Jan Kelly wanted to be a vet. “Actually I wanted to be a wild animal trainer, but there was no training program for that,” she said with a laugh. Instead she grew into her legacy. She is the owner and chef at Meritage, a casual fine dining restaurant on Vliet Street.
Kelly grew up in a family of chefs — mom, dad and brother — and spent years working in their restaurants in California. “I have no formal training, but I’ve always loved food and was good at creating dishes,” she said.
Today, guests of her restaurant can thank her husband’s speed skating career and her undeniable attraction to the city. Kelly met her husband, Gary, in San Jose, CA. He was a speed skater who spent part of the year in Milwaukee training at the Pettit National Ice Center.
“During the summers he would come back to Milwaukee for reunions with his skating friends and I’d come along,” she said. “I fell in love with the city — the people were so nice, there was so much to do. It was just fun being here.”
Kelly, a lifelong Californian, suggested that the couple move to Milwaukee. She met with some resistance. “Gary told me that I had no idea what kind of winters Milwaukee had. He said, ‘You’ve only been there in the summertime.’”
She could not be dissuaded. They moved here 17 years ago. Kelly has worked in restaurants in the area. But decided if she was going to work that hard, she wanted a place of her own. Owning a restaurant is a young person’s venture, she admits. “Usually when people decide to open a restaurant, they’re in their 30s. I’m 55 years old,” she said.
French, Asian, Indian and Mexican Influences
No matter. Kelly is thriving. “I think my maturity has helped my cooking style,” she said. “I grew up learning classic French cooking, but I love Asian influences, Indian and Mexican flavors too.” Her menu reflects her international affections. “I have a good vision of where I want Meritage to go.”
Kelly and her husband found the property and opened the restaurant in 2007 naming it Meritage. “I love this neighborhood. We are a community-based restaurant and have lots of regulars from Washington Heights and Washington Highlands and the East Side. We have guests from the Chicago area too.”
Dining out should be entertaining, Kelly said. “If a customer wants something, we will try to accommodate their requests.” The menu has a selection of guests’ favorites, like the scallop cakes with smoked tomato vinegarette and mushroom bread pudding. “The bison stacked enchilada is another favorite with my guests — and the Indian lamb kebobs made with potato and cauliflower aloo gobi.”
Top Pastry Chef Added ... For Now
Kelly has temporarily snagged the services of Mary Lou Simmelink as pastry chef. “I’m very excited that she has decided to join us," Kelly said. "She will only be here for a short time. So it will be a treat to see what she creates.”
Meritage seats 52 in the dining room, another 15 at the bar and, during the warm weather, the patio seats 40.
Offering daily specials, the restaurant changes the menu seasonally. Kelly uses local food purveyors when possible. “Our trout, chicken and eggs come from local sources and we use seasonal ingredients too," she said.
“I want people to come and enjoy — it’s casual fine dining at casual prices. We have a good selection of wine; most bottles are priced around $25 to $35. We have the best wait staff in the city — they make us shine.”
Reservations are recommended for weekend dining.
5921 W. Vliet St.
Hours: Monday 5 to 9 p.m.; Tuesday - Thursday 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 5 to 11 p.m. Closed Sundays.