Tom Bamberger
In Public

The Space is the Place

How the owners of Comet, Hi Hat and Bel Air Cantina have changed the city.

By - Jul 26th, 2013 10:00 am
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The Comet. Photo by Tom Bamberger.

The Comet. Photo by Tom Bamberger.

Scott Johnson and Leslie Montemurro got their start with Fuel Cafe, a funky coffee shop on Center Street which opened in the early 1990s and was so successful it became a key part of the eventual redevelopment of Riverwest. They went on to open many other places, from the Comet on Farwell Avenue to the Hi Hat Lounge and its adjacent bar, The Garage, which buzz like a little city within a city on Brady Street. Just across the street they own another restaurant, Balzac. Then there’s Palomino and Honey Pie in Bay View, both very successful, and Bel Air Cantina on Humboldt Ave., which is so popular that Scott and Leslie bought the bar across the street to manage the overflow.  And now they’ve opened a Bel Air Cantina on 68th and North Avenue, in Wauwatosa (the first time they’ve ever repeated a name).

Their success has not gone unnoticed by banks and developers who line up to pitch them with distressed properties and development ideas. Their places have had a huge impact on the city, consistently becoming the economic and spiritual anchor of the neighborhood.

Yet each establishment is so distinctive it seems like a happy accident. Most people are unaware all these place have the same owners. And no one has been able to figure out, much less copy how they do it.

The last time I stopped at the The Comet on Farwell it was packed at 3:00 in the afternoon. It’s split right down the middle, a diner to your right and corner bar to the left — two American icons tied together by a U-shaped counter. An elegant wood canopy with modernist inset lighting is offset by large photographic murals that add a welcome ambiguity to all the meanings swimming around the place. None of this makes sense but the moving parts fit together like a hit pop song.

Scott and Leslie started out taking advantage of the character of older buildings. (At Honey Pie, Hi Hat and Fuel Cafe, for example). They had predecessors in this respect. Alterra got its start and style from an early 20th century building on Prospect. Elsa’s is perhaps the longest running and best example of this phenomenon.

This trend has been so successful it brings up an interesting question — when was the last time a new building in Milwaukee was designed and built for just a restaurant? I can’t think of any recent examples except fast food franchises. (Alterra comes to mind, but their new buildings are mixed use.)

It seems incredible that architecture couldn’t give a restaurant a distinctive form for decades in Milwaukee. Was it a lack of nerve or imagination? Then architect Scott Kindness designed such a place on Humboldt Ave. around 2005 as an adjunct of the larger real estate project. The building, which opened as the Good Life restaurant, floats on the lighthearted whimsy of a simple wave with glassy garage doors opening up to the street.

Bel Air Cantina on Humboldt Blvd. Photo by Tom Bamberger.

Bel Air Cantina on Humboldt Blvd. Photo by Tom Bamberger.

Inside Bel Air Cantina on Humboldt Blvd. Photo by Tom Bamberger.

Inside Bel Air Cantina on Humboldt Blvd. Photo by Tom Bamberger.

One of the finest new small Modernist buildings in Milwaukee was an afterthought. The Good Life, however, had the bad luck of the prolonged bridge construction next door. Then Scott and Leslie got a hold of it and it’s bursting with life.

The new Bel Air Cantina in Wauwatosa, designed by Chris Socha and Joel Krueger of City Place Studio, exports Scott and Leslie’s urban style to the eastern, most city-like part of Wauwatosa. It’s their newest and most ambitious project. No one knows what to do with the thousands of defunct Modern buildings which usually cycle through a downward spiral until a developer comes along and scrapes the site clean. This building was Tosa Imports, a small-car dealership, and then an aquarium store at the end of a road from another age.

Tosa Imports (top). The new Bel Air Cantina (bottom). Photo by Tom Bamberger.

Tosa Imports (top). The new Bel Air Cantina (bottom). Photo by Tom Bamberger.

This crumpled building wasn’t just freshened up. The exterior was elegantly upgraded, emphasizing the hidden virtues of the original building. Its shape, proportions, transparency, and proud use of plain industrial materials are the ingredients that made America new after World War II. The courtyard, minimalist plantings, and covered bike rack add a zen-like calm.

Zen-like calm. Photo by Tom Bamberger.

Zen-like calm. Photo by Tom Bamberger.

Unbounded yet cozy. Photo by Tom Bamberger.

Unbounded yet cozy. Photo by Tom Bamberger.

It’s worth remembering, before boring atriums were added to malls, that Modernists were particularly good at creating expansive horizontal spaces. Inside, Bel Air rambles like an old-fashioned ranch house filled with air and light.  Views dissolve into luminous windows. Horizon lines make the space seem unbounded yet it’s cozy and intimate.

These pictures, by the way, were taken at 5:00 on a Wednesday afternoon. How do Scott and Leslie do it, how do they turn every place into such a success? It’s not the food, which is good and hearty but never wanders into the foodie fetish country. Nor are their restaurants places to be seen. There is no formula or style. Their places aren’t classy, trendy, fashionable or anything in particular except people love them.

Scott Johnson, who is physical plant side of the duo, has a knack for making and finding chairs, tables, and fixtures that work together. The relationships are fun, lighthearted. But there is a creative process at work. Not the kind based on postmodern thought, or whatever art-world folks talk about these days. His art involves an intelligent color palette and an insight into how materials and finishes resonate with each other. The interior is a breezy collage of refinement and funk.

Refinement and funk. Photo by Tom Bamberger.

Refinement and funk. Photo by Tom Bamberger.

Johnson loves the stuff that fills his restaurants, which I think gives his places their lived-in feel. And he knows when to stop. The space is the place. Different elevations, rhythms, and graceful sight-lines unfold in layers. It’s the same visual game that Frederick Law Olmsted played in Central Park. You can see it in this picture. The people fit right in.

The people fit right in. Photo by Tom Bamberger.

The people fit right in. Photo by Tom Bamberger.

Each of Scott and Leslie’s projects have a familial relationship to each other, they are created from the same process and values. Yet they go their own way. Their restaurants are individuals, go by their own names, like we do. Somewhere along the line the duo made the fateful decision, against all odds and trends, not to become a brand that is simply repeated, diluting the uniqueness of every space it occupies.

There’s something creepy about brand awareness, of being constantly reminded a corporation is your friend. You can’t mass produce and franchise an emotional attachment to a place where you enjoy having a drink and a taco. Scott and Leslie are selling character — the ethos and authenticity you find in cities — a kind of magnetic field that makes people want to linger and enjoy the passing scene.

Categories: In Public

9 thoughts on “In Public: The Space is the Place”

  1. David Kahler says:

    Spot on. Well struck.

    Best,

    David

  2. Frank says:

    Well said once again, Tom, and thankyou to Scott and Leslie. There’s much to learn from this, and much to enjoy!

  3. Einar Tangen says:

    Excellent insight into the importance and value of considered vs imposed architecture.

  4. Bill Sell says:

    “Each of Scott and Leslie’s projects have a familial relationship to each other, they are created from the same process and values. Yet they go their own way. Their restaurants are individuals, go by their own names, like we do.”

    Well said, Tom.

    If I may step outdoors and make an observation, this same magic can work its way on us in our treatment of building exteriors as well, on streetscapes that preserve the uniqueness of each neighborhood. The contrary trend delivers small, rigid malls, where parking dominates, walking is discouraged, and charm is sacrificed to formulae.

  5. richard r pieper says:

    Great piece of work , classic Bamberger creativity with a lovely sweet possitive up beat tone .

  6. judith ann moriarty says:

    Scott: Have two plus decades really passed since you strolled into the Art Muscle Magazine office at 10th & National…? Your hair, closed clipped to your skull (and bleached white, punk-style I believe) announced your arrival. “You want to buy an ad in our magazine,” I gasped, barely able to believe it wasn’t one we had to chase down. “It’s for the Fuel Cafe,” you smiled. Love you, you survivor!

  7. Scott Johnson says:

    I/we would like to thank Urban Milwaukee and Tom Bamberger for writing such a complimentary article about our restaurants. As always, I think that Mr. Bamberger has a great point of view and highly articulate opinions on art and architecture in the city. Thus, it’s even more gratifying coming from him.
    I would like to point out that Leslie and I cannot take all the credit, our partners Valerie and Adam Lucks (Comet/Honeypie/Palomino) and Kristyn St. Denis and Noe Zamora (Belair Cantina and Finks) have been instrumental in our success. Their culinary and hospitality acumen (as well as design sense) cannot be overlooked. And not to get all Sally Field and long winded, but I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the help of all of our dedicated managers and employees, as well as all the craftspeople who work behind the scenes to make our places great.

  8. alba says:

    These restaurants are good because the food quality and service are consistent. There are a ton of places with tattooed, surly waitstaff that suck at their jobs. These restaurants also have tattooed, surly waitstaff – but they do a great job serving food! Belair is simply awesome. I need to eat there at least 3 times a month. Good, simple food plus reasonable prices = success!

  9. “It’s not the food, which is good and hearty but never wanders into the foodie fetish country. Nor are their restaurants places to be seen. There is no formula or style. Their places aren’t classy, trendy, fashionable or anything in particular except people love them.”

    Whaaaatt?!

    I liked this article, and I thought you hit a lot of things spot on, but I completely disagree with what I quoted above.

    It IS the food. The food is great, unique, and consistent. And I think many foodie friends of mine would disagree… these places DO wander into “foodie fetish country.” What makes their menus different from other foodie favorites is that they strike a delicate balance between foodie and homestyle/comfort food so that there’s something for everyone.

    Their restaurants aren’t “places to be seen … trendy [or] fashionable”?? I suppose they’re not “places to be seen” in the same way as Bacchus or Sanford, but if you’re a college student, young professional, or driftless hipster, these places are DEFINITELY trendy/hip/fashionable or whatever you’d like to call it.

    Like I said… I liked a lot of what you wrote, but when I read that particular paragraph I wondered whether we’ve visited the same restaurants.

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