Milwaukee is in the throes of Downtown Dining Week. From June 5-12, “Milwaukee’s Favorite Feast” gives diners an incentive to try downtown restaurants, as 40 cafes, bars, bistros, grills, and gastropubs scattered between the East Side and the Third Ward—everywhere from Bistro 333 to Zarletti—offer discounts on cuisine and add specialty menu items over the eight-day period of edible exploration. It’s a great way to seek out new nooks in the city’s rich culinary landscape—but why stop downtown?
In accordance with Downtown Dining Week, Milwaukee Record will devote at least one post a day this week to local restaurants in all corners of Milwaukee (and beyond). Before we get into covering the vast menagerie of excellent eating establishments dotting they city’s ever-expanding dining spectrum, we wanted to lick our chops and take a longing look back at some restaurants we wish were still open.
Bella’s Fat Cat
Whatever happened to Bella’s Fat Cat? For a while, it seemed like there was a new one popping up in every neighborhood, enticing health-conscious diners citywide to just say “fuck it,” and mow down a giant cheeseburger and some fries. But just like that, Bella’s disappeared. Too bad, because the restaurant’s burgers were big and greasy in the style of Kopp’s, and tasty and mouth-watering in the style of, well, Kopp’s. Originally a longtime Brady Street destination, Bella’s eventually branched out to Kinnickinnic and Oakland Avenue before vanishing in an onion-ring-scented cloud of legal troubles in 2010.
Brady Street Pharmacy
Since opening in 2010, the new Glorioso’s has become a Brady Street gem: spacious, modern, bustling, and delicious. Still, we’ll forever miss its beloved predecessor, Brady Street Pharmacy, which was dumpy, old-fashioned, not-so-bustling, and not-so-delicious. But it was a greasy spoon with heart and character, dammit (served with a side of hash browns), which made its eggs and delightfully gruff service go down so much easier.
The Coffee Trader
There are great restaurants that are simply great, and then there are great restaurants that are great in spite of themselves. For over 20 years, The Coffee Trader was an icon of Downer Avenue, serving as an unofficial beacon and hangout spot for the East Side. But like so many beloved “in-spite-of-themselves” places, The Coffee Trader’s food was so-so, its service was glacial, and its staff seemed to completely turn over several times a day. The space is now shared between The Original Pancake House and Via, but the Coffee Trader will always live on in the hearts and stomachs of those who called the East Side home during the ’70s, ’80s, and early ’90s—as well as its former employees, of which there are approximately 8 billion.
Unlike the other restaurants on this list, Crocus appears because we had not eaten there during its existence. While we foolishly opted to drive past the understated 13th Street restaurant for years, countless others were wise enough to give the longstanding Polish restaurant a shot. Dismayed diners made Crocus’ Facebook and Yelp pages a place to pen eulogies for abruptly lost perogies and a Polish take on Friday fish fry. Crocus’ iconic cuisine will live on with Irene’s Catering Service.
Eatery on Farwell
Let’s be honest: The Eatery on Farwell was never one of Milwaukee’s great restaurants. The food was okay, the service was spotty, and the prices were dubious. But that elevated patio! And that brunch! It was a combo that was hard to beat, and it gave the East Side a much-needed shot in the arm when it came to semi-classy brunch. Since closing earlier this year, the building has been transformed into a flower shop, though Eatery die-hards need not fret: a new location is opening in the old Aud-Mar Supper Club in Muskego.
Grecian Delight/El Chico Zuma
The Pizza Man fire of 2010 destroyed a beloved East Side institution. Happily, the local pizza icon is back, but two of its original neighbors are forever gone: Grecian Delight and El Chico Zuma. Perfect for bar-time grub and bar-time fistfights alike, the two restaurants were a throwback to a time when North Avenue was a little bit dirtier and a whole lot tastier. El Chico gave way to the Black and White Café before the fire ravaged the building in 2010 (Black and White’s owner was charged with setting the blaze, but was eventually found not guilty), but we’ll miss its first incarnation the most. Grecian Delight, meanwhile, was pure gyros-and-burgers-at-2-a.m. perfection.
Hector’s On Delaware
Sometimes when a restaurateur juggles multiple locations, one tends to emerge as the clear favorite. Hector’s Bay View location evidently wasn’t it. Alas, ample competition from other Mexican restaurants in the neighborhood—most of which weren’t nearly as set back from the Kinnickinnic Avenue main drag—forced Hector’s to do away with its Milwaukee arm last November, after six years of service (leaving a site now occupied by R&D Pub). Fortunately, its tasty chorizo tacos and Rangoon-like taquitas can still be enjoyed at the Hector’s location in Wauwatosa.
Wisconsin weather may have rendered it more or less useless for most of the year, but Lixx on Downer Avenue truly came alive in summer. Its ice cream and custard were perfect for sweaty summer nights spent seeing a movie at the Downer Theater or just milling around, and its chili dogs were no slouches, either. Alas, after an ill-fated change to “Jake’s Big Dog Frozen Custard” in 2010, the former East Side family- and date-spot tanked. Happily, another East Side favorite, Pizza Man, now resides in the space that a thousand turtle sundaes built.
Marchese’s Olive Pit
Walker’s Point pizzeria Marchese’s Olive Pit brought gourmet-quality pizza and Italian cuisine to an accessible, homey atmosphere. The thin and flavorful pan pizza was lauded by dining critics and foodies alike since the day it opened at the corner of 1st and Washington Streets in early 2007. Critical goodwill and devoted diehards weren’t enough to carry the family-owned business through five years, though. Marchese’s announced its closure without warning on Facebook in December 2011, clearing a path for the pricy gourmet fare of c1880 three months later.
What’s Fresh! Deli
For more than 20 years, What’s Fresh! Deli kept things simple on Juneau Street. Though the menu didn’t venture too far beyond simple-yet-customizable sandwiches, cookies, and chips, the downtown delicatessen excelled at the basics. Despite its prime location, great food, and low prices (not to mention being neighbors with Art’s Performing Center), What’s Fresh! closed its doors in early 2011—making downtown dining a little less delectable and affordable in its absence.