Last May, we reported that a new bar and restaurant, Strange Town, would open in the space at 2101 N. Prospect Ave., potentially sometime this summer.
A conversation this week with co-owner Andy Noble offers reasonable hope that the new plant-based eatery and bar could open to the public in time for the Milwaukee Film Festival. Or, "at least," Noble says, "before it ends."
Noble, former owner of Lotus Land Records, runs the restaurant with his brother Tom and cousin, Mia LeTendre. And he says the restaurant is a direct reflection of his appreciation for the East Side and his desire to preserve the character of the area he’s grown to know and love.
"This place is sacred ground," he says, speaking of the restaurant’s physical space, which was last home to Allium. "I grew up five blocks from here. I’ve always loved this space. Loved Allium. Loved Cafe Brucke. I came here as a kid when it was Hartter’s. And I really wanted to keep that going."
Noble says the food plays an important role in the vision for Strange Town. And his intention is for the menu to be accessible and enjoyable to all, including those who might normally eat meat.
"We’re taking the kitchen very seriously," he says. "It’s not an afterthought. In fact, we’re approaching this menu as an homage – both to our Italian heritage as well as our journey finding refuge and learning about vegetable-based cuisine.
"It’s a series of love letters to places like Abu’s, the original Shah Jee, Sri Lanka Curry House in Minneapolis, Himulchile in Madison, all of which really shaped the way we ate as vegans and really expanded our palates and our exposure to so many delicious dishes. They made us active pursuers of new and different cuisine."
As a result, Strange Town’s dishes won’t be built on "meat substitutes;" instead, the menu builds its foundation on dishes – many international – that find their real strength in vegetables as ingredients.
And call them what you like – be it tapas, mezze pinchos, shared plates or simply great food that you can eat alone or with others – the emphasis will be on dishes of varying sizes that are meant for communal enjoyment.
Features will include Sicilian dishes like a daily sfincione, Sicilian pizza with its distinctly thick crust, topped with bread crumbs and a variety of rotating toppings. Seasonal arancini – also likely to be offered as a gluten-free option – will be served on a Sicilian salsa verde made with parsley and capers. There will also be grain-based salads, including insalata di riso featuring ingredients like farro, white basmati rice, marinated vegetables, almond ricotta, toasted pecans, lemon basil dressing and herbs.
Other items will include a crudite platter featuring both raw and cooked items with seasoned salt and a vinaigrette, hummus and muhammara, the classic red pepper and walnut spread, along with accompaniments like pickled green mango or za'atar bread.
A few dishes will also feature fresh hearts of palm, including a variation on Caesar salad and roasted fingerlings spread with a flavorful heart of palm spread and finished with capers.
Noble says the space he’s creating revolves around people. Even the space and the decor revolves around the idea of socialization.
"The decor is going to be really minimalistic," he says. "The walls are white. There are black accents. In a sense, the people and the music will be the decoration."
And that music will include selections from a curated vinyl collection that includes jazz, folk, soul, psychedelic rock, African music and more.
"Vinyl is such a trend right now, but for those of us who really take it seriously, our collections are deep and broad. I’d be foolish not to bring that in. It’s mind-blowing how often people put so much money into their places, but don’t focus on the music. That won’t be the case here."
He says the space is meant to offer up a convivial vibe, a place for glasses of wine, a beer, a kombucha or maybe an apertif. It's a place to linger and have a great time.
"At a restaurant you eat, pay your check and leave," he says. "That’s so not this place. It’s a wine bar and restaurant with the soul of a cafe."
As for the name – which at base level is a reference to the song of the same name by The Jam – it’s meant to be evocative.
"I always name my businesses after songs," Noble says. "But, it’s not a tribute to them or the song. It’s all about what it means to you. There are elements that have meaning for me – including the racial divide and the bohemian, artistic culture that’s been a part of the East Side – but, it’s by no means meant to be literal in any way."
Once open, Strange Town will be open. Sunday through Wednesday, 4 p.m. to midnight, Thursday through Saturday, from 4 p.m. until bar time. Kitchen hours will be 5 to 10 p.m.
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.