2020 was a difficult year for many. But it was a particularly challenging one for Chef Barkha Limbu Daily and Jesse Daily, owners of the cheel, who found themselves watching helplessly as the restaurant they’d poured seven years into building burned to the ground before their very eyes.
The loss was profound, not only because it represented seven years of hard work, but because the restaurant – even amidst the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic – had just reached the point at which the business was profitable. Not only could they provide sustaining jobs for employees, but they were in a position where they could truly give back to the community which supported them. Listen to the Dailys talk about their experience first-hand on the FoodCrush podcast.
Planning a comeback
Fortunately, thanks to encouragement and support from the community, the Dailys have made headway on plans to rebuild. And fans of the restaurant – which made a name for itself with its menu of inventive Nepalese dishes, cocktails and regular live music – have much to which they can look forward.
“After the fire, we really had to look at what was possible,” says co-owner and chef Barkha Limbu Daily, “From the money that our insurance would cover to really thinking about what we wanted and needed to recreate the cheel experience. Ultimately, we brought together a plan that incorporated the best of our dream ideas in a plan that we felt was realistic.”
With guidance from Anna Burns of The Brookwater Group, who’d helped design and build the baaree (among other things), they were also able to design their plans quickly, in a manner that took into consideration the specifications and rules valued by the Thiensville Historical Preservation committee, making it easier to glean Village approval.
Daily says they are currently entertaining bids for the project with the hope that they can begin construction as soon as March.
In the meantime, guests can look forward to the reopening of the baaree (the cheel’s outdoor beer garden) this spring. The venue will operate as usual during construction, offering a menu of simple dishes and a variety of beverages, along with live music in picturesque environs.
Rebuilding a dream
As for the cheel, it will return at triple the size, expanding from an historical two-story 3,000 square foot building to a modern 10,000 square foot structure housing three distinct components: a ground floor restaurant, a second floor entertainment venue and event space called the Phoenix Room, and (in phase two of the build-out) a basement commercial kitchen space.
And it will be built with longevity in mind.
“We wanted to design a building that will last for another hundred years,” says Daily of the plans for the new two-story restaurant, which will sport an eye-catching exterior of red brick and cream colored stucco. “When someone passes, we want to make them curious enough that they can’t resist stopping in,” she says.
But Daily says that, despite it being new construction which incorporates modern elements, they also wanted the building to reflect architectural elements of the former building’s Queen Anne style (note details like the square tower, use of asymetry, etc) as well elements that offer a nod to her home country of Nepal.
“In Nepal, most buildings are made of brick,” says Daily, noting that distinctive hand-thrown red bricks are a ubiquitous in Kathmandu, where she was born and raised.
And the bricks used to rebuild the cheel will embody even more significance, since the Dailys plan to offer members of the community the opportunity to support the project by purchasing individual bricks, which will be engraved with their names and incorporated as part of the final building.
“We built our business thanks to community,” says Daily. “So as we recover from the ashes, we want to include them in rebuilding what was lost.”
First floor: the cheel
The first floor restaurant will assume about the same footprint as the former restaurant; but it will be designed in a way that optimizes the space used for dining.
The kitchen will be expanded significantly (it’s designed to take up nearly 40% of the floorplan) to better accommodate the scratch-made fare that’s become a hallmark at the restaurant.
As for the decor, Daily says she wants to bring as much of Nepal to the dining experience as she can.
“It will be a combination of eclectic and traditional,” says Daily. “For me, it’s about creating a true experience that gives people a real taste of Nepal through the look and feel of the space, and not just through the food.”
For example, guests will enter the space through a lounge-like waiting area in which Daily says she’ll incorporate a water feature that emulates a dhunge dhara (stone tap), a traditional stone drinking fountain which provided a water source for communities in Nepal.
“You’ll find dhunge dhara all over Nepal,” she says. “Before indoor plumbing, they were used as a main water source for drinking and washing laundry and as a source for water for cooking.”
Historically, the taps themselves were decorative with most featuring the mythical makara, a guardian creature which possessed the snout of a crocodile, the trunk of an elephant, the tusks of a wild boar and the tail of a peacock.
Guests will also see a dining area filled with myriad colors and textures, from rounded windows separating the main dining area from a smaller private dining room to Nepalese style locks on the doors, decorative lighting, woven fabrics and a variety of metalwork.
The dining room will be flanked by a four-seasons dining area, which will be heated in the winter, but which will feature garage-style doors that allow for open-air dining in the summer.
Second floor: Phoenix Room
The second floor, aptly named the Phoenix room, will be equipped with a bar, a stage, a second kitchen and a balcony patio.
Seating around the stage will accommodate live music performances and events, while the kitchen can be used to cater special events as well as accommodating special offerings like cooking classes.
“We are building the room with acoustics in mind,” says Daily. “We really want to be able to continue to showcase all sorts of local musical talent, and do it in a very intentional way."
Cement flooring will contribute to sound-proofing measures that will keep the activity and music confined to the second story, allowing the dining area to be free from distractions for dining customers.
In a second phase of the build-out, Daily says she also hopes to establish a commercial kitchen on the basement level of the building.
The ample kitchen space would be built to function as a rental space for local food businesses as well as a kitchen where the cheel could produce items for retail sale, including jars of her flavorful achar.
“I really want to be able to support other small businesses and immigrant chefs,” she says. “I want to make it affordable and accessible… If you have a love and passion for food, I would love to be a stepping stone that helps you to move forward with your dream.”
Daily says that, for as much as she’ll never truly get over the loss of her first restaurant, she’s happy to be able to rebuild it in a way that supports the vision she’s always had for what the cheel could be.
“I’m really excited,” she says. “We can’t wait to bring the food and music back, that sense of community and experience. And I also can’t wait to really support others in their journey to do what we’ve been able to do.”
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.