They say you never know what you have until it’s gone. Much like the last time seeing a band prior their unexpected breakup, the final kiss before a relationship fizzles, or watching what turns out to be an actor’s swan song before their untimely passing, the vast majority of people’s parting experiences at a restaurant occur without them actually knowing it’s their last visit.
With the end of the single craziest, most difficult, and least certain calendar year of our lives a couple weeks away, I’ve been thinking a lot about “lasts” lately. My last concert. My last time dining inside a restaurant. My last time going to a festival. My last time bowling. My last Bucks game. My last handshake and non-girlfriend hug. Of course, I never knew any of those occasions would be the finales for [looks at non-existent wristwatch] nine months and counting. Had I known, perhaps those sounds, tastes, experiences, and instances of basic human contact would have meant more to me at the time (except the Bucks game, where I got to see Khris Middleton go off for 51 points against the Wizards. That was awesome.).
Over the weekend, I was reminded of another “last” when I made the mistake of looking at my Facebook memories. Apparently, a few days ago was my 10-year anniversary of winning a free lunch and a T-shirt from a regional pizza buffet restaurant. This reminder of an admittedly pretty unimportant personal event got me thinking about this local chain, the place I was in my life when I won it, my experiences at this place I hadn’t thought of in years, and the confluence of events that ultimately spelled its demise. I say all of this to pose this simple question to you, fair readers: Y’ALL REMEMBER TAZINOS?!
Tazinos opened its flagship restaurant in Oak Creek (before the Milwaukee suburb was a bastion of local and national restaurant franchises) in May 2009. With an emphasis on “healthy” pizzas—made with unbleached and unbromated flour—as well as salad and pasta, the bistro on the border of Brew City made its mark with inexpensive eats and a “better for you never tasted so good” motto.
To be honest, I don’t recall knowing much about the purported health benefits Tazinos touted at the time. If memory serves, I loved Tazinos for the following reasons: 1. It was cheap as hell. 2. It was all-you-can-eat. 3. It was pretty good. 4. It was close to my work at an auction house in South Milwaukee. Those first three reasons (and maybe all four, for some people who worked or lived close by) made it a popular dining destination and quickly brought on expansion. By July of 2009, Tazinos opened a location in Kenosha. That restaurant was followed by Tazinos opening in Menomonee Falls and Pleasant Prairie. Finally, this young and hungry restaurant chain that built its reputation on the outskirts of Wisconsin’s largest city announced its presence in downtown Milwaukee by opening a location in the City Center in late 2012.
As the chain’s local footprint grew, Tazinos also expanded its menu and experimented with some unorthodox offerings. In addition to its standard “Classico” and “Authentico” pizzas, as well as its “Primo” specialty pizzas (including its show-stealing Chicken Bacon Ranch, Buffalo Chicken, and its Packers-themed Tailgater pizza with brats on it), Tazinos tried out some weird Pizza Of The Week ideas. Among those unconventional items was BLTazinos, Egg-cellent Easter Pizza, Irish O’Pizza, Burrito Pizza, and more. At some point, a so-called Sunriza Breakfast (complete with breakfast pizzas!) was added to the mix on weekends.
Many of those promotions missed the mark, but the experimentation paid off in some instances (some of the breakfast pizzas, bacon cheeseburger pizza, and nacho pizza among them). I also recall customers being encouraged by staff to tell them what pizzas I wanted them to make on a few occasions. Yet as the menu grew, its service hinged on personal preference instead of bland buffet food for the masses, and its number of restaurants increased as well, its price point stayed fairly consistent. No empire could be built in $7.99 (or $6.99 during lunch) increments.
Much like Icarus…if he had taken the plunge to open a pizza buffet chain in metro Milwaukee, it appears as if Tazinos simply flew too close to the sun. Their dream was big, but with low prices, a wide range of menu items, and high quality ingredients (at least by buffet standards), the dream couldn’t last forever. At some point, the Kenosha location quietly shuttered. Then in 2015, the great culling occurred. In April of that year, the Oak Creek, Milwaukee, and Pleasant Prairie stores all closed without warning. Within weeks, the Menomonee Falls location closed, thus ending the brief-but-memorable run of Tazinos.
Of course, I knew none of this. Now years removed from my stint of writing sports memorabilia descriptions in a converted South Milwaukee school, I hadn’t made a habit of traveling south of the airport. To be honest, Tazinos was good, but not “drive to Oak Creek to eat it alone” good. I never made it to the downtown location (which, hilariously, was directly next door to a Gold’s Gym).
This February, days before the COVID-19 crisis would make its way to Milwaukee and change the world as I knew it, I drove past the Oak Creek Tazinos after a trip to Woodman’s, only to discover it was no longer open and a restaurant called “Margarita City” was in its place. Even then, I figured there was somewhere…anywhere in the region that preserved the Tazinos name, its flavors, and its arsenal of specialty pizza and salad. Sadly, that Facebook memory of yore sent me down a rabbit hole and eventually brought me to the news that, alas, there was not.
Yes, I forgot about Tazinos until very recently, but for a couple years during Obama’s first term and in the era of Mark Sanchez’s infamous “Buttfumble,” I really liked Tazinos. I’ll miss eating too much Chicken Bacon Ranch pizza with work friends before returning to sluggishly write product descriptions for vintage Sandy Koufax photos for a couple hours. I’ll miss sneaking out a brownie to eat in the car. I’ll miss the cheesy TV ads. Most of all, I miss living at a time where you could share a meal with people outside your “bubble” and gorge on pretty decent buffet food inside of a restaurant. I know we’ll get back there as a society eventually, but a part of me is sad it can’t happen at a Tazinos.
Leave your memories of Tazinos and/or other bygone Milwaukee-area chains restaurants below. We’re feeling especially hungry and wistful right now, so we want to hear ’em.