Season's eatings! The weather may be getting colder, but Dining Month on OnMilwaukee is just cooking up, dishing out your winning picks in this year's Best of Dining poll. Dining Month is brought to you by Fein Brothers, your premier food service equipment and supply dealer in Wisconsin since 1929. Congratulations to all of the winners, and happy eating for all those who voted! See all the winners for the month so far here.
A new era is dawning for the Schwabenof, N56W14750 Silver Spring Dr. in Menomonee Falls. And that includes an upgraded fish fry, as well as numerous aesthetic improvements to the space.
The venue, a popular gathering place for Friday fish fries and events and home to the United Donauschwaben of Milwaukee since 1968, closed this summer to accommodate both a refresh of the space and changes in operations for the restaurant.
However, it will reopen to the public on Wednesday, Nov. 1 at 4 p.m. offering up an upgraded traditional fish fry and a small menu of other delicious specialties.
"The Schwabenhof has always been the place where the up north feel of Wisconsin
meets Gemütlichkeit in Menomonee Falls," notes Rick Siladi, board director for the German-American Cultural Foundation of Wisconsin. "This perennial favorite fish fry destination has only gotten better!"
It’s a significant milestone for the Donauschwaben, a cultural organization formed in the 1940s when a small group of German-Hungarian immigrants got together to create an organization called the Tolnauer Komitat Vergnügungsverein, a group that grew in number during the 1950s and '60s as additional Donauschwaben immigrants came to the U.S. following World War II.
By 1966, the Vergnügungsverein made the decision to merge with three other Donauschwaben clubs: the Apatiner Verein, the Mucsi Familienverein and the Milwaukee Sport Club. Together, they formed The United Donauschwaben of Milwaukee and used their collective resources to purchase the former Bert Philips Ballroom, a property that included nearly 12 acres of land, along with a dance hall, a tavern, a single family home and a soccer field.
"Like any ethnic group that emigrates to another place, they were looking for familiarity," says MaryAnn MacGillis, president of the United Donauschwaben of Milwaukee. "And the club, the Schwabenhof, was really built as a home, a place where they could go, be comfortable with other people who really understood what they were going through."
The Donauschwaben also worked to preserve the folk dancing, music, food and traditions they’d brought from their home countries. Today, the organization shares that culture through popular offerings including the annual Biergarten, Father’s Day and Oktoberfest events, all of which feature German beer and food, traditional dancing and music.
A shinier Schwabenhof
This summer the restaurant and banquet hall, which had been operated by JFP Food Services for 31 years, transitioned operations to restaurateurs Wes Shaver and Mike Sorge, owners of Black Sheep in Walker’s Point. Under their leadership, the restaurant and dining hall have seen numerous upgrades including new kitchen equipment for the restaurant, new furniture for the dining hall and a deep cleaning and refreshed decor in both the bar and gathering spaces.
"It was heartbreaking to turn regulars and guests away while we were undergoing major renovations to the facility," says Shaver. "No one in the hospitality business likes to tell customers to ‘stay tuned for updates,’ but it’s all a part of the process of preserving and honoring this long lasting institution."
A walk into the restaurant showcases a bright new entryway and gathering space. Banana cream colored walls have been replaced with earthy green tones. And the walls are decorated with items including the Donauschwaben Crest, club photographs, accolades and artifacts representing the history of the Donauschwaben in Milwaukee.
"Of all the projects I’ve been a part of over the years, this has been one of the most challenging," notes Dave Kuklin, director of operations at the Schwabenhof. "But, it’s also been the most rewarding. One of the most important aspects of what we’ve done is really reaching back to the traditions and history of the Donauschwaben and really bringing that back into the foreground so that it’s apparent to anyone who walks in."
Selections in terms of the look and feel of the space are meant to emulate those of a classic German beer hall, says Kuklin. "The decor is meant to tell the stories of the history of the space and the Germanic culture that’s been cultivated here. It’s been such an honor to be part of bringing this place to life again."
Meanwhile the bar, which Shaver describes as having the look and feel of "your grandfather’s basement bar," is aptly inviting, surrounded by classic German Fest posters, press photos from years past at the Schwabenhof and an illustrated version of a postcard that was used to promote the restaurant in the 1950s.
It’s the perfect place to grab that classic Schwabenhof old fashioned, Manhattan or a stein of beer, while enjoying great company and a dose of good old fashioned German hospitality. And that’s a good thing; after all, it’s a spot that fills to the brim on Fridays when the restaurant typically serves up all-you-can-eat fish fry to as many as 1200 guests.
The newly minted Stein Room, located just to the north of the bar, sports a collection of beer glasses and steins, as well as German signs and artwork. The area will be used as both a dining area and a comfortable space for those waiting for carry-out fish fry orders.
Upgrades to the fish fry
Speaking of that fish fry, the Schwabenhof also has a new chef. Alex Pawlak, formerly of Odd Duck, has been hired to oversee the restaurant kitchen. And he says it’s more than just another cooking gig.
"My aunt and uncle have been members of the club for 30 years," he says. "And their kids have been in different dance groups. In fact, we’d come out here as kids for Father’s Day and Oktoberfest celebrations."
Pawlak, who worked with the operations team as well as members of the club to formulate a new menu for the Schwabenhof says guests have a great deal to which they can look forward.
"We brought back many of the familiar menu items," he says. "But, at the same time, we’ve made a number of upgrades. We switched to higher quality fish, including replacing the cod filets with a higher quality cod loin. We’ll be serving handmade potato pancakes and handcut fries. We also took a look at the offerings and pared them down to things that were really appropriate for an old German beer hall."
That includes appetizer options like jumbo Bavarian pretzels with dipping sauce ($11.99), pretzel and brat skewers ($10.99), haystack onion rings ($6.99) and deep fried cheese curds ($7.99).
Fish fry offerings include fried perch, walleye and cod accompanied by housemade tartar sauce, creamy cole slaw (served family style) along with classic complimentary bread service and a choice of potato (baked, french fries or potato pancake). Pricing is $15.95 for perch or walleye and $13.95 for cod.
There’s also traditional broasted chicken, made with brand new Wisconsin-made broasters.
The traditional cod fish fry and broasted chicken (or a combination of the two) is available by the plate or as an all-you-can-eat option ($13.95). And if the potato pancakes seem familiar, it’s because they’re handmade from the classic recipe served every year at German Fest.
Additional items include signature baked cod with lemon, caper and butter sauce and served alongside baked potato and green beans ($16.95), a wurst platter featuring The Schwabenhof’s own brat and Hungarian Sausages served with housemade kraut, German potato salad, and coleslaw ($13.95). There's also clam chowder ($3.95) and kids menu featuring fish fry, broasted chicken, burgers, grilled cheese, hot dogs and chicken tenders, all priced under $9.
"We put our first efforts into creating a classic Wisconsin fish fry," adds Kuklin. "It was about focusing on quality, doing what we know we do well and being able to offer that to people at a really affordable price."
As time moves forward, Shaver says the dining hall will also see additional upgrades, and there will be additions to the Schwabenhof menu over time.
"We’re really in the first stages of reinvigorating the Schwabenhof," says Shaver, who says that improvements will be made on an ongoing basis. In the coming months, guests can expect a roll-out of lunch service, as well as a traditional German menu which will be served at least one night a week to start.
"We are so excited," MacGillis says. "Wes [Shaver] and Mike [Sorge] have really listened to us. They’ve taken our vision, our thoughts and our past and really turn it into a future. In the process, the space has really been reinvigorated. There’s this great energy that’s been created and we’re hoping it means that more people can come, learn more about what we do, and really utilize the Schwabenhof in the way in which it was intended."
Beginning Nov. 1 the Schwabenhof will be open Wednesday and Friday from 4 to 10 p.m. for fish fry. Guests are also invited to a Grand Opening Celebration on Friday, Nov. 10. Expanded hours are likely to begin in January 2018.
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.