Taste the food at Three Brothers Restaurant in Bay View and there’s no question why the Serbian eatery has attracted local and national acclaim as one of Milwaukee’s best dining spots.
Serbian cuisine is a culinary crossroads of sorts, combining eastern European and western Asian traditions. The best of it blends Mediterranean influences with heartier German/Austrian fare, Ottoman Turkish accents, and other Slavic techniques and dishes.
Three Brothers’ recipes have been featured in Bon Appétit and Gourmet magazine, and on the Food Network. In 2002, the James Beard Foundation placed the restaurant on its “American Classics” list as “an eatery that has carved out a special place on the American culinary landscape.”
The restaurant has been a family affair for 63 years. It was founded by Milun “Mike” Radicevic and his wife Milunka, the family matriarch whose recipes and techniques have fueled Three Brothers’ success ever since.
“We’ve been blessed being named one of Milwaukee’s top restaurants,” says Milunka Radicevic, her grandmother’s namesake and — with her brother Branko Radicevic Jr. — now third-generation restaurant owner. “One of my father and mother’s greatest moments in life was when Julia Child came here to dine with them in the 1990s.”
Following the American Dream
To know the restaurant’s backstory is to understand why Three Brothers, located in an old Schlitz tavern built in 1897, has survived and thrived as a family-owned business.
Its success stands in testament to founder Mike Radicevic and the abilities of an immigrant allowed to pursue his own version of the American dream.
Mike owned two restaurants, a soda works and a wine wholesale business in Belgrade in the Serbian area of the former Yugoslavia when World War II broke out. He joined the Yugoslavian armed forces and pro-Serbian Chetniks.
In 1941, Yugoslavian forces requisitioned one of Mike’s trucks for a mission. Since his son, Branko Radicevic Sr. — who also had joined the pro-Serbian movement — knew how to drive, he went along with the truck.
During the course of the war, Branko Sr. was shot twice in the leg and endured torture at the hands of the Nazis. In 1944, the pair was brought before a Nazi tribunal to plead their cases. Branko Sr. was released, but Mike was sent to a concentration camp. He eventually escaped and fled to France.
Sponsored by a Lutheran family in Milwaukee, Milunka and Mike immigrated to America.
“When my family first came to America, we had lost everything,” Milunka says. “My grandparents were in their 60s when they arrived, a lesson to us all that it’s never too late to start again.
“Three Brothers has been our family’s Ellis Island, and it’s the first place Serbian immigrants new to the area stop,” she adds. “It’s like a sanctuary.”
Mike opened the restaurant in 1955 and called it “Three Brothers” in hopes of enticing his sons to emigrate and join them.
Branko Sr. arrived in the U.S. in 1959. He was pursuing a successful finance career, working for Bank of America with his wife Patricia — first in New York and then Los Angeles — when Mike took ill. In keeping with Serbian tradition, his eldest son Branko Sr. came to Milwaukee to care for his father and take over the restaurant.
The family shared the small apartment above the restaurant. It had no kitchen, so they prepared and ate all their meals in the 15-table restaurant. Their constant presence helped build a bond with the community and regular customers who visited Three Brothers.
“As kids we felt like our extended family was coming to dinner with us every night,” Milunka says. “Serbs love to share the food they make, opening their homes and, in the process, opening their hearts.
“Our business is more than a business,” she adds. “It’s a home where everyone can have a nice meal.”
Branko Sr. worked at the restaurant daily until his death in 2015.
The roster of recipes on which the restaurant was first founded continues to fuel the success of Three Brothers. The restaurant promotes dining at a leisurely pace — especially if you order its signature dish, burek.
Burek consists of layers of paper-thin filo dough filled with ground Black Angus beef, cheese, or spinach and cheese. The dish takes 45 minutes to an hour to prepare.
Sarma is pickled cabbage leaves filled with beef and rice, while the goulash consists of beef cubes simmered in a light paprika sauce. Both dishes are served with potato dumplings.
The menu also offers roast lamb, roast suckling pig, roast duck and roast free-range goose, each served with pickled cabbage and vegetables. Chicken paprikash, simmered in a sweet paprika sauce and served with potato dumplings, is another house specialty.
Tradition and family define the success of Three Brothers, Milunka Radicevic says. The immigrant family’s adopted home of Milwaukee and its welcoming attitude have made it all possible.
“Milwaukee has a diverse culture and a beautiful immigrant story,” she says. “We were blessed by God and the community that embraced us.”