My first Milwaukee memories are of Fuel Cafe. I moved here in 1996, three years after the now-iconic coffee shop/cafe opened in Riverwest. Like many of my friends, I spent an inordinate amount of time at Fuel. I ate at Fuel. I drank at Fuel. I smoked at Fuel. I met people at Fuel. I pored over Xeroxed zines at Fuel. (The ’90s!) Like so many Milwaukeeans before and after me, I hung out at Fuel. These days, while I spend far less time at Fuel, I still make the trip a few times a month to get some work done or get a bite to eat. The atmosphere remains the same (minus the smoke) and the Toasted Cheesy Tomato sandwich remains incredible, one of Milwaukee’s great comfort foods.
Which brings us to the new Fuel Cafe, in Walker’s Point, which opened over the weekend. Despite the same name and the same “Killer coffee” and “Lousy service” signs, it is most decidedly not the original Fuel. The cramped, agreeably scuffed-up space of the Riverwest Fuel has been replaced with a multi-level, gorgeously modern space complete with high top tables, a horseshoe-shaped bar, and an outdoor patio. Motorcycles—always a Fuel staple—are displayed like museum pieces. Flatscreen TVs are tuned to ESPN. Silverware and fancy napkins abound. The Toasted Cheesy Tomato remains, but it’s joined by lobster rolls, smoked trout deviled eggs, and a $16 cheese board. To turn an old phrase on its head, this is your parents’ Fuel.
So what’s the big deal? The online grumbling started almost immediately after Fuel owners Leslie Montemurro and Scott Johnson (along with their BelAir partners Kristyn Eitel and Noe Zamora) announced the Walker’s Point location back in February 2016. What was up with this new, trendy Fuel? Why was it being called Fuel in the first place? Were the owners simply trading on an established brand name to inject some “cred” into their latest upscale restaurant located in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood? What would happen to the original—no, the real—Fuel? Was Fuel selling out? (The ’90s!)
I followed these sometimes-heated debates (they’re still raging today, if you care to look for them), sympathized with some of the points and rolled my eyes at others. Now, having visited the Walker’s Point Fuel and gotten a sense of the place, I can safely say that while the new Fuel may be radically different than the original Fuel, it doesn’t matter. It’s fine.
First off, the location of the new branch makes sense. Fuel has always been about motorcycles, and the Walker’s Point outpost doubles down on that motorcycle love, all the way to its proximity to the Harley-Davidson Museum. Second, the original Fuel remains untouched. It still defines Riverwest. It’s still pretty much the same as you remember it (minus the smoke). Remember when they did that terrible remake of A Nightmare On Elm Street (or Halloween, or Ghostbusters, or 8,000 other things) and they confiscated all the copies of the originals? Of course you don’t. Sure, it’s weird that we’ll now have to specify which Fuel we’re talking about, but haven’t we already been doing that with multiple Colectivos, BelAirs, and the like? And yes, Walker’s Point is practically the definition of Milwaukee gentrification (Fuel shares its building with a juice store, and Brenner Brewing and the new Hamburger Mary’s are a few doors down), but having successful local business owners continuing to invest in Milwaukee makes things go down a little easier. This ain’t a T.G.I. Friday’s, after all.
Also, would it be too lame to say that it’s just a case of change? (Probably.) And that change isn’t really a bad thing? Remember when Comet (another beloved Montemurro and Johnson joint) got all spiffy? The cafe may be a far cry from its former scruffy self today, but it’s roots, incredible staff, and incredible food remain. Remember how worried you were when Cactus Club did some remodeling? Grab a drink or see a show there now and it’s hard to imagine what all the fuss was about.
I’ve seen some folks compare the two Fuels to the debate surrounding the official Milwaukee flag and the so-called “People’s Flag.” But in that case, one vision of Milwaukee is being erased in favor of a new, sexier (and Corona-esque) vision of Milwaukee. Wouldn’t it be nice if both of those visions—or, say, two identically named restaurants—could live side by side?
Yes it would, because, again, the original Fuel hasn’t gone anywhere. And that’s as it should be: the cafe is practically owned by the neighborhood at this point, and both its longtime patrons and its new recruits continue to keep its spirit alive. But for those folks who have grown up a little, have gotten old a little, and have become a little more accustomed to the idea of, say, $16 cheese boards, the new Fuel presents a welcome alternative. And when those folks do make the trip, they’ll still find a Toasted Cheesy Tomato sandwich with their name on it.