If you frequent the Milwaukee subreddit—and you should!—you’ve likely come across a seemingly weekly question. Seriously, this karma-farming beauty comes up all the time. No, not the running gag about the “Arby’s on Miller Park Way,” but this: What’s the worst or most overrated restaurant in Milwaukee? To quote r/milwaukee: HOO BOY!
Inevitably, two local mainstays with multiple locations get upvoted to the top of the 8,000 eager replies: Café Hollander (and/or other Lowlands Group joints like Café Centraal and Café Benelux) and BelAir Cantina. Awful food! Awful service! They used to be good but now they’re bad! These apparently egregiously awful/overrated places are then followed by nearly every other restaurant in Milwaukee. Your favorite Milwaukee restaurant? There’s at least one local redditor who thinks it sucks.
But back to Hollander and BelAir. Are they really that bad? Is it possible for two places to be “overrated” even if they’re consistently bashed? (Let’s just answer that right now: no.) What about the service? Why does everyone constantly complain about “bad service”? What could anyone have against frites and burritos?
As it happens, I live near a Café Hollander and a BelAir. (Shout-out to Downer Avenue.) And, as it happens, some of my family members were visiting from out of town/state a few weeks ago. If there was ever a time to snuff out endless conversations about where to eat with “let’s just walk to BelAir,” this was it.
And so over the course of four days, I ate at BelAir once and Café Hollander twice. Twice! And readers, I’m here to deliver this shocking news:
They were fine. Both places were perfectly fine. Hell, I might even call a few of the offerings at both places straight-up good. [ducks]
I’m not here to say these places are “secretly great” or whatever. This isn’t me trying to convince you that, I dunno, Attack Of The Clones is “actually good.” This is just me saying that maybe—just maybe!—Café Hollander (and/or other Lowlands Group joints) and BelAir serve a purpose—good in a pinch, good for families—and that they’re far from the worst restaurants in Milwaukee. Or, as someone in my mentions said when I posted about this on social media last week, that continually calling them the worst is deeply tired and unoriginal. You know, like saying Nickelback is the “worst band ever.” Nickelback may blow, but we all know that [insert your most hated band here, especially if it’s modern-day Fall Out Boy] is ACTUALLY the worst band ever.
Not a week (day?) goes by on the Milwaukee subreddit without a new “worst/overrated restaurant?” thing and it’s always Lowlands restaurants and BelAir followed by every other restaurant in the city
— Matt Wild (@ByMattWild) November 6, 2023
Café Hollander and BelAir, however, do not blow as much as Nickelback. During my first Hollander visit, when we sat on the charming second floor, my Brie Tomato Basil sandwich ($14.95) was perfectly tasty. (The bottom of one of the baguettes was maybe a little burnt, but whatever.) During my second visit, sitting near the imposing downstairs bar, my Grand Café Club ($15.95) was even better. My carne asada burrito at BelAir ($13.96)? I wolfed that hefty bad boy down in minutes. Hold the phone: BelAir isn’t “authentic” Mexican food? And there are dozens upon dozens of better places to get “authentic” Mexican food? You don’t say! (Okay, I’ll agree that the rice at BelAir leaves a lot to be desired.)
What about the prices? Surely those prices are wildly expensive, right? Well, no shit: everything is wildly expensive these days. Just yesterday I was at Shah Jee’s for a (totally worth-it) $14 meal. Scrolling though old photos on my phone, I discovered the same meal was only $8 back in 2017. That’s an extra $1 a year! (Still worth it, though.)
How was the service at Café Hollander and BelAir? Delightful. Everything arrived promptly and on-time, no muss, no fuss. (The wait for drinks during the first Hollander visit was maybe a little long, but whatever.) Every server who was busy busting their ass in a brutal and thankless service industry was friendly and knowledgeable. The dude during the second Hollander visit easily accommodated my brother-in-law’s detailed bourbon order. The woman at BelAir wasn’t stingy with the chips. Am I the only one who doesn’t run into “bad service” each and every time I go out to eat? (My only truly memorable “bad service” experience was at a Wendy’s, when the girl behind the counter left mid-order to go outside and smoke a cig.)
As for the “they used to be good” thing, well, I don’t know what to tell you. To my taste buds, both spots have been rocking the same “perfectly fine” quality for nearly a decade. I suspect the things that have actually changed are A.) my aforementioned taste buds, and B.) the number of legitimately fantastic Milwaukee restaurants that have sprouted up since 2010 or so.
At one point during our second Hollander visit, my brother-in-law, unprompted, said: “Do people drag this place? It’s not bad. I wouldn’t drive across town for it, but it’s nice that it’s in your neighborhood. You’re lucky.”
And yeah, that’s how I’ve always treated these places: totally fine, good in a pinch, perfect for those indecisive dining moments. Are they the “Applebee’s/Chili’s of Milwaukee dining,” as some people claim? Sure, maybe, but I’m glad they’re indeed Milwaukee restaurants. (And Wauwatosa, and Brookfield, and Mequon, and Madison, and my god how many Hollanders are there these days?)
So here’s to you, Café Hollander (and/or other Lowlands Group joints) and BelAir. Thanks for doing what you do, and being what you are. You’re not the worst restaurants in Milwaukee. That dubious honor goes to [check the 17 new threads coming to the Milwaukee subreddit next week].