By Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host Published Sep 12, 2019 at 11:01 AM Photography: Lori Fredrich

Beginning Monday, Sept. 16, diners will have the opportunity to experience the renaissance of one of Milwaukee’s fine dining gems, as Bacchus reopens to the public in the historic Cudahy Tower at 925 E. Wells St.

The reimagined restaurant will showcase a new aesthetic, a reinvigorated guest experience and a bold new menu, all of which aim to challenge the very notion of what fine dining can be.

The restaurant’s refresh comes on the tail of its 15th anniversary. But it’s also an endeavor which has taken on new meaning following the loss of co-founder Joe Bartolotta, a restaurateur whose love for designing and opening restaurants was matched only by his drive to give every customer the best possible experience.

Before he passed, Joe had all but finished the plans for the Bacchus refresh, a project he worked on with longtime collaborator Amber McCracken of Kahler Slater and his brother and co-founder Paul Bartolotta.

"My brother envisioned a beautiful space that was a restaurant for all occasions, not just special occasions," says Paul Bartolotta of the project. "And he was very excited about re-energizing the overall restaurant experience. We are extremely excited to reintroduce the restaurant, and the result will be a new Bacchus experience that will stand as a testimony to his life and legacy. I can speak for the team when I say that we are all focused on making him proud."

The Bacchus of 2004

When Bacchus first opened its doors in the former home of the Boulevard Inn, Milwaukee was on the cusp of a dining boom. More notable restaurants opened in 2004 than the city had seen in at least a decade, and they joined a cast of characters that included destination restaurants like Barossa, Coast, Moceans, Roots and Sanford, among others.

But Bacchus stood out from the crowd. It was lauded for its clean, modern feel and sleek decor. The bar and dining area were elegant and cozy, sporting 1940s vintage wood trim and shiny hardwood floors. Its menu included options like day boat halibut, rack of lamb and Maine lobster salad with cream sauce and radish sprouts. And its impressive floor to ceiling wine cabinet was stocked with about 230 bottles of wine.

It was hailed as a crowning achievement for the Bartolotta Restaurants, which then included Ristorante Bartolotta; Lake Park Bistro; Mr. B’s, A Bartolotta Steakhouse; and Pizzeria Piccola.

It was also a much accoladed accomplishment for Joe and Paul, who opened the restaurant with Chef Brandon Wolff.

A 2019-worthy refresh

Walk through the doors of the reimagined Bacchus, and the difference is notable. The restaurant is vibrant and fresh. There are nods to the old, but they’re juxtaposed against forward-thinking improvements, from updated lighting and high end finishes to a music program that embodies a younger, more energetic vibe.

The experience begins at the bar. Once a dim, cozy respite, the area has been transformed into a bright, lively space with a marble-topped bar, comfortably elegant seating and new recessed lighting, which notably brightens the space.

Look down and you’ll find wood flooring with marble tile inlays, a striking detail chosen by Joe early on in the revisioning process and purchased even before the plans were complete.

"The way people dine has changed," says Paul Bartolotta. "And when we looked at this space anew, we knew we had to do something visibly different. We needed to make it brighter, more lively. More people want to eat at the bar these days. So, we’ve expanded the seating and given them a comfortable place to enjoy."

Diners can also take advantage of a new menu of craft cocktails including timeless classics like the martini, Manhattan, negroni and old fashioned to Bacchus originals like "Cat’s Pajamas" with Bombay gin, Dolan, Lillet Blanc, honey, lemon and Chartreuse; and the "Your Right Hand Man" featuring mezcal, gin, Cynar and sweet vermouth ($12 each).

Step into the Conservatory, an extension of the Bacchus patio, and you’ll find a spruced space, largely due to beautiful new flooring which seamlessly weaves together the hardwood and white marble flooring from the bar area, pairing it with black and white marble tile that glistens as the sun washes over it during the daylight hours. The floor is also heated from below, ensuring that the space can be comfortably used year-round.

Modern lighting enhances the bright open feel of the glassed-in room, giving it a contemporary look and feel and projecting a warm, welcoming glow during the evening hours.

Take a walk into the dining room, and you’ll see familiar elements including leather banquettes and white tablecloths. But gone are the dated sconces and warmly lit lamps, replaced by recessed lighting and vertical LED fixtures.

The lighting is also enhanced by a notable architectural detail: a backlit faux skylight orchestrated to add dimension to the room while casting a welcoming glow on the diners below.

That warmth is accentuated by burnt orange accent walls, upon which hang modern art depicting glasses of wine. The pillars have been covered with textured fabric-look wall coverings. And the freestanding dining tables feature white leather seating with tasteful tapestry accents that are as comfortable as they are beautiful, many thanks to Joe.

"Joe spent so much time picking out the chairs," Bartolotta remarks. "He spent hours sitting on them and testing them out. And these met his approval."

And yes, the 16-foot floor-to-ceiling wine cabinet is still the focal point of the dining area, showcasing a hand-curated collection of wines chosen by General Manager and Sommelier Patrick Erdman and Restaurant Wine Manager and Certified Sommelier Joe Kane.

Bartolotta says they’ve expanded the wine list to over 750 selections, with every wine decanted table-side. The list of wines available by the glass now includes 30 selections with a variety priced between $9-15.

Relaxed, but efficient

The look and feel of the space is certainly part of the picture. But the vision that Joe and Paul formulated for the restaurant was about much more: It was about redefining the fine dining experience, modernizing the approach and making it accessible to a new generation.

"Joe was the real visionary on this project," says Bartolotta. "And early on, I remember him saying to me, ‘We have to be true to ourselves. So, let’s double down on our values and stay true to what’s important to us ... but let’s brighten it up a bit and let the staff have more fun.’"

The new vision for Bacchus would remain fine dining. But it would be new, modern and – most importantly – unpretentious.

"This environment and Nick’s [Wirth] food deserve a broader audience," says Bartolotta. "So, we worked to create a more relaxed, less formal environment. In some ways, that gets down to details: body language, the way we respond to guests. We want to deliver delicious. We want to deliver value. We want to deliver on the promise that expectation creates."

In turn, the uniforms – previously featuring more formal vests – have evolved to feature canvas aprons with leather detail in colors like mustard, brown and olive green.

In an effort to meet the needs of increasingly busy diners, Bacchus has also adjusted their turn time, reducing the average meal to about 90 minutes.

"Guests want to know they can dine here before a show," he says. "And we’re adjusting our operations to make that easier for them. We are, after all, in the business of caring for people. It’s the people that bring this space to life. And I credit Joe with the culture he’s built in our team. It’s remarkable."

Bold new flavors

The menu has also experienced a refresh at the behest of Executive Chef Nicholas Wirth, who has been at the helm of Bacchus for a decade.

"Part of the vision was to embrace and support our chefs and give them the freedom to express their vision and creativity," says Bartolotta. "Nick’s quest for ingredients and his ability to combine flavors is very modern, but his approach is classic. And there’s a maturity about it which really shows in the quality of each dish."

Wirth’s vision plays out in a seasonal New American menu that’s smattered with globally inspired flavors and divided into a la carte choices that allow a great deal of flexibility in terms of how they can be experienced.

First courses include options like pastrami cured salmon with horseradish creme fraiche, rye croutons and watercress ($15).

There’s also butter poached lobster served with an herb puree and presented with a Spanish omelette and chorizo hollandaise ($21); and charred Spanish octopus with Middle Eastern touches like hummus, preserved lemon and fried chickpeas along with the pop of Calabrian chilies ($17).

"We’ve focused the menu on big, bold flavors and seasonal products," says Wirth, who spent much of the summer hiatus reeducating himself in the kitchen and experimenting with new flavors from local farms and food suppliers. "And my goal with each dish is to begin with great tasting ingredients. I don’t want to overcomplicate them. I want great texture and clarity in flavor."

There are Italian inspired plates like housemade tagliatelle pasta with braised rabbit ragu, roasted pearl onions, wild mushrooms and parmesan ($15) and ultra creamy butternut squash risotto with applewood smoked bacon and Marieke gouda ($13). Meanwhile, a roasted pear salad is fresh and cleanly flavored with endive and Scarlet Frills lettuce, Penta creme blue cheese, candied pecans and honey vinaigrette ($13).

Main courses include sea scallops with acorn squash puree, romanesco, cauliflower, pork belly lardons and white wine butter sauce ($36).

There's Asian inspired Yellowtail Kingfish with avocado puree, marinated bok choy, jasmine rice cakes and sweet soy glaze ($38) and roasted venison loin with celeriac puree, braised red cabbage and fresh huckleberry sauce enhanced with juniper berry ($46).

The menu also includes new vegetarian options, desserts from pastry chef Annelise Linton and an expanded selection of cheeses from creameries across the state.

Diners can also choose a three-course menu of Bacchus’ most popular dishes ($55) or a six-course tasting menu offered Monday through Saturday ($85). In the coming months, Bacchus will also unveil a new tasting room experience for guests in the space previously known as the Lakeview Dining Room.

In the end, Bacchus feels younger, brighter and more energetic. It’s relaxed and welcoming. It’s elegant, yet jovial – a little bit like Joe Bartolotta himself.

Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host

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.