Twelve months of dining scene updates, broken down in one digestible review
While we at FOX CITIES Magazine worked on our annual dining scene review earlier this year, we had no idea how the world would soon change as a result of the novel coronavirus and the devastating impact it would have on our local restaurants. On March 17, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers ordered a statewide closure of bars and restaurant dining rooms, a step taken to enforce social distancing as a means to slow the spread of the virus. While the restaurants featured are temporarily closed, many are offering take-out meals for curbside pickup or delivery. We encourage readers to inquire with each individual establishment as to their offerings, as the COVID-19 outbreak continues to rapidly evolve.
The Fox Cities restaurant scene has certainly taken a hit, but we have a feeling it won’t stay down for long. These establishments have already proven their adaptability and resilience during an unprecedented time. Here’s to eagerly awaiting the day our restaurants can reopen their doors, and ordering all the take out until then.
Welcoming a new class of eateries to the Fox Cities
Meade Street Bistro, Appleton
Appleton Street Sports Bar & Grill got a major overhaul when it relocated and reopened as Meade Street Bistro in December 2019. The restaurant is now located on the corner of Meade Street and Northland Avenue and has an upscale bistro vibe. In 2018, General Manager Sony Meyer says she and the restaurant’s four other owners learned they would need to find a new home because the City of Appleton would demolish their building and the attached six-story parking ramp early the following year. “We saw the move as an opportunity to do something a little different and put our spin on it,” Meyer says. Meyer says the new location was attractive because of the ample free parking it came with and Appleton’s northside seemed primed for a high-caliber restaurant. Head Chef Annie Ngo, a Fox Valley Technical College culinary arts graduate, was hired after the move. Ngo has worked in kitchens in Costa Rica, Lambeau Field’s 1919 Kitchen & Tap and Stone Arch Brew Pub. She describes the new menu as rustic American comfort food, but with a twist. “We wanted to keep it different, but also homey,” she says. “We do specialty burgers every week and on Tuesdays we switch up the tacos and do different creative things.” Popular menu items include the pan-seared scallops with risotto cakes, the seared salmon entree and the 16-hour slow cooked brisket hoagie with au jus for dipping. Meade Street Bistro continues to offer a Friday fish fry, which was popular with regulars at their old location. All the restaurant’s meat products are sourced from The Meat Block in Greenville. An all-you-can-eat pizza, salad and soup buffet is offered Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. which Meyer says has been popular with employees from nearby ThedaCare Regional Medical Center and students from neighboring schools. When in-restaurant dining resumes, reservations are accepted every day for any sized party. The private Waltman Room can be reserved at no charge for meetings and parties up to 30 guests.
An unassuming strip mall in Kimberly is home to Savor Food & Spirits, which opened its doors June 6, 2019. Owner Luis Morales says the restaurant offers a cutting-edge menu in a familiar hometown setting. The renovated space, which was formerly Infinity/Makers, is warm and inviting with rustic wood accents and industrial cage-style pendant lights. Morales owns the restaurant with his wife Jennifer and says they wanted to offer something different to locals while attracting guests from the entire Fox Valley area. “You don’t have to go all the way downtown for an exceptional meal,” he says. “We can give you the same experience or better close to home.” Morales also owns Mr. Taco which has locations next door to Savor in Kimberly, in Appleton as well as Hilbert. Savor’s kitchen team is led by Erick Vilches and Javier Guzman who run the execution of the menu that features upscale gastropub-style steak, seafood, homemade pastas, salads and burgers. Morales says guests can also expect to find a wide selection of unusual craft beers, wine and scratch-made cocktails. Monthly multi-course wine tasting dinners take guests on a trip around the world. Each course is paired with a different wine from another country. On Tiki Tuesday, the bar features riffs on island classics like daiquiris and pina coladas. Savor is currently offering takeout and delivery from 4 to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
Miss Brown’s Fine Foods II, Appleton
Appleton’s new Jamaican restaurant Miss Brown’s Fine Foods II is serving up food so good Bob Marley wrote a song about it. “It all started with my grandma who had a restaurant in Jamaica and used to serve Bob Marley and his family,” says Owner Phill Brown. “In his song ‘Kinky Reggae,’ Bob Marley says he went downtown and saw Miss Brown and he’s absolutely talking about my grandma’s place.” Family lore or fact, we are here for it. Brown himself is originally from Negril, Jamaica, but moved to Appleton when he was 5 years old. Inspired by his grandma’s name and recipes, Brown started serving Jamaican favorites like jerk chicken with rice and peas out of a mobile food cart to the bar crowd on College Avenue. Brown’s food was met with rave reviews and after two years of operating the food cart, he opened a brick and mortar restaurant of the same name in Appleton’s Richmond Terrace on the corner of Richmond and Packard Streets. The menu changes every day, but regular items include jerk chicken, curry chicken, chicken dumpling soup, brown stew chicken, oxtail and fried fish and chicken. Meats are served with sides like rice and peas (rice and red beans) and steamed cabbage. For those unfamiliar with Jamaican food, Brown wants them to know while the food is flavorful, it’s not necessarily spicy. “When people think of Jamaican jerk chicken, they think of food that will burn their mouth,” he says. “We don’t make it that way, although we have sauces that if people want they can add for more spice.” The restaurant opened in January and once the weather warms, Brown says he will resume operating the food cart in addition to the new restaurant.
Husband and wife team Thong and Yee Lee Vue planned to open their newest restaurant, Little Siam, in Neenah in March. With a statewide restaurant shutdown in effect, Little Siam opened in May for takeout only. This is the couple’s third restaurant which includes Bowl 91 and Big Pot & Grill. Little Siam is located in downtown Neenah in the former Sabino’s Latin and Asian Bistro spot and serves authentic Thai cuisine. Before Sabino’s, the location was home to Cy’s Asian Bistro, a longtime staple of downtown Neenah which closed in 2016. Owners Cy and Vong Thounsavath operated Cy’s Bistro for 17 years. “Before [Cy’s], there wasn’t a lot of diverse food in Neenah. Cy and Vong brought something different to the community and Sabino’s did a great job continuing that. When Sabino’s left, we wanted to fill that space,” says Yee Lee Vue. Vue says she and her husband like Neenah’s tight-knit downtown business community so they quickly moved on the location when it became available. Renovations began in February and included removing a raised platform at the front of the store, painting a mural and redoing the kitchen in the back of the house. Vue says the 1,500-square-foot restaurant is modern, yet cozy with a green and cream color scheme. They will be keeping the restaurant’s chairs that were all custom-made in Thailand, but Vue’s sister used Thai fabric to make new seat cushions. The menu will focus strictly on traditional Thai cuisine including stir frys, noodle dishes and curries. “We want to focus on curries because that’s what Cy and Vong were really known for,” Vue says. “We hope the recipes we’ve developed will live up to what they did before us.” Because authentic Thai cooking relies heavily on fish sauce and chicken stock, Vue says they will offer a separate vegan and vegetarian menu with dishes that substitute soy sauce or salt for animal products.
The Wise family continues to build their empire, one pizza at a time. They opened their fifth Christianos Pizza restaurant in Appleton last May in the space that previously was Refuge Lounge, and Red & White Wine Bar before that. In 1996 Larry Wise opened the first Christianos Pizza in Wautoma and he was later joined in restaurant ownership by his sons Lee, Paul and Sean. In addition to Wautoma and Appleton, the family operates locations in Green Lake, Oshkosh and Fond du Lac with more than 100 employees among them. Moving into the Appleton market had been their minds since visiting the location years prior. “A lot of people from Appleton come to the Oshkosh or Wautoma stores, so we knew there was potential here,” Sean says. Those familiar with other Christianos locations might notice some differences in Appleton. For one, the Appleton restaurant serves up wood-fired pizzas in a Neopolatian style, as does the Fond du Lac store. The others feature brick oven baked pies. Second, the menu is more limited due to the Appleton location’s smaller kitchen space. Lastly, counter service is offered in Appleton while table service is offered at the others. “With the wood oven, we bake the pizza at a higher temperature, like 800-plus degrees, so the pizzas bake in about three minutes,” Sean says. “We run a lunch special with a 9-inch personal pizza with up to three toppings. I don’t think people know how fast it is. You can come in on your lunch break and get a pizza within minutes.” For first timers, Sean suggests trying the classic margherita pizza made with fresh Wisconsin mozzarella, basil, extra virgin olive oil and parmesan. If you are feeling adventurous, the pesto and pistachio pizza is the way to go. Beer, wine and craft cocktails are great pairings, whichever pie you choose. The restaurant offers delivery through Uber Eats and EatStreet.
Fiesta Rodeo, Greenville
Fiesta Rodeo Mexican Cuisine, owned by Oscar and Sherri Serron, opened March 2019 in Greenville. Oscar Serron began his culinary career in Miami where he worked his way up from line cook to head chef. His career took him to California where he worked as a restaurant consultant, building menus and managing kitchens for other restaurant owners. It wasn’t until the couple relocated to Appleton (Sherri is originally from Green Bay) that they opened a restaurant of their own. The Serrons owned The Greek Cafe in Appleton for six years before selling the business. As owners of Fiesta Rodeo, Oscar wants to focus on traditional Mexican favorites as well as creative dishes. “We are always coming up with new plates seasonally,” he says. New menu items include coconut shrimp and Fiesta Rodeo’s special parrilla, a mixed grill of sausage, shrimp, steak and chicken served with rice and beans fajita style. Burritos are also a menu mainstay. General Manager Ramon Bautista says one of the best sellers in the burrito jalapeno, with chicken, chorizo and bacon topped with cheese sauce, sour cream and the restaurant’s special green salsa. The same creativity extends to the drink menu as well. Fiesta Rodeo is known for their vast seasonal margarita selection with flavors from strawberry to jalapeno and everything in between. The restaurant is currently offering takeout and delivery from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and 5 to 8 p.m. Once the mandate is lifted, Oscar says the restaurant will host a one year anniversary celebration with raffles, prizes and specials.
From new digs to names changes, these restaurants shook things up this year.
New Concept: Little Rico’s, Wrightstown
It’s been a year of change for Efrain “Rico” Casrrasco, a veteran Fox Cities restaurateur. He opened his flagship restaurant, Rico’s Family Restaurant, in Freedom 16 years ago and since then he has operated Rico’s Family Restaurant locations in Appleton, Combined Locks and Kaukauna as well. The past year has brought several changes for the Rico’s franchise including the opening of the Appleton location, the closing of Kaukauna and the sale of the Combined Locks restaurant in early 2020. In March, Rico opened a new location in Wrightstown called Little Rico’s. The menu plays off those at other Rico’s Family Restaurant locations with an emphasis on American classics like appetizers, signature sandwiches and wraps, salads and specialty burgers. Rico says the Little Rico’s concept is inspired by the new location’s small size and pared down menu. It is located in the Plum Creek Plaza strip mall in Wrightstown and is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner as are the Rico’s Family Restaurant locations in Appleton and Freedom.
New Digs: The Jerk Joint, Appleton
The Jerk Joint relocated to Appleton last August after operating for eight months in Kaukauna. Owner Roderick Godwin says many of their customers were driving from Appleton so the move made sense. Stepping into the College Avenue restaurant is a bit like taking a trip to the Caribbean – the colors are bright, the music is loud and the welcomes are warm. Roderick, whose father was from Trinidad and mother was from the United States, says the food they ate at home was a mix of these flavors, and the menu at The Jerk Joint reflects that. Oxtails and curry goat are served alongside french fries and chicken wings. “We hear from a lot of people who got married in Jamaica or Barbados, or they went on vacation there and are looking for the food again,” Roderick says. “And then there are people who have never been, but are curious what it’s about.” With seven meat options to choose from, Roderick recommends those new to Caribbean food try the Champion Platter – a three-meat platter served with rice and peas and cabbage – to try multiple things in one sitting. Doobies, basically a jerk chicken eggroll, are another popular choice. And don’t skip dessert. Rum, red velvet, triple chocolate and coconut cakes are all made in-house. The menu changes about once a month and in the future Roderick plans to add New York-inspired street food items.
Last April, long-time banquet facility The Mariner in Kaukauna was sold by its original owners Pat and John Meulemans. It opened in October 2019 under new owners Salvador and Blanca Silva, a father-daughter team who also own Leo’s Diner in Greenville. Currently, the restaurant serves a dinner buffet on Fridays from 4 to 8 p.m. and a Sunday brunch buffet from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. The Friday dinner buffet features beer-battered cod, shrimp, smelt, lasagna, bbq ribs, fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, chicken dumpling soup, a fresh salad bar and desserts. The Sunday brunch buffet features breakfast burritos, biscuits and gravy, pancakes, french toast, bacon, skillets, turkey, roast pork, dressing, glazed ham with pineapple, chimichangas and more. To-go meals are offered both Fridays and Sundays during operating hours. The restaurant’s limited hours are a result of limited staff, says front of house manager Esmeralda Silva, but a weekday lunch buffet is also in the works. Reservations are not required, but appreciated for groups of 10 or more and can be made through The Mariner’s Facebook page. In addition to the buffet, the facility is available to rent for private events and also provides onsite catering.
On the Horizon: River Tyme Bistro, Appleton
River Tyme Bistro is preparing to breathe new life into the storied Atlas Mill in Appleton. This is a new venture for co-owners Christine Williams and Candice Mortara who are also partners in Fox River Tours which operates two tour boats on the Fox River in De Pere and Appleton. The bistro at Atlas Mill, which formerly housed the Atlas Waterfront Cafe, overlooks the Fox River in Appleton. “We’ve always liked the space and we obviously love the river,” Williams says. “You kind of pinch yourself that you’re here.” Renovations have been taking place over the winter and have included moving the kitchen from the entry of the space to the back, away from the prime real estate of the river-facing windows. The former kitchen space will now be indoor seating overlooking the river. On the east side of the property is the River Room, a private space with seating for 120 people which is rentable for weddings, meetings and will also serve as restaurant overflow seating. A dog-friendly patio can seat up to 80 people. Williams sees the bistro as a way to extend river enjoyment throughout the boating off-season. “We really want to use the outdoor space. Spring, summer and fall are so short, so we want as many people as we can get out on the deck for a glass of wine and appetizers,” she says. Chef Tracy Darling of Heirloom Kitchen Company in Kaukauna consulted on the design of the seasonally-changing menu which will feature homemade bakery, appetizers, salads, sandwiches and two dinner entrees that rotate daily. The menu includes items like a kale salad with cherry paprika and honey vinaigrette, plum chicken and scallion chopped salad, Italian pork roast porchetta on focaccia bread and an herb-roasted chicken salad on baguette. The multi-roaster coffee bar will serve Colectivo Coffee as well as coffee from local roasters for a wide selection of speciality lattes and drinks. Beer, wine and spirits will be offered. Mortara says the bistro’s menu and events will often play off what is happening on the Fox River Tour boats. For example, on Margarita Monday when the cruises feature a taco bar and tequila, the entrees in the bisto will be Mexican or Latin themed. A weekly “Sunday Supper” will be served family-style at 3 p.m. “so it’s like going to grandma’s house,” Mortara says. River Tyme Bistro planned to debut on May 10 for Mother’s Day brunch, but the opening date has been pushed to June 20 due to the COVID-19 outbreak. In lieu of brunch, Mortara says they will be offering Mother’s Day gift baskets that can be ordered online and will feature wine, homemade bread, locally-made wood coasters and buy-one-get-one cruise tickets. Restaurant hours are tentatively 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., closed Tuesdays, with the full menu available all day. Brunch will be served Saturday and Sunday. Stay tuned to rivertymebistro.com for the latest information.
Mr. Taco in Kimberly rolled out brunch in February. “It’s been very busy,” owner Luis Morales says. “Our first day we almost ran out of food.” Brunch is served at Mr. Taco’s Kimberly location only from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Sundays. After that, the restaurant’s regular menu is offered until close. The brunch menu includes items such as fresh made tortillas, huevos rancheros, menudo, chilaquiles, build-your-own omelettes and smoothies. Morales says new specials will be offered each week.
The Next Chapter: Author’s Kitchen + Bar
The March 13, 2019 fire that destroyed Author’s Kitchen + Bar’s first location on N. Appleton Street was a devastating blow to co-owners Josh Sickler and Matias Whittingslow, who had poured years of work and their own personal finances into the business. Author’s operated for only nine months before the fire occurred. “You go through devastation and disbelief after working so hard to put [the restaurant] together,” Sickler says. “But we are very determined people. We knew we were going to do it again. We weren’t going to be stopped.” Sickler and Whittingslow spent the following year presenting pop-up restaurants out of local kitchens and securing their new location. Almost a year to the day after its original location was destroyed, Author’s planned to open its doors for a second time in March 2020. Then a global pandemic happened. The statewide restaurant shutdown was announced the same week of the restaurant’s intended reopening. “Everything was ready to go. We were literally waiting to open the doors and go, but we’d been paying attention and knew that this was going to hit pretty big and pretty hard,” Sickler says. “The fortunate thing is we adjust fast. We are always staying ahead of the game and that’s saved us a little bit.” Sickler and Whittingslow decided to forge ahead yet again, offering curbside pickup and delivery through Food Dudes and EatStreet. This time the upscale homestyle restaurant debuted on College Avenue, in the same location that previously housed Cena and Nice Time. Sickler says the new location has an old world feel with exposed brick walls and narrow footprint, which is very different from its previous space. This has been a challenge considering much of the original Author’s was inspired by its location. “For us, we didn’t get the opportunity to keep growing so we are trying to pick up where we left off and grow as we go,” Sickler says. The menu concept remains the same with items like braised short ribs, pasta made fresh daily and fresh seafood options, with one or two new items added to the mix. The menu being offered now is a bit pared down with a few menu items being rotated in and out as needed. If nothing else, Sickler says opening a restaurant during a global pandemic has taught him a lesson in community. “I think the community rallying around us has been our saving grace,” he says. “Fire can’t keep us down, Corona can’t keep us down. We will just keep going.” Author’s is operating 12 to 8 p.m. for delivery and curbside pickup.
Weathering the Storm
How Fox Cities eateries are riding out the statewide restaurant shutdown
On Tuesday, March 17 all Wisconsin bars and restaurant dining rooms were ordered to close. This has come with a steep learning curve for many Fox Cities restaurants as they adapt their businesses to these restrictions.
Kimberly Finnell, co-owner of Osorio’s Latin Fusion in Grand Chute, says it’s meant refocusing efforts on delivery, takeout and curbside pick up orders, as well as finding opportunity in the restaurant’s mobile food truck.
“We are learning to be a delivery service and that comes with a whole lot of stuff,” says Finnell, who admits delivery was never in her business plan. Osorio’s holds a catering license and owns three catering vehicles which are now used for making deliveries.
While take out orders have been plentiful enough to keep the restaurant’s full-time kitchen staff employed, it’s a different story for front of house staff like servers, bartenders and hosts. Closing the dining room meant laying off 15 front of house employees which Finnell says constitutes 75 percent of the restaurant’s staff.
“Yeah, there is beauty and success, but I still have single moms at home on unemployment,” she says. “This is so heartbreaking because they are like my family.”
Many restaurants are in the same boat, navigating rocky waters with limited staff and menus. Amid the trials, there have been some successes. With their dining room closed, Mark’s East Side in Appleton took an innovative approach to their Friday fish fry by recreating it as a drive-thru experience and the community response has been overwhelming.
Owner Mark Dougherty says implementing a drive-thru has been challenging, but turnout has been better than expected. So much so that on the first night of service on April 3, the Appleton Police Department had to be called in to direct traffic. The second week, over 1,200 boxes of fish went out the door to hungry customers.
“People really enjoy it, they can factor that they don’t have to get out of their car, they’re safe in their cars,” Dougherty says.
Despite the hardships restaurants are facing, many are still finding ways to give back. Rye in Appleton created 100 free “Community Care Packages” for families in need. The packages included fresh produce, dry goods, meat and dairy products and could be picked up on a first come, first served basis by families struggling to put food on the table. At Fiesta Rodeo in Greenville, customers may participate in a pay-it-forward program when they order carry out. Customers may choose to purchase an additional taco (or burrito or any menu item) that will be delivered to frontline workers, such as first responders, healthcare workers and law enforcement, once the Stay at Home order has been lifted. It’s a small show of gratitude for the sacrifices of these essential workers, says General Manager Ramon Bautista.
“We are a local restaurant and as long as everyone works together as a community, it inspires everyone to help out a little bit,” Bautista says. -Cody Wiesner contributed to this story
Click here for an updated list of restaurants offering curbside pickup, takeout and delivery. Please note many restaurants are operating on reduced hours and limited menus.