in other parts of the country are discovering what Wisconsinites have
known all along — a friendly demeanor and the liberal use of cheese
is an almost guaranteed recipe for success.
From New York
City to the Pacific Northwest, it seems there’s a Midwest food
renaissance taking place. But what makes Wisconsin-themed eateries
appealing beyond the borders of America’s Dairyland? For many it’s
the relaxed environment and dishes that taste like home.
atmosphere of our restaurants feels very familiar," says Brian
Bartels, director of bar operations for Little Wisco, a collection of
six dining spots in New York’s West Village started by
Wisconsin-born restaurateur Gabe Stulman. "There’s a small town
grew up in Reedsberg, Wis., and attended UW-Madison with Stulman,
likens New York City to a "small big town" with its pockets
of neighborhoods and close-knit ethnic communities.
why the Little Wisco group has found so much success there. Stulman
opened his first restaurant, Joseph Leonard, a gourmet American bistro
named for his grandfathers, in 2010. From the get-go, he wanted to
re-create the relaxed, friendly atmosphere of Wisconsin restaurants.
Leonard has accomplished just that. With only 31 seats, the
understated corner bistro, which serves familiar foods with a gourmet
twist, became the start of an accidental neighborhood empire.
years later, Little Wisco has expanded to six restaurants — five of
them within three blocks of each other. The most recent, Montmartre,
opened in April, is named for a former downtown Madison jazz club and
restaurant where Stulman bartended while attending college. Stulman’s
New York version is a classic French restaurant with an Asian flair.
Although all six
Little Wisco restaurants serve dramatically different fare (Jeffrey’s
Grocery is a seafood and oyster bar while Perla dishes up Italian
cuisine), they share the same warm, welcoming ambiance.
a neighborhood camaraderie," says Bartels. "Our regulars
constantly bring their parents and family members when they come to
New York to visit. I think that speaks a lot to the way Little Wisco
treats its customers."
Barrie Lynn, aka
the Cheese Impresario, says there’s an authenticity about people
from Wisconsin. "It oozes out everywhere you go," says Lynn,
a New Jersey native and former advertising executive turned cheese
expert who hosts events all around the country.
Fond memories of
family gatherings served as the inspiration for Karl Kopp’s AZ 88,
an upscale bar and restaurant in Scottsdale, Ariz. The desert
mainstay, originally opened in 1988, has a decidedly distinctive style
not unlike Kopp’s Elsa’s on the Park in downtown Milwaukee.
from Scottsdale’s Center for Performing Arts and Museum of
Contemporary Art, AZ 88 draws pre- and post-theater crowds. Despite
the hip crowd and sleek decor, the restaurant’s primary focus is on
delivering good food, drink and conversation.
Dale Joidon, who likens AZ 88 to a modern-day saloon, says the
restaurant attracts its fair share of Midwest transplants and
vacationing Milwaukeeans. "Karl created AZ 88 to pay homage to
family celebrations at his mother’s home," says Diodon of the
restaurant’s Wisconsin connection.
sushi or tater tot casserole on the menu, restaurants run by
Wisconsinites in every part of the country seem to have a common
customers consider the cafe their home away from home," says Jay
Wergin, who runs the Heartland Cafe in Seattle. According to its
mission statement, Heartland Cafe strives "to be a friendly,
neighborhood cafe, serving Midwestern comfort food like mom used to
hearty home-cooked meals of his childhood, Wergin, who hails from
Green Bay, opened the Heartland Cafe in 2010, with his close friend
Jeff Loren, a Minnesota native.
always been a fan of the kind of food you’d find at supper clubs and
backyard barbecues," says Wergin. Inspired by the owners’
Midwest roots, the Heartland Cafe menu features classic comfort food
like meatloaf, mac ’n’ cheese, fried chicken and fried cheese
curds — even a traditional Friday fish fry. Meals are served family
style on rustic picnic tables that run down the center of the dining
Cafe staff encourages fellow Midwest transplants — and patrons who
simply have a hankering for a hardy meal — to share their childhood
stories and favorite comfort foods.
favorites have been known to show up on our menu or specials
board," Wergin says.
unpretentious demeanor can be found at Kettle of Fish, a basement
sports bar just off Sheridan Square in New York’s Greenwich Village.
The tavern, which has a history dating to once-frequent customers Jack
Kerouac and Bob Dylan, shamelessly displays its love for all things
Wisconsin — especially its sports teams.
Bar shelves are
adorned with an array of Packers and Badgers collectibles, and it’s
not unusual to find a couple of expat Wisconsinites bellied up to the
bar on any given day.
formerly of Wauwatosa, bought Kettle of Fish in 1998 after bartending
there for 15 years. He describes the joint as "a Greenwich
Village bar with a strong Wisconsin tint."
of Fish started out as a beatnik bar in the 1950s, it grew into a
favorite watering hole to watch Wisconsin sports after Daley took
When Kettle of
Fish first began showing Packers games on Sunday afternoons, a handful
of fans gathered at the bar with Daley slicing up summer sausage and
serving it directly from the knife. The clientele grew as word of
mouth spread, and today the line outside Kettle of Fish entrance on
Packers Sundays snakes around the block well before kick-off.
fortunate to be fairly well-known because we are what we are," he
says. "There are a lot of Wisconsin expats living in New York and
a lot of people visiting the city."
Dan Schuman, a
Milwaukee native, who operates a custard stand called 5oz. Factory in
New York’s West Village, says he’s always shocked by how many
people in New York are from Wisconsin. "They seem to seek us
out," says Schuman. "We’ve met people from Wauwatosa,
Neenah and Appleton."
With its genuine
custard and melts spilling over with cheesy goodness, 5oz. Factory,
which opened in August, fits right into the Little Wisco area. The
shop is located within just a few blocks of Kettle of Fish and Joseph
Leonard and its counterparts.
Schuman, who has
lived in New York for nearly 10 years, decided to open 5oz. Factory
when the city’s selection of ice cream shops and frozen gelato
stands left him unimpressed. "No one was doing my childhood treat
the right way so I thought ‘Why don’t I just do it?" he says.
"After all, I have the story. I was born and raised in
attorney attended the Frozen Dessert Institute at Voss Equipment in
St. Louis to get custard-making down pat. Legally, he says, custard
must contain 1.4 percent egg yolk and 10 percent butter fat to be
taste of home for a lot of people," Schuman says.
Liz Davis, who
serves up her own frozen custard concoctions at The Dairy Godmother in
Alexandria, Va., agrees.
custard is such a pastime in Milwaukee," says Davis, a former
Waukesha resident who introduced the frozen treat to Virginians when
she opened The Dairy Godmother in 2001. The shop was made famous when
President Obama and his daughters visited in 2009.
A graduate of
the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York and former
pastry chef, Davis sees The Dairy Godmother as more than just a spot
to buy frozen custard. "I wanted to create a place where people
feel welcome and comfortable," she says. "People need a
place where they can find old and new friends and easily join in the
The desire to
make people feel at home is yet another sign of Wisconsin
authenticity, says Lynn. "People from Wisconsin have a sense of
place," Lynn says. "It’s very different than Hollywood or
down-to-earth Midwest attitude seems to be one of the primary draws
for patrons of Wisconsin-breed restaurants.
restaurants are places where you can come and be yourself," says
Bartels. "They’re designed to be intimate spaces where people
break bread together."
director of national product communications for the Wisconsin Milk
Marketing Board, witnessed the Little Wisco phenomenon firsthand when
she visited New York in October.
blown away,"she says. "It’s like they’ve brought a
little bit of home with them."
observations, Porter-Engwall found the restaurants’ ultra-friendly
waitstaff and general laid back vibe reminiscent of our home state.
"Wisconsin has its own culture that seems to appeal to other
people," she says.
the reason so many former Wisconsinites seek employment with Little
Wisco restaurants. Bartels says it’s not unusual for recent college
grads to show up unannounced saying they heard the restaurant group
hires people from Wisconsin.
you how small the distance between (Wisconsin) and New York really
is," he says.