Some restauranteurs open additional locations; it’s much more difficult to open different, successful restaurants. Gene and I hit two of the Bartolotta’s places, Bacchus (925 E Wells St) and The Rumpus Room (1030 N Water St) during our recent visit to Milwaukee.
We tried to go to Bartolotta’s newest fine dining restaurant. Gene makes reservations at Harbor House (550 N Harbor Dr), the former Pieces of Eight, for 6pm. Pieces of Eight used to be one of the most talked about restaurants in Milwaukee. However, everyone said the same thing: go for the drinks, go for the view, but skip the food. I managed to skip the entire experience. But now the Bartolotta’s have added good food to the mix, according to my local Bartolotta expert.
Bad news—the restaurant calls us almost immediately and asks us to move the reservation later because they had a power outage. Not a good sign for tonight, Gene suggests.
We cancel and rebook at another Bartolotta restaurant, Bacchus, where we’ve eaten at least twice before and were never disappointed.
We go directly to the restaurant in the Cudahy Tower, the former Fleur di Lis and the former Boulevard Inn. The wood walls and Victorian furniture in the building entrance feels like stepping back to a more elegant time. Old phone booths are now designated “cell phone talking booths.”
The waiter brings me a non-alcoholic pineapply drink in a martini glass, a good pretend drink. Gene orders a Manhattan and discovers there is a reason the drink is called a “Manhattan” because many bars outside Manhattan can’t make a good Manhattan. Hint: no olives.
We share appetizers: scallops with porcini gnocchi and escargot baked in phyllo. We split a Maine Lobster dish in a corn succotash (good, but a little salty). We finish with a five cheese plate. Forgot to mention the amazing fruit-and-nut bread. The serving-partner system works well; our guys are spot-on. We have $100 in Bartolotta Rewards, so our bill is only $35, but we leave an extra generous tip.
The Rumpus Room
On Saturday, Tammy suggests we go to “Omar’s Place.” Omar, she says, managed The Safe House for 20 years. Omar’s Place is really called The Rumpus Room in the old Eagan’s.
The Rumpus Room has atmosphere in spades. I want my home to feel like The Rumpus Room. Dark purple walls, brushed silver tin ceilings, old-time black clocks, muted chandeliers and sconces. Gene orders a Manhattan and this one is perfect, strained into one of the classic short, round glasses. I order a Hemingway Daiquiri and it comes in the same glass.
The bar keeps its fruit in jelly jars and their syrups are in small coke bottles sitting in a wooden box. The bartender has frizzy hair pulled back in a small tight knot. He has khaki pants that are tight everywhere but the butt. Not attractive, but somehow he pulls it off.
Gene and I are done, even though it is early. The food and drink I’ve consumed has expanded and I feel like Violet Beauregard. I will feel like a helium filled blueberry until Sunday morning.
The Bartolotta’s are taking over the city. But that seems to be a pattern in cites lately, just like celebrity chefs Danny Meyer and Tom Colicchio have created New York empires. Other Bartolotta properties are: Lake Front Bistro, Ristorante Bartolotta, and Mr B’s Steakhouse.
Flipville was a crowded dusty memorabilia store in a crooked little building on Farwell Avenue in Milwaukee. The proprietor wasn’t very talkative (at least with us) and his inventory was a little worse for the wear. Visiting Flipville was like an absorbing afternoon in Grandpa’s attic.
The entrance to the The Safe House (779 N. Front St.) is crowded with people who will not know the password. We circle the block to give the folks a chance to perform the antics that will be required of them to get in. (The password: swordfish)
Ten minutes later, we’re back and the lobby is empty. I punch the time clock that opens the secret panel to a narrow dark hallway. I get disoriented momentarily and I walk into a mirror straight ahead of me. So much for being a Safe House veteran.
A man sitting alone at the bar moves left so Gene and I can sit together. Which of these is the trick barstool, I ask him. He replies huh? We shrug.
The man asks the bartender for a plastic cup for his “dirty habit.” The bartender gives him mixed signals by giving him a cup and simultaneously discouraging him from chewing tobacco, citing Milwaukee’s recent smoking ban. After the ban, The Safe House informally banned all tobacco products, said the bartender. The man could chew, but it grosses out the customers. The man disregards the bartender’s suggestion and puts a plug in his cheek.
The man’s barstool starts sinking down lower and lower until he looks like a midget sitting at the bar. He got the trick barstool after all–along with a dose of passive-aggressive retaliation.
Lynne and Mark arrive and we move to a table. We watch the lobby on the closed-circuit television. We watch people hula-hoop, dance and perform other harmless embarrassments to gain entrance to the spy-theme bar.
We notice the number of children coming in. The Safe House is not meant to be Chuck E. Cheese. The atmosphere and gimmicks encourage the kids to run around the crowded bar. I worry The Safe House may be ruined.
So we’re dorks who collect The Safe House glassware. I order a Code Beer and Gene orders a Spy’s Demise, Milwaukee’s most famous cocktail. The Spy’s Demise glass has had a makeover, no longer the standard pint glass, but sleeker, more like a Coca-cola glass. Mark gives us a twenty-year-old Code Beer mug, pewter-like but probably tin, since it is a bit rusted. We will add it, rusted as it is, to our collection.
Back at the hotel, we sit at the sunken Wxyz bar. Clever name, right? Just wait, The Aloft has more cleverness in store.
The bar’s surface is embedded with confetti-shaped lights that change from orange to pink to green and back. The large-breasted bartender struggles to cut a whole watermelon with a dull knife and we watch all three heaving melons a little uncomfortably.
We almost call it a night, but it is early and it’s our first night in town. I suggest we jump in a cab and go to The Jazz Estate (2423 N. Murray Ave). I call first to see if the bar is open since The Estate has shuttered and been resuscitated more times than a CPR practice dummy.
The Estate is open and we’re on our way. A call to Yellow Cab yields a car within five minutes. This no-car thing is going to work. And it does, thanks in part to the speed of Yellow Cab.
Two Harleys are parked in front of the propped-open bar door. Two guys with long beards are playing a Van Morrison tune as we walk in. We take our $4 (yes, $4) vodka-and-grapefruits to one of the four cocktail tables in front of the band. The Cactus Brothers play Marshall Tucker, Lynyrd Skynrd, Waylon Jennings and David Allen Coe. The banter between the brothers and the bartender seems part of their act and I realize all three are musician-pals who play together in other iterations of the band.
Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner
The Estate, despite its troubles, remains The Estate. Much younger bartenders, a wider range of music, and not a familiar face, yet the place is still so much the same. My eyes linger on the photo of Frank and Ava by the waitress station and then to the Frank Sinatra mug shot. Those photos have hung there, still crooked, since I first walked in there in 1991.
Once we drink the bar out of grapefruit juice, it is time to go. Or should we have one last drink?
Milwaukee is both my former home and my adopted hometown. Every return visit feels like a homecoming. But this visit to Milwaukee will be a little bit tourist trip.
I want to see and do the things I always meant to see and do. One, I have never eaten at Karl Ratzsch’s or Mader’s, the two remaining stalwarts of the German restaurant triumvirate that once reigned in this town. (The third triumvir, John Ernst, where I dined many times, closed in 2001.)
Since Mader’s (1041 N. 3rd St) is only two blocks from the hotel, tonight’s choice is easy. At Mader’s, the Germanness is everywhere you look: the wall plaques, the steins, the ostentatious glass-encased suit of armor and the inexplicable enormous upholstered chair in the foyer. The dining room chairs look medieval, hard and short, made of dark wood with wine-glass shapes cut out of the back.
Mader's Beer Sampler
Gene orders a beer sampler, six juice-size glasses with beers arranged from light to dark. I drink a Chardonnay La Crema. Gene selects a wiener schnitzel and sauerbraten platter for his main course. I order the only fish dish on the menu, grilled salmon with wasabi cream sauce. As the only fish dish, I worry it will be perfunctory and boring. So wrong! I also order a side of spatzle, fried gnocchi-like German dumplings. I talk Gene into sharing a Schaum Torte, the classic strawberry-and-meringue mountain of a dessert.
We stop in the German Beer Hall (1009 N. 3rd St) for a draft. I want Gene to see this bar, but I don’t know if is just too early in the evening or if we are too full to enjoy it. The narrow barroom is nearly empty and we leave half our beers on the bar.
We check into Milwaukee’s new Aloft Hotel (1230 N. 3rd St), the more casual offspring of the W Hotel luxury chain. Decorated in pink and acrylic, the sassy hotel sits on the fringe of the downtown nightlife on Juneau and Old World 3rd Street.
Is the hotel part of a revitalized downtown elbowing into the urban decay that surrounds it on the north? Or is the hotel just sitting in a no-man’s land? Time will tell.
Our room is small; but as a New Yorker, I call the room compact. A flat-screen TV on the wall, a built-in desk and a built-in padded bench make the best of the small space. The bed and the nightstands extrude from the opposite wall.
The bathroom/dressing area looks as efficient as a Tokyo pod. Divided in three, the far slice is a frosted-glass shower. The middle slice contains the toilet with a sliding door that almost closes. A sink with counter space are part of a walk-thru closet, the final third. The closet itself is sliced and diced into cubbies—a cubby for coffee, one with a built-in magazine rack and a slot to hang a few clothes.
We take a long, unwarranted afternoon nap, recovering from nothing but perhaps the stress of New York and work.
At some unidentifiable point, after I lived in New York City a long while, I started talking about leaving. I would say, if it weren’t so cold in Wisconsin in the winter, I would have already moved back to Milwaukee. The Frank O’Hara quote built into the North Cove fence in Battery Park City, makes the answer clear.
The sore point and source of my complaints always boils down to the stupidly high cost of living in Manhattan—from housing to groceries to taxes to well, everything.
But when I step outside my apartment in the summer and stroll by the North Cove and the World Financial Center plaza, I know I live in the best place in the world. I think how, if I woke up in a foreign city and found this view, this cove, this plaza outside my hotel window, I would be satisfied that I had landed a great vacation spot.
Nothing puts the unpleasantness of cost-of-living conversations behind me better than the Frank O’Hara quote embedded in the metal fencing alongside the cove:
“One need never leave the confines of New York to get all the greenery one wishes—I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life. —Frank O’Hara
There is another famous quote, by John Lennon I believe, in which he says, everyone always talks about leaving New York, but no one ever really does. That isn’t true; I know a lot of people who have left New York, some with eventual regret and some none at all.
But I fall into the category of people Lennon is talking about. I won’t leave New York City. Unless I can’t afford it anymore.