The Original will officially open its doors to the public at 2498 N. Bartlett Ave. on Thursday, Sept. 21. And when you step inside the former Red Dot, you’re likely to be amazed by the transformation.
Months of cleaning and renovations have revealed a cozy, welcoming space in which cream colored walls and a rustic, branded feature wall designed by Renee Braund complement black beadboard. Meanwhile the faux antique copper tile ceiling and Art Deco bar invoke a comforting old-school vibe.
The look is timeless. And that’s intentional, notes general manager Craig Rzepka, who operates the restaurant with co-owners Jennifer and Eric Rzepka and chef Vinny Cornils, formerly of Easy Tyger.
"We didn’t want to grab onto things that were trendy, that might not be around in three or four years," he says. "Instead we stuck with elements that will stand the test of time."
And there's even a bit of the former Red Dot that will remain intact right inside the restaurant's entrance.
Food and drink
That philosophy applies to the restaurant’s offerings, which includes a craft cocktail menu designed by bartenders Joey Houghtaling and Mike McDonald of Beaker & Flask, featuring drinks like The Original Old Fashioned featuring rye whiskey and custom housemade bitters, along with a signature Manhattan with a house-blended vermouth.
The full bar will also feature a rotating selection of eight tap beers, including selections from Enlightened Brewing Company, Good City Brewing, Black Husky and Central Waters.
The bar program knits together with The Original’s menu through suggested beverage pairings.
Take one of the restaurant’s vegetarian entreees for example. The dish is comprised of wild rice with roasted mushrooms, beets, brandy-soaked cherries and honey steeped with Thai chili peppers ($15). And it’s accompanied with a riff on the French 75 featuring Rehorst gin, lemon, yellow beet and basil syrup finished with sparkling wine and basil-infused grapeseed oil.
It’s just one example from Cornil’s menu, which reflects a focus on both Midwestern and Southern inspired dishes that are built to appeal to carnivores as well as vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free diners.
"Some things I’m really jazzed about are things like the Nashville hot tofu and cauliflower," notes Cornils, "Nashville hot chicken is such a trend right now. We knew we wanted some great vegetarian options on the menu, and this was a fun way of melding the two."
The shareable dish is made from cauliflower and Simple Soyman tofu that’s pressed and marinated in buttermilk, dredged in cornstarch, fried and tossed with chile oil and honey. It’s served with blue cheese creme fraiche for dipping ($7).
Other dishes include seared scallops served with creamy grits, mushrooms confited in olive oil, and macerated blackberries ($24); braised pork cheeks served over herbed spaetzel with beer onion jam and mustard creme fraiche ($20); and flat iron steak topped with smoked tomato butter and served with green beans and marble potatoes confited in duck fat ($32).
On the sweet side, there will be a triple chocolate cheesecake and a baked bread cheese topped with smoked almonds and walnuts with a blackberry brandy fruit compote ($7 each).
Brunch, which will be served on Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., will include house-made cinnamon doughnuts will be tossed with cinnamon sugar and topped with cider glaze ($6) and classic options like a classic Benedict ($12) or eggs served with toast, potatoes and a choice of ham, bacon or housemade maple sage breakfast sausage ($9).
Other options include oatmeal pancakes served with peach berry topping and bourbon maple whipped cream ($11); a veggie breakfast bowl with farro, vegetables, arugula pesto and eggs ($12); and shrimp and grits featuring sauteed Laughing Bird shrimp, heirloom tomatoes, scallions, grits, arugula and a poached egg ($14).
There’s also a classic Midwestern breakfast burger featuring two quarter-pound patties, one beef and one brat, topped with red onion, dill pickles, sharp cheddar and dijon mayo on a toasted Breadsmith bun with fried egg. The burger is served with french fries or a side salad for $12.
Community engagement and a commitment to education feeds into the restaurant, as well.
Eric notes that they’ve partnered with Bonnie Halverson, founding executive director of the Institute for Urban Agriculture and Nutrition and "Learn Earn Grow," an urban agriculture program operated through a partnership between UW-Milwaukee and the Cream City Conservation Corps. Through the program, MPS high school students are introduced to higher education through a six-week summer program focusing on urban farming, food production and composting.
Eric says the restaurant will not only make use of vegetables grown by the students, but will offer students the opportunity to take shifts at the restaurant participating in kitchen prep, shadowing servers and bussing tables. Students who complete the program will be offered the opportunity to bring in their families for a meal.
"We’re so thrilled to be engaging with the community in this way," says Eric, as a wave of emotion passes over his face. "I can’t tell you how great its been. We’re really looking forward to working with the kids and being a place where they can bring their families and show off their great work."
The Original will be open for dinner seven days a week from 4 to 10 p.m. The bar will remain open from 10 to midnight. Brunch will be served on Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 3 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.