Wednesday, July 30, 2014
There was a time, many decades ago, in Milwaukee's culinary history, when—much like America’s culinary reputation at-large—a comment about its depth and relevance would elicit a smirk. (Mind you, though the classics weren't always classics, Milwaukee did them well. It was a man from Milwaukee who invented the supper club; this unassuming city gave the world the fish fry as a Friday institution; and it “pioneered” beer pairings—wink, wink.) However, aside from a few high-style dining options, courtesy of its grand hotels and its strong German heritage, Milwaukee didn't paint too far outside the lines when it came to gastronomic variety, interest, or excellence.
That all changed as the 1980s became the 1990s, when three nice Italian boys opened their eponymous restaurants. Sandy D' Amato (former chef/owner of Sanford) as well as Joe and Paul Bartolotta (brothers/owners of Ristorante Bartolotta) gave Milwaukee the spark which, in the course of a generation, has encouraged an inferno of creative cooking and transformed this city into an epicurean destination.
Summer is one of my favorite times as a foodie to engage every corner of our city and its delicious fare—from elegant French to BBQ. The summer of 2014 heralded a “Best Chef: Midwest” James Beard Award-win by the current chef/owner of Sanford, Justin Aprahamian. To be lauded nationally, just as the summer season began, is simply more evidence of Milwaukee's ascendant dining scene.
With the exception of Los Angeles and New York City, Milwaukee has opened more successful restaurants per capita during the recent economic downturn than any other city. The national press has become aware of our heat. It seems that every other week, friends from my favorite restaurants or bars tell me that the New York Times, Travel Channel, or Esquire has paid them visit and a compliment.
Of course we have known just how good the eating is here for a long time. As good Midwesterners, I think we are apt not to brag much. My adage is that we don't wear our hearts on our sleeves, as other folks do; we just roll them up and go to work. And now the ‘other folks’ are noticing.
With this kind of momentum, no doubt, the dining scene is only going to get better. There are more than a dozen interesting new restaurants slated to open in the next six months alone. Our neighborhoods are enlivened with great boutique chef/owner restaurants, and the fabric of our city is becoming ever more colorful. We are glad that the world at-large is catching on, but we are going to keep doing it here, for us, and make the rest of the world feel welcome when they come.