Last updated on September 1st, 2022 at 08:33 pm
With the opening of The Bridgewater Modern Grill fast approaching, operator Benson’s Restaurant Group is rounding out its grand vision for Milwaukee’s newest riverfront dining spot.
The upscale-casual eatery at 2011 S. 1st St. will open in October at the R1VER development in Milwaukee’s Harbor District. Benson’s, formerly known as Hospitality Democracy, first announced plans for the restaurant in January. This week, the group named The Bridgewater’s key leaders and unveiled the menu concept.
BizTimes on Monday got its first look at the 6,000-square-foot restaurant space, currently under construction on the ground floor of R1VER’s Tribute apartments on the east side of the campus, which was developed by Brownsville-based infrastructure construction company Michels Corp.
The build out of the 165-seat interior dining room at The Bridgewater still has a ways to go before looking and feeling like a restaurant, but on a warm summer’s day, it was easy to imagine the atmosphere of its 245-foot-long outdoor patio overlooking the Kinnickinnic River. With space for up to 80 people, the patio will feature both table and lounge-seating, fireplaces, ten boat slips – where boaters can enjoy dockside service – access to the public RiverWalk, and a turf area that could be used for yard games or even wedding ceremonies, said Chris Adams, executive vice president of Benson’s Restaurant Group.
“The thing that I love about this restaurant is if you’re kayaking and you want to sit out on the patio or by the bar and not feel comfortable going inside, you can do that. Or, if you want to wear a suit and tie and dine in the regular restaurant, you’ll feel comfortable doing that, too,” said Adams. “We really wanted to be purposeful with having that casual feel. We want to be a special occasion restaurant without being a special occasion.”
Benson’s Restaurant Group veteran Rik Acken was named general manager of The Bridgewater, bringing GM experience from past stints at Swig, Water Buffalo, Smoke Shack and most recently, Onesto. Steve Gustafson was named executive chef. He’s working with Benson’s corporate executive chef Alex Sazama to design an “approachable” menu around the restaurant’s custom designed, oak-fed Jade grill and a beverage program that lists about 70 bottles of wine from around the world.
On the menu, diners will find wood-fired fresh fish and steaks, fork and knife ribs, chicken rotisserie and hearty salads, all made with locally sourced ingredients from more than a dozen partner businesses, including Rocket Baby Bakery, Hundred Acre Farms, BelGioioso Cheese, Greige Bakery, Mushroom Mike LLC, Valentine Coffee, Best Burn Firewood, Strauss Meats, Great Lakes Distillery and Eagle Park Brewery.
The Bridgewater will be one of the only restaurants in the state with a Santa Maria grill, said Sazama. Food is grilled over a live flame as wood is burned in a fully enclosed fire box below. This style of grilling enhances the flavor of a variety of foods – that aren’t normally prepared on a grilled – with heat, flame, and coals.
“Why we chose this (wood-fired grill) is that it will allow us to control the temperature a little bit more, but it will also allow us the ability to fully utilize all of the energy of the wood,” he said. “We’re going to use this in ways that you wouldn’t normally use a normal grill … we’ll be able to cook things like sausages or squashes or even herbs to really infuse flavors into it and then utilize them in other dishes.”
Sazama said he’s working to hire about 18 employees to run the kitchen. With a hiring target of 100 workers, The Bridgewater is hiring for all positions, including an assistant manager, onsite events manager, servers, bartenders, line cooks, food runners and more.
Benson’s rebrand from Hospitality Democracy came in January, two decades after the group’s original founding in 2000 by Angie and Joe Sorge. In 2018, Milwaukee-based Marcus Investments took over the business, after having purchased a majority stake in 2011. The investment allowed the group to grow and open more restaurants; its current lineup includes Onesto, Blue Bat Kitchen & Tequilaria, Smoke Shack and AJ Bombers. The group is also the franchisor of Zaffiro’s pizza brand.
The Bridgewater will mirror Onesto in its casual fine dining approach but, with its expansive riverside location and unique menu, it shows how the group continues to evolve.
“Taking a concept that we haven’t done before and being on the water, … This will be the first restaurant we’ve opened up as Benson’s so this is a really exciting time for us,” said Adams.