The city’s new crab shack is just the latest venture on the river for Russ Davis.
San Antonio was the inspiration when Russ Davis started Riverwalk Boat Tours in 1996. “The river in Milwaukee was coming together,” he recalls. “It was alive. I used to travel to San Antonio a lot and I thought maybe I could do something like that here, so I started off with one pontoon and four paddle boats.”
While his boat business has steadily grown, Davis has gone on to operate a number of restaurants with a riverside location, including Café Vecchio Mondo on Third Street (now defunct), Lakefront Brewery Palm Garden, Hubbard Park Lodge, and his newest endeavor, Twisted Fisherman, along the Menomonee River in the valley. His only non-riverside restaurant, Rio West Cantina on Humboldt Avenue, is actually not that far from the Milwaukee River.
“I love Milwaukee,” Davis says. “It’s why I concentrate my businesses here.” But the atmosphere at Twisted Fisherman feels more like stepping into some coastal joint. Complete with a huge, picnic table-filled patio, a sandy beach, and Jimmy Buffet tunes, it’s easy to forget you’re in urban Milwaukee — much less what was once a major industrial corridor of this city.
But the Menomonee Valley, Davis says, “is in a renaissance right now”, much like the river was when he started his boat tour business. Eventually, Davis would like to link the two by bringing the boat tours to Twisted Fisherman.
Before Davis got into the boat tour and restaurant business, he was a Sports Illustrated lighting technician, traveling 250 days out of the year. Some of his travels brought him to places like Florida and Maryland, places known for their crab and peppered with crab shacks. “Milwaukee didn’t have anything like it,” Davis notes. So when he saw the building at 1200 East Canal Street in January he immediately thought “crab shack.”
Davis purchased the building in April and started renovations in mid-June. After putting in 16-hour days to renovate the old boat storage building, the restaurant opened about a month later, on July 27.
Davis didn’t want to run a traditional crab shack. “Here there is a twist on everything. Instead of serving all seafood from the coast, we’ll get local trout and whitefish. We’ll stay as local as we can.” Obviously the crab and shrimp don’t come from Wisconsin, but the “Milwaukee chowder,” a play on clam chowder, substitutes local trout for clams. The tap beer is all Wisconsin beers. Eventually, Davis would like to franchise the Twisted Fisherman with the idea that each town’s version would have its own local twist.
As for traditional crab dishes, Twisted Fisherman now offers Snow and Dungeness crab; in the future Stone, King and Blue Crab are all possibilities. “Blue Crab is just different,” Davis explains. “It has to come in alive. King is so delicious but it’s so expensive. So I lean towards more affordable choices like Snow crab so you don’t have that sticker shock.”
The servers have been given some reading to do on crab because, Davis says, “there’s an educational curve.” Meanwhile, he’s not afraid to learn from his customers. “A lot of people that come in know crab. They’ve grown up on the East or West Coast and they might even help teach us more.” And he’s gotten the nod from some of them. “I’ve had some friends from Boston and Ocean City, Maryland come in and they said so far, right on.”
Although the event tent shuts down in the winter and the beach-like patio is for warm weather, the restaurant seats 60-70 people and is open year round. Adding to the fun will be an all-inclusive fishing charter; and a land-locked boat that never sails, but offers “fresh fish, crab, appetizers, all you can drink and you don’t get sea sick,” Davis says.
Davis is a fan of the Milwaukee restaurant scene. “There’s such variety, it changes quite a bit, and it’s mostly local. You go to other cities and it’s mostly chains.”
As for his secret to success, he says it’s all about having the right team of managers and servers. “Everyone says location, location, location. Personally, I think it’s service, service, service.” Davis’ philosophy is simple: “Make the customer leave happy, no matter what.”