In Dining

Rockford's Blue Water Grill will be located in the former Ja'Stacy Restaurant.

Rockford's Blue Water Grill aims to contribute to Bronzeville revival

A veteran Milwaukee chef is at the helm of a new Bronzeville restaurant slated for a late spring opening at 2368 N Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. in the former home of Ja'Stacy Restaurant.

Chef and owner James Garner is behind the venture, which will be called Rockford's Blue Water Grill, a name derived from both a tongue-in-cheek reference to the "The Rockford Files" television show, along with a nod to the clear blue waters of the Hawaiian islands, where he lived for just over five years.

Garner is a Milwaukee native who cut his teeth at Sally's Steakhouse, where he found his calling working for Sally Papia. After earning his culinary degree at MATC, he went on to work for numerous well known Milwaukee area restaurants including The Pfister Hotel, Jack Pandl's, Pieces of Eight, Bartolotta's and Crawdaddy's. Most recently, Garner has remained employed as a caterer, handling primarily private events.

He says he felt compelled to contribute to the development in the Bronzeville neighborhood, an area in which he grew up and where he says members of his family have owned a variety of bars over the years.

"The area has been identified as the new entertainment and food corridor" he says. "And I felt someone needed to step up to offer an identity for African Americans on the food scene."

Garner says Rockford's Blue Water Grill will offer Milwaukeeans a casual fine dining restaurant where they can enjoy reasonably priced entrees in the $15-20 range in an environment graced with exceptional service.

Stylistically, he says, the restaurant will offer modern takes on classic dishes – including steak, housemade pastas and seafood – fused with a variety of influences including cajun, creole and flourishes of the Pacific Rim. Ingredients will focus on locally grown produce, sustainably raised seafood and high quality grassfed beef.

"The days of old soul food dining are gone," he says. "But my dishes will incorporate elements that people will recognize. One of my dishes will be sole stuffed with shrimp, crab and lobster. And the sole filet will be wrapped in a collard green. Another dish might be grilled mahi mahi with black-eyed pea salsa."

The dining room will be designed with a jazz theme and decor that's reminiscent of what Garner calls "classic Milwaukee."

"We'll have a stage where we'll bring in artists to perform smooth jazz and some old school R&B," he says. "We have a lot of talent here, so I'll focus on bringing in local artists, as well as musicians from all over as it's possible."

A second floor cigar lounge will offer a classy, yet laid back environment with a bar focusing on bourbon, Scotch and cognac. It's the sort of place, Garner says, where after 9 p.m. (10 p.m. on the weekends), guests will be limited to the 30-plus crowd and will be required to look the part, blazers required.

Garner is currently in the process of purchasing the building from the city through the Request for Proposals (RFP) process. Licensure hearings at the Milwaukee Common Council for the new venue are scheduled for the end of January. From there, Garner says, he'll proceed with plans to improve both the facade of the building as well as remodeling of the interior.

"What's been done wrong in Milwaukee in the redevelopment of Bronzeville and Downtown has been that we're trying to reinvent the wheel," Garner notes. "We're trying to bring things we've seen in L.A. or Atlanta or other places and make them work. But, you need to know the Milwaukee market. And you need to serve them in an inclusive, rather than an exclusive, way."

Once open, Rockford's Blue Water Grill is expected to be open Tuesday through Saturday for dinner and Sundays for brunch service.

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