For more than a decade, Turner Hall Ballroom has been a workhorse of the Milwaukee music scene. The Pabst Theater Group assumed operations of the historic venue in the fall of 2007, and quickly transformed what had been a long-empty room into a top-shelf concert space. But one aspect of Turner Hall has remained curiously inconsistent over the years: the oft-closed and erratically owned restaurant in the building’s first floor.
Happily, that’s set to change on Wednesday, October 3, when veteran Milwaukee restauranteur Mike Eitel (Nomad World Pub, SportClub) takes over the space and transforms it into Tavern at Turner. So long, gated-off quasi-eatery that may or may not be open; hello, a Turner Hall restaurant that actually feels like it’s part of Turner Hall.
“For me, I want to make sure there’s somebody here serving food and beverage,” Eitel says. “I love what the Pabst is doing for the city and I feel their pain. I’ve been to shows here, too, and thought, ‘Why can’t we go through that gate?'”
“Organically, the place will feel like one,” says Gary Witt, CEO of the Pabst Theater Group. “If you get a beer and you want to go upstairs, you’ll be able to bring it upstairs. If you get a beer upstairs and you want to go downstairs during a show to grab something to eat, you’ll be able to go downstairs.”
It all sounds like a no-brainer, but the history of the Turner Hall restaurant during the Pabst era is filled with dead ends (that gate, for instance), false starts, and, in one instance, a restaurant that didn’t even seem to be trying.
“RC Schmidt had been here for years prior to us to coming in. It was the only thing happening in the building,” Witt says. “During that time they were successful with Marquette games, Bucks games, and Friday fish frys, but we came in and kind of changed the paradigm of the building. All of a sudden we brought in this consistency of people that they weren’t used to seeing.”
Following Schmidt’s eventual departure, the restaurant sat empty for a number of years. The nearby BMO Harris Bradley Center took over operations, though that stint was short-lived. The next tenant, Major Goolsby’s, proved even more problematic.
“Major Goolsby’s did this really weird thing where they were never open when we had a show,” Witt says. “They basically opened a restaurant here to avoid having anybody else open a restaurant to compete with their location down the street. That was a rude and obnoxious middle finger to our customers on a nightly basis. It hurt the core business of who we were and who we are. To have them just not give a shit and to close for our shows was very hard for us as an operator.”
Witt had chatted with Eitel about taking over the restaurant as far back as the Schmidt days, but it wasn’t until early 2018 that the talks became serious. Eitel’s Caravan Hospitality Group finally signed a lease this past July.
“A lot of that was my fault,” Eitel says of the delay. “[Caravan] opened a massive pop-up for the World Cup and then we also opened SportClub this year. We had a couple things going on.”
“For us to have a restaurant, tavern, and bar in this space that we operate for 200-plus dates a years is huge,” Witt adds. “And it’s being run by someone who I would consider one of the two most creative people in the city of Milwaukee. His work speaks for itself.”
With the new Fiserv Forum a stone’s throw away, and the Milwaukee Bucks’ “live block” coming soon, that new restaurant, tavern, and bar finds itself in a suddenly bustling area. It’s no coincidence that Tavern at Turner’s first day of business coincides with the Bucks’ season opener.
“It’s an amazing confluence of events,” Witt says. “This thing gets built across the street, and all of a sudden there’s going to be more traffic here.”
“We have all this creative talent coming in upstairs, and then all the sport stuff happening across the street,” Eitel adds. “I want to see those two cultures collide, because that’s what makes a city.”
Tavern at Turner will feature, well, tavern-esque favorites like burgers, entrée salads, appetizers, and a Friday fish fry from Chef Joshua Moore. There will also be an “eclectic array of global food items” on a separate late-night menu.
“That’s going to be an interesting thing that happens mid-way through a show upstairs,” Eitel says. “We’ll switch from a tavern menu with plates and utensils into our late-night street food.”
As for the space itself, the main dining room will be the “tavern,” and will feature bar-height tables, oodles of TVs, and a pool table. The adjoining Palm Garden will be an “open, airy space for special events and private parties that will feel a bit like a grand hotel lobby but also has dart boards, pool tables and shuffleboard for folks to hang out in when not booked for corporate events, receptions, or small intimate shows.” Finally, a “parlor” area will feature banquette seating and a “darker, more intimate vibe.”
“It’s more about stripping things back to the bones instead of trying to do something like put in a big-ass chandelier,” Eitel says. “This is a special place and you can’t recreate it. For this project, the creative is taking a back seat to the building.”
Also adding to the back-to-basics decor: old show posters from Milwaukee music’s past.
“We’re going to go back into Milwaukee’s history,” Eitel says. “We’ve had some really amazing events occur here, and we’ve had all these old venues, from the Stone Toad to the Spruce Goose to The Palms. We’re doing an outreach to get people who might still have that stuff in their basement, and we’re going to wheatpaste them all up. The background will be in rock, punk, ska, weird Milwaukee history.”
But according to Witt, the single biggest selling point of Eitel’s tavern is that it’s there in the first place.
“It’s the simple stuff. For every show and event that we do here, they’re going to be open. Not only open, but they’ll be open before, during, and after an event. We’re basically going to have to retrain people to know that they can come here and get a great tavern experience with great bar food.
“It’s exciting,” Witt says. “This building deserves a chance to be one space that holistically works.”
Adds Eitel: “The gate comes down on the third.”