Lunch at the Counter

My family is big on rituals. Growing up, it was the Meadow Inn on Friday nights, Solly’s Coffee Shop on Saturdays and Marc’s Big Boy on Sundays after church. We didn’t always go out to eat but when we did, that’s where we’d go. When Mom and Dad went on a Saturday night date, it would be to Jake’s for steaks.

Friday nights during high school, then in college and afterwards, we’d meet up at Kalt’s on Oakland Avenue. (My brother had his wedding rehearsal dinner there and I had my first one there too.) We would sit in the dark wooded and mirrored lobby with the aromas of fried fish wafting through the air, accompanied to the sounds of conversations and laughter coming from the long bar around the corner, as we waited for our name to be called.

We were always greeted by Henry—Mr. Kalt’s son—with menus we didn’t need because we all had fish fries. Henry would escort us back through the restaurant of tables with the red and white checkered tablecloths, to the back room where he’d slide three of four tables together in order to seat us all. Before long we’d have our drinks and a couple orders of onion rings, yelling down the table in cross conversations, as we waited for the fish to arrive.

Kalt’s Restaurant was next door to the J. Pellman Theatre. It was kind of a Milwaukee version of Sardi’s—a spot where all the performers gathered after shows and caricatures of famous people hung on the walls. No matter what, that’s where we’d all meet up at the end of the week. And I always looked forward to it.

Poor Todd. He married into it like it or not. We have developed our own personal rituals like Beans and Barley and Colectivo—a little healthier. But yesterday, we went to Solly’s.

It’s nostalgia. As you wait for a seat at the counter, you can see the guy in the back, grilling, throwing huge slabs of butter on the burgers and salting them with a large metal shaker. To some, it’s an acquired taste. I usually order a salad but the shakes and fries are awesome.

Solly’s opened up in 1936 as a family run restaurant by Kenneth Salmon, a.k.a. Solly. It’s still owned and run by his family. Ladies in their seventies wait on you and you feel bad that their legs must hurt.

I guess for me, walking into the room with counter seating is more about the memories than the food. Long ago, after I finished my Saturday morning piano lessons at the Wisconsin College of Music, I’d wait, sometimes an hour or more, for my dad to pick me up after whatever meeting he had that morning. I’d entertain myself on the front steps of the grand old building, by running up and down them, heading back inside to bother the receptionist for a while, then out again to look down Prospect Avenue for Dad’s orange convertible Carmen Gia. When he finally did show up with his briefcase on the passenger seat, he’d apologize, tossing it in the back, saying the meeting ran longer than he had planned and then we’d head to Solly’s.

Years later, when the doctor told Mom there would be no more Chemo because it wasn’t working any longer, she sat quietly for a moment before picking up her purse and coat and heading out the door with my dad and sister. When Dad asked her what she’d like to do, she stopped, turned to him, and said……..…“Well, let’s go to Solly’s.” She was too weak by then to sit on one of the counter chairs that have replaced the old rotating pedestals that were great for doing three-sixties, so they sat and had their burgers and fries and malts together in the car.

Dad’s been going there since 1946 and still eats there several times a month. People know him by name and if he happens to forget one of theirs it’s okay because the name of each of the waitresses is stitched  into their shirts. He says it’s his home away from home.

Solly's burger

Be advised if you go there, you’ll probably over-tip.