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Milwaukee Dining: The Year in Review

Area restaurants survive the economic downturn

Dec. 30, 2009
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The economic slowdown didn’t discourage new restaurants from opening in 2009, and although several have closed, most of those have been replaced with new owners. That said, and even though new restaurants in all price ranges have appeared, there is a noticeable trend toward affordability.

Bucking that trend is Smyth, the fine-dining establishment in the Iron Horse Hotel. The hotel lobby and bar are sights to see, with a chic Rust Belt décor catering to visitors of the nearby Harley-Davidson Museum. If you can afford a bike, you can afford to eat here. The upscale Dream Dance, located at the Potawatomi Casino, changed its menu and now focuses on steaks. It seems a bit of a waste of chef Jason Gorman’s talent, but he still manages to add his distinctive touches.

At the other end of the price scale is Centro Café, located in Riverwest. This small eatery has a fine menu of pastas at very affordable prices. The appetizer of asparagus wrapped with prosciutto was one of the year’s simple highlights.

The venue for one of 2009’s notable closings, the Social, has been filled by Stack’d and its novel sandwich menu—along with some noteworthy thick-cut onion rings.

Newly opened Mexican restaurants include Coa, La Canoa and El Fuego, all of which are worth a visit. Coa is located in the former Cameron’s Steakhouse in Bayshore Town Center. The revamped interior is spacious and comfortable. The menu is Coa’s version of Mexican street food and the margaritas use fresh lime juice. La Canoa, which is all about seafood, treats diners well with complimentary starters of ceviche and a seafood empanada. El Fuego is the largest of the three, with a Mexican village-themed interior and pleasant outdoor patio. A good item to order is the chicken with mole poblano.

New restaurants to the south include the ambitious St. Francis Brewery and Bay View’s charming Honeypie, which specializes in baked goods and home-style cooking with Midwestern touches.

Silver Spur reopened in a new home in Elm Grove, following a lengthy closure due to a fire at their former location. The wood-smoked barbecue remains as good as ever.

In Milwaukee’s Downtown, Kincaid’s, located in the former Third Street Pier, was replaced by Molly Cool’s, which specializes in seafood such as live Maine lobsters. Friday offers a happy hour that features complimentary raw oysters on the half shell (make sure to arrive early). A Japanese restaurant named Kiku also opened, near the Hilton. The tempura here is some of the best found locally. Near Brady Street is Lucky Liu’s and its curious combination of Japanese and Chinese food. The Chinese is above average, and they deliver sushi as well.

There were some sad notes. The Savoy Room, at the Shorecrest Hotel, never seemed to recover after the death of owner and longtime local restaurateur Sally Papia. Also gone is the Good Life, a Caribbean-themed restaurant and bar. Business slowed to a crawl during the lengthy reconstruction of the Humboldt Avenue Bridge. The biggest surprise is the closing of George Pandl’s, which had operated at the intersection of Brown Deer Road and Lake Drive for more than 40 years. The older Jack Pandl’s in Whitefish Bay remains open.

Some restaurants refuse to die. Downtown, the former Yaffa Café has morphed into Byron’s. The Mediterranean touches are gone and the setting is more casual. Berkeley’s Café, in Whitefish Bay, is also trying a new route. The interior has brighter colors, and there’s now a Mexican menu—which fits the new name of El Guapo’s Cantina. This just might work. In November, Ward’s House of Prime opened in the space of the long-departed Yanni’s. The menu is in the upper price range, with most entrees in the $20-$40 range. At least this includes soup or salad, plus a choice of potato.

Despite the turmoil of 2009, Milwaukee remains a great city for dining out

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