Milwaukee’s dining scene isn’t as well-known as Chicago’s or New York’s, but Brew City is far from starving for quality culinary options. The metro area hosts a feast of high-quality, creative food and drink options that cater to big spenders and average Joes alike.
The originality of the city’s dining venues is so impressive that it’s surprising to learn how many of them are operated by the same ownership groups. Just three of those groups — Bartolotta, Mojofuco and SURG — manage more than 30 restaurants, bars and eateries among them. There’s an obvious financial benefit available to owners who can pull it off, no easy task in the current economy.
But the real accomplishment is not in having a successful portfolio of restaurants. It’s in pleasing the palates of Milwaukee — and elevating the dining scene in the process.
Brothers Joe and Paul Bartolotta have been building their line of restaurants for more than 20 years. But all they originally wanted was a single really great one — and Joe didn’t even realize he wanted that at first.
“(Paul) knew exactly what he wanted to do, and I didn’t,” Joe Bartolotta says, reflecting on their post-high school days. While Paul took the culinary path, graduating from MATC’s restaurant and hotel management program in 1980 and studying Italian cooking with master chefs in New York City and Italy, Joe stumbled into a DIY business and management program, working at restaurants throughout NYC and learning as he went. “There was really no school for that at the time,” he says, “so the best way to learn was to roll up your sleeves and do it.”
When the two returned to the Midwest, they had the skill sets and the drive necessary to create that one great restaurant: Ristorante Bartolotta, which opened its doors in 1993. Located near their childhood home in Wauwatosa — Joe wryly notes they visited the restaurant as kids when it was a pancake house — Ristorante Bartolotta was an unusual Italian restaurant for its time. The menu focused on Northern Italian cuisine, which uses less meat and more heavy red sauces, olive oil and herbs.
Ristorante Bartolotta was a hit, earning a four-star rating from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel immediately upon opening. But it also made Joe realize the job he’d built for himself was going to make him a “prisoner” of the restaurant.
So he started looking for ways to expand the prison bars. After an 18-month struggle with Milwaukee County, he obtained permission to transform a neglected pavilion into Lake Park Bistro in 1995, winning accolades for its authentic French bistro cuisine. Italian steakhouse Mr. B’s followed in 1999.
Joe says Mr. B’s was the tipping point: “When you have three restaurants, a lot of people approach you with opportunities.”
Those opportunities have made Bartolotta Restaurants Milwaukee’s premier fine-dining group and one of its most diverse. And it’s still growing. In 2012, Bartolotta’s opened a modernized supper club, Joey Gerard’s, in two locations (Greendale and Mequon); Miss Beverly’s Deluxe Barbeque, a carryout-focused barbecue restaurant opened in July adjacent to Joey Gerard’s in Greendale.
Bartolotta credits the balancing act to his 1,100 employees, many of whom have built careers with the company. He says he prioritizes his workers’ happiness — if they’re happy, they’ll keep diners happy.
The Bartolotta Restaurants’ latest project is the food court in the U.S. Bank building — a once-perfunctory space now known as the Downtown Kitchen. It provides dine-in or carryout options, including a kosher-style deli, Pizzeria Piccola pizza and Northpoint burgers.
“It’s like a food court,” he says, “but a really cool food court.”
Although Bartolotta admits there are days where the business feels too big to manage, they’re evened out by days when he recognizes his growth has enabled his employees to build careers in the industry. And that, in turn, has helped Milwaukee build a reputation of its own as a city with solid fine-dining options, both at Bartolotta restaurants and elsewhere.
It seems like Scott Johnson and Leslie Montemurro should have had a top-level research and development team guiding them, the way they’ve opened restaurants. They opened Hi-Hat Lounge right when craft cocktails returned in vogue. Palomino opened in Bay View just as Gen X Milwaukeeans began to migrate there. Balzac jumped on the small-plates bandwagon long before the style became a staple.
Guess again. Johnson says they’ve just been lucky since the day he and Montemurro returned from a cross-country road trip and decided to open a neighborhood coffee shop like those they’d enjoyed while visiting different cities.
Neither Johnson nor Montemurro had managed a restaurant before opening Fuel Cafe in 1993. But back then, it wasn’t about building a big restaurant group.
“I was a punk rocker and anarchist,” Johnson says. “I was traveling a lot at the time, and I wanted some way I could keep traveling and have a job to come back to.”
Things didn’t quite work out that way. Fuel was a hit, as were the coffee shops, bars and restaurants Johnson and Montemurro opened in the years that followed, each launched as inspiration struck.
Initially, Johnson and Montemurro participated directly in management. But after a few years, they stepped back, creating an operating structure that let them focus on big-picture issues and empowering the head staffers of each location to have a free hand in hiring and management.
“It doesn’t make sense for me to hire employees to work for a manager — they should hire their own people,” Johnson says. “That took us a while to figure out. We were figuring it out as we went.”
Perhaps it’s their hands-off management style that’s enabled Johnson and Montemurro to work well with other entrepreneurs in the city. They originally teamed up with Mike Eitel and Eric Wagner to open Hi Hat, Garage and Balzac, then part of the Diablos Rojos restaurant group along with Trocadero and Cafe Hollander. Eitel and Wagner eventually broke away amicably, taking Trocadero and Hollander to form the Lowlands Group. (Lowlands Group was unable for comment on this story.)
Johnson and Montemurro also share ownership of Comet, Honeypie and Palomino with the brother-sister duo Adam and Valerie Lucks, and Kristyn St. Denis is a co-owner at both Fink’s and the three BelAir Cantinas.
It’s a complicated but beneficial arrangement. Johnson says the Lucks’ intervention helped save Comet Cafe from a slump by focusing more heavily on food options. And the group would never have opened a second BelAir, if not for St. Denis. She exhibited a flair of intuition similar to Johnson and Montemurro’s, when she found a building in Wauwatosa for sale and recommended that the group take advantage of a neighboring restaurant boom before it was too late.
Johnson says they’ve been fortunate not to close any restaurants, attributing that both to talented employees and to chance: “We’ve made a lot of mistakes, but luckily none of them were really too bad to sink us.”
Mojofuco Restaurants’ biggest project right now is opening the latest BelAir Cantina on Downer Avenue, where it will replace VIA Downer in a few weeks. After that, Johnson thinks the group will rest for a while on its bay laurels. Or will it?
“I wouldn’t mind just taking some time off, all of us, take a year to travel more and maybe work less,” Johnson says. “We say that, but then some cool opportunity comes up and we want to jump on it. We’re constantly asking, ‘What are we missing?’”
Created in 2008, SURG Restaurant Group is one of the newest groups on the scene. But the group’s partners, Omar Shaikh and Mike Polaski, have been around longer. Shaikh opened Carnevor in 2006, and Polaski opened both Umami Moto (in its original Brookfield location) and Mi-Key’s shortly before the two joined forces.
The company’s presence has exploded in the past few years, now encompassing just under a dozen locations throughout downtown Milwaukee and the suburbs.
SURG’s growth is especially impressive considering that two of its former flagship locations were hurt by Ryan Braun’s steroid scandal last year. SURG previously operated two restaurants sponsored by Braun — Graffito and 8*Twelve. After Braun’s admission that he’d used steroids, Shaikh and Polaski chose to ditch both names.
Those weren’t the first restaurants the group shuttered. The pan-Latin restaurant Charro closed in 2012 after four years of inconsistent business, and the piano bar Nuovo Centanni closed the same year.
But each loss has proven to be an opportunity for SURG to pivot and try a different concept. “We like to evolve,” Shaikh says.
So they did. Nuovo Centanni was quickly replaced by the tag team of Gouda’s Italian Deli and Bugsy’s, a classic sandwich shop by day and a 1920s-themed bar by night. Minor tweaks to the former 8*Twelve focusing on local vendors made it farm-to-table restaurant Hōm, a concept so popular the group has already opened a second location.
And earlier this year, SURG on the Water opened as a private event space in Graffito’s former location. (A new restaurant is planned to take over Charro’s space, but Shaikh says it’s too early to release details.)
Each of SURG’s restaurants has a very different format, but Shaikh says they all share certain characteristics. Attention to detail is one: The restaurants are meticulously constructed, most of them developed by the firm Flux Design. Another common factor is the sense of intimacy they offer diners. Although the two Hōms are large spaces, many of the other restaurants are deliberately small.
SURG restaurants also now share behind-the-scenes cohesion. SURG director of marketing Jaime Jacobs says the restaurants’ managers have begun working together more frequently as a way to help promote the group as a whole, which is one of Shaikh’s goals.
Overall, Shaikh says the company plans to keep expanding and tweaking things as it goes. “We’re going to be pretty busy,” he predicts.
So make your reservations now.
Ristorante Bartolotta, Northern Italian cuisine
Lake Park Bistro, French bistro dining
Mr. B’s, high-end Italian steakhouse
Pizzeria Piccola, thin-crust Neapolitan pizzas
Bacchus, contemporary American cuisine
Northpoint Custard, burger and custard stand
Harbor House, New England-style seafood
Rumpus Room, steampunk-influenced gastropub
Joey Gerard’s, modern supper club
Miss Beverly’s Deluxe Barbeque, American smokehouse barbecue
Bartolotta Catering & Events
Fuel Cafe, Riverwest coffeeshop
Comet Cafe, local, from-scratch diner
Hi-Hat Lounge, craft cocktail club
Palomino, Southern comfort food
Garage, bar with brunch
Balzac, wine and small plates
Honeypie, from-scratch food and desserts
BelAir Cantina, California-style Mexican
Fink’s, casual cocktail bar
SURG restaurant GROUP:
Carnevor, high-caliber steakhouse
Umami Moto, Asian fusion
Mi-Key’s, comfort food meets cocktail lounge
Distil, artisan cocktail bar
Gouda’s Italian Deli, Italian sandwiches and groceries
Bugsy’s, ’20s speakeasy bar
Hōm, Wisconsin farm-to-table
SURG on the Water, private event venue