when you get there.
Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.
Before launching OnMilwaukee.com in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.
Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.