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The chef's table
A new private dining experience in Milwaukee

Photos by Dan Bishop

January 2015

From the street it looks like just another brick building in Milwaukee’s Fifth Ward. There’s no sign, marquee or anything else outside to let you know that this is the site of one of Milwaukee’s newest and most innovative restaurants.

Inside, the space has the feel of a modern loft. There is one large room with exposed brick walls, a wood beamed ceiling and hardwood floors. A long wooden table runs along one wall. There is a lounge area with a few sofas and chairs, a bar and a big open kitchen. It still doesn’t feel like a restaurant, and it’s not. Not really, anyway. This is The Chef’s Table, Milwaukee’s first fully private dining experience.

The owner, David Magnasco, first hit upon the idea for The Chef’s Table three years ago while working at Tripoli Country Club. "We had a big table in the kitchen that we used for private functions, and I thought someday I’d like to open a place like that and nothing more," he says.

Now executive chef at the Milwaukee Club, Magnasco says he never considered opening a full service restaurant. "The private concept appealed to me because I could open only on weekends, when The Milwaukee Club is closed. Plus, being a private restaurant, I know what to expect every night. I know how many people are coming, what time they will be served, what they are going to eat, and the wines we will serve. I can shop for exactly what I need, and I can bring in the staff I need. In this business, the two biggest costs are food and labor. I have taken the guessing out of the equation, and since there is no waste, I can afford to buy even better ingredients," he says.

So what is The Chef’s Table and how does it differ from a private room at another restaurant? "I know a lot of restaurants in Milwaukee have private rooms, but you are still sharing the restaurant with a la carte service," Magnasco says. "At The Chef’s Table, once your party arrives we lock the door so no one wanders in. This is why I don’t have a sign out front. When you are here, the entire space is yours, and all of our focus is on you and your party."

The Chef’s Table can accommodate groups up to 32 for a sit-down dinner and as large as 65 for other types of events. There is a minimum expenditure of $2,500. Other than that, Magnasco is pretty much open to any option. "I don’t have a set menu. In the first meeting I sit down with the client to discuss the type of event, what they like, don’t like and their budget. I send my menu ideas to the client and together we tweak it from there. It’s a lot of fun, and the clients normally really enjoy the process," he says.

So far, The Chef’s Table has been used for cooking classes, wine tastings, birthday and anniversary celebrations and corporate parties. "Just recently we had a team-building event where we split up into five groups and each group had to cook and serve one course of the five-course meal. Then we rated each team. It was a lot of fun," Magnasco says.

Once a month, The Chef’s Table holds its Big Night Dinner. "We sell tickets to these themed five-courses dinners with wine pairings," he says. "So far we have done a Salute to French Masters and Perfections of Piedmont. We all sit at the same table, discuss the food and wine. We get a really fun eclectic mix of people." Next up is Wisconsin Supper Club Night with lazy Susans on the table, old-fashioned cocktails and prime rib.

It’s an idea that is catching on fast. "We opened at the end of April 2014, and we’ve done about 30 events in the first six months. That’s pretty good considering we’re only open one or two days a week," says Magnasco. As of late last year, The Chef’s Table is already fully booked into the middle of February.

The Chef’s Table is not the only area restaurant that has a chef’s table. Since it opened in 2006, Hinterland on Erie Street in the Third Ward has been seating guests at a chef’s table, where diners can watch the action happening in the kitchen just a few feet away. "There is a lot of excitement and action going on all around, but we set the table in a cubby hole so you don’t get stepped on. We serve a fixed five-course meal and bring out all the dishes and explain how they are made and answer any questions. People really seem to enjoy it," says executive chef Dan Van Rite. He’s right. Hinterland’s chef’s table has been a huge hit, and you’ll need to call at least a month in advance to reserve it on a weekend night.

Lake Park Bistro opened its chef’s table 19 years ago. Unlike most places, you do not need to make a special reservation, pay any special fee or order from a set menu. According to manager Zoe Lord, the table gives you an up-close and very personal view of how a restaurant works. "You really feel a part of it," Lord says. "You see your food being made from start to finish. The chef comes over and explains not only the dishes you order but often others as well, and he answers any questions you have. It’s a very interactive experience." To secure a seat, ask if the chef’s table is available when making a reservation.


This story ran in the January 2015 issue of: