As one of Milwaukee’s best known restaurants, Comet Cafe is seen in a lot of different ways by a lot of different people. To some, it’s a beacon of comfort food anchoring the city’s east side. Others regard it as a steadfast destination to give out-of-town visitors a unique taste of Milwaukee. Some recognize it from its annual inclusion on local Best Of lists or as a place Guy Fieri once shoved food into his gaping, goateed maw. It can be counted among the few holdovers in a neighborhood that has experienced rampant change. It was ahead of both the craft brew surge and the bacon boom.
Celebrating its 20th anniversary this weekend, Comet Cafe has been, and still is, all that and more to its customers. However, a lesser known role the plucky coffee shop-turned-beloved bar/restaurant has played throughout the duration of its existence is the unofficial employer of Milwaukee’s music scene. Over the past two decades, musicians from literally dozens of local bands have received a pay stub from Comet—ranging from legendary Midwestern acts of yore like Die Kreuzen, The Promise Ring, Since By Man, and Sweep The Leg Johnny; disbanded notables like Decibully, Temper Temper, and Hey Mercedes; and modern Milwaukee musical mainstays like Whips, Towers, and Alta.
“I think every town with a burgeoning music scene needs an employer like that. I don’t know what else I would’ve done throughout all of my 20s without it.” says B.J. Seidel, who worked at Comet for eight years while playing in Decibully and other projects. “I was able to travel and play music, and come home, having spent all the money I made before I left, and be able to work and pay my rent. Pretty much, Comet singlehandedly kept me alive for close to 10 years.”
Beginning in 1998, Seidel worked as a barista and in the kitchen, then, later, as a bartender between his band’s tours. Years after his departure, he still appreciates owners Scott Johnson and Leslie Montemurro’s flexibility that helps support the artistic endeavors of their staff. The longtime Comet employee says he also plied some of what he learned on the job into opening Burnhearts and Goodkind.
“It really is something special. As an employer now, I mean, it’s kind of hard, especially to establish your core crew,” Seidel says. “If they’re leaving every couple weeks for a long time, it gets to be difficult. But I always respect Scott and Leslie for creating a place that lets people create. I think that’s really important.”
Ever since general manager (and Towers keyboardist) Nick Westfahl started working at Comet in 1999, he’s seen the owners and management maintain an environment built on understanding.
“That’s the ideal that Comet was built on. As long as you got your shifts covered, you could go,” Westfahl says. “People were gone two, three months at a time, then would come back and have a job. People would move away to another city to pursue another venture, then come back like nothing ever changed.”
Since taking on the restaurant’s GM role in 2014, Westfahl has sought to keep the spirit of artistic support going for a staff that still features some area musicians on its payroll, including Ashley Smith of Whips, who has served and tended bar at Comet since 2008.
“It’s very forgiving as far as giving people time off. People have gone away for six months and come back. I know that I’m always welcome there,” Smith says. “I think that Comet is a great place for everyone. It’s very inviting to all types of people. I mean, we have regulars that are here every single day that we’ve built relationships with, and as far as the staff, we’ve built relationships with each other.”
Smith, Westfahl, and Andy Menchal—who was hired in 2001 and served as general manager between 2009 and 2014 (and who was formerly the bass player in Temper Temper and Decibully)—were all on staff prior to the restaurant’s rapid rise in popularity following Comet’s appearance on Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins And Dives. Beyond basic cable-conveyed dinner rushes that accompany each re-airing, Comet has experienced extensive renovations and an utter overhaul of its menu since its noble 1995 outset. One thing that has never changed, though, is the camaraderie of its largely artistic staff.
“That place now is a fucking beast. It is not an easy job. It’s exhausting, both mentally and physically,” Menchal says. “One of the big perks of it is you do get that community and you do get that clubhouse, and you’re surrounded by amazing people, which makes getting your ass handed to you on a regular basis kind of worthwhile.”
Westfahl says the restaurant’s sometimes hectic work environment has served as inspiration for songs by a variety of local bands. Menchal says the Decibully song “Small Circles” references Seidel’s time at Comet.
While the gussied-up bastion of Milwaukee dining now regularly has lines of hungry tourists extending out its doors and is virtually unrecognizable when compared to the tiny, endearingly dingy cafe it started as so many years ago, there remains one constant: an area musician was, and is, likely to always be punched in, supplementing their income and giving an iconic Milwaukee dining institution an additional dash of local significance in the process.
Comet’s 20th Anniversary Block Party takes place outside the restaurant (on Irving Place) from 12:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Saturday, September 26. Go here for the eclectic lineup of the (primarily Comet-affiliated) acts.