The name is as straightforward as they come. North Avenue Grill is a grill on North Avenue.
It's in keeping with the "keep it simple" concept the owners advertize on the front window: North Avenue Grill is a "New American Diner."
There is, however, a whole lot more going on inside than that implies, as a couple of private test runs earlier this week showed.
North Avenue Grill is open as of now with a limited menu through the weekend, but the full menu becomes available at the restaurant's Grand Opening on Monday.
"It's a more urban twist on a traditional American diner," said Jon Anne Willow, one of four co-owners. "We have everything on the menu you're likely to find in a diner, but everything is made from fresh, whole ingredients and much of it is locally sourced.
"And then there are some things that are new takes on traditional diner dishes, and some that are pretty unique."
For instance, breakfast at North Avenue Grill, 7225 W. North Ave., can be as simple as bacon and eggs, omelets or pancakes, typical to any diner — or you can step up a bit to freshly made crepes or eggs Benedict, which are a little harder to find.
But it's the rare diner indeed that offers Eggs en Meurette, as North Avenue Grill does — two poached eggs in red wine meurette on grilled sourdough, topped with bacon, sauteed mushrooms and caramelized onions ($8.95).
Thinking local, cooking global
Offering up something unexpected like a French country classic alongside more familiar breakfast fare is a concept carried through the day. In fact, as soon as you get to the appetizer menu, you've pretty much left the American diner behind.
There's hummus, tabouli, mirza, bruschetta, Indian and Italian flatbreads with pesto and cheese — even French fries come topped with melted gorgonzola (Firefries if with Tabasco, Coolfries if without).
The lunch and dinner bill of fare returns to plenty of the tried and true, with a bunch of burgers and a BLT, turkey breast and tuna salad, a couple of melts and a Reuben.
But there are also surprises such as a Cuban sandwich (the Havana, $8), and twists such as the Tosa Cheese Steak, featuring slow-roasted Angus beef with gruyere cheese, sautéed mushrooms, caramelized red onion confit and black pepper mayo on a toasted, butter-topped baguette ($9.5).
Then there are the complete departures from anybody's idle idea of dinner at the diner, such as the Mad Persian sandwich, a panino of cayenne-spicy caramelized red cabbage, gardiniera pepper mix, red bell pepper pesto and melted provolone ($8).
North Avenue Grill even has it's own food challenge (although no prize for finishing is yet offered) with the warning: "Treadmill not included." It's The Chrustic ($10), billed as "A Goliath of a burger with corned beef, ham, bacon, Firefry fries, cheddar and red onion confit on grilled ciabatta."
Jumping into an opportunity on The Avenue
Clearly, someone is having fun here.
"It's a mix of diner classics with urban and international," Willow said. "But it's not pretentious."
Willow's co-owners are chef Mehrdad Dalamie, general manager Michael Gull and business manager Patti Wenzel.
"Everyone brought something unique to the table," Willow said.
Willow wasn't planning to get back into the restaurant business, she said. She's also the owner and publisher of ThirdCoast Digest. But she had years ago partnered with Dalamie on the Bremen Cafe in Milwaukee's Riverwest.
"Mehrdad was the only one shopping for a restaurant," said Willow, who lives nearby. "But the opening came up, and it was a chance to do something fun and challenging."
The partners did not ask for or receive any financial assistance from the city through the North Avenue Plan, but Economic Development Director Paulette Enders helpfully "walked us through the process," Willow said.
The group also got assistance from the Tosa East Towne Neighborhood Association and the Neighborhood Association Council, Willow said.
The landlord, Al Rusk, paid for infrastructure improvements to his building, including some new plumbing, she said.
"The inspectors said they had never seen this space in such good shape," she said.
Menu is gluten-free maximus
One aspect of the North Avenue Grill that will be welcome to a growing number of diners is that every item on the menu is available gluten-free.
Willow and Wenzel were eagerly explaining to a reporter the diner's many "vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options" when general manager Gull broke in.
"They're not options!" he said. "We don't want to call them options! If you can get everything gluten-free, you no longer have to call it an option."
Indeed, for the person with celiac disease or any form of gluten intolerance, it is more than a semantic difference.
Marge Donegan, dining with her husband, District Ald. Pete Donegan, is such a customer, with a very high sensitivity to gluten.
She said a lot of restaurants that offer GF "options" often mean only one or two items on the menu; and others, though they say they can make gluten-free substitutions, do not follow through properly.
"I have to watch them," she said. "At a place I went to recently, I watched the cook cut my tomato with the same knife on the same board where she'd just cut regular bread.
"I said, 'Don't serve me that, I can't eat it."
Gull, who is himself highly gluten-sensitive, said that at North Avenue Grill, the protocol goes far beyond wiping off boards and utensils. There are separate containers for all gluten breads and segregated surfaces for all preparation.
"The other danger in some places is that they don't even know they're using gluten," Willow said. "In prepared foods with additives, it's everywhere.
"We know we're safe because we don't use them. Everything starts whole."
North Avenue Grill
At: 7225 W. North Ave.
Hours: 7 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday
Accepts: Cash and credit cards – Visa, Mastercard and American Express