The Importance of Local Dining

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Photo by Zach Bukowski

Miss Katie’s Diner is located on the corner of 19th and Clybourn Streets.

Restaurants are the heart and soul of any city. They tell stories, provide comfort and provide a sense of belonging. In sitcoms, everyone has a place, their own hangout where they congregate with friends and family or seek refuge after a long day at work. Historical businesses are especially significant, with their very essence making long-lasting impacts on their community. 

Every college student wants to find their own “place” where they can stop by for lunch or a late night dinner. There are two restaurants in particular, Real Chili and Miss Katie’s Diner, that have historical significance to the Marquette community. 

Real Chili is located on 16th and Wells Streets below the Gilman Apartment building. Its exterior is plain, a small dive with its name advertised in bright red letters. It offers a familiar, homey charm to the urban, sometimes gloomy looking Wells, which is a restaurant hub for students. 

Real Chili has been in operation since 1931. Manager Brian Vanspakener says the business was started by Francis Homish, who originally worked at a chili place in Green Bay. He then came down to Milwaukee and worked at a restaurant called Real Green Bay Chili, which was originally located on 13th Street and Wisconsin Avenue. After legal complications, the name was reduced to Real Chili. The restaurant has been at its current location since 1979. Before that, it was located on the other side of Wells.

Real Chili is popular among students, faculty and people from the Milwaukee County Circuit courthouse. “During the day it’s mostly people on lunch,” Vanspakener says. “Once the sun goes down, it’s all students.”

COVID-19 had unfortunate impacts on small businesses this year. Thankfully though, business is starting up again at Real Chili now that school is back in session.

“Now that the kids are back there’s definitely been an uptick since over summer, especially as the weather changes,” Vanspakener says. 

Chili is one of the quintessential comfort foods: warm, hearty and savory. It’s no surprise that people will continue to flock to Real Chili as the weather grows colder. The go-to dish is the Marquette Special, which is a medium spiced bowl of Chili with spaghetti and beans. Even though it’s nowhere on the menu, the Marquette Special is still a fan favorite. 

Right next to Real Chili is Bro-Yo, a standard greasy spoon diner specializing in breakfast foods. This no-frills, unpretentious restaurant serves hearty food, a popular item being biscuits. Like its neighbor, comfort food is the standard, and sometimes a savory, buttery biscuit is exactly what students need.

The convenient location and good-for-the-soul type of food will make Bro-Yo a Marquette-area icon for years to come.

Miss Katie’s Diner is on the south side of campus, on the corner of 19th and Clybourn Streets. The long and narrow building overlooks the interstate highway, with the industrial landscape that characterizes Milwaukee looming in the background. Miss Katie’s Diner is 50s style with retro furniture and long booths. The restaurant is named after Katherine Picciurro, the family matriarch who founded Pitch’s Lounge & Restaurant on 1801 N Humbolt Ave. in 1942.

The food at Miss Katie’s diner is classic American, the special being a rib sandwich, as stated on their menu. Miss Katie’s diner also serves old-fashioned malts and milkshakes. It could be the perfect place for an evening hangout or a brunch with your grandma. The diner has attracted many notable figures, earning it fame in the city of Milwaukee. Pictures show Barack and Michelle Obama, the Clintons, and current president Donald Trump dining at this humble joint.

Visiting Marquette-area businesses is an essential part of students supporting their community and making the area feel familiar and inviting.

Even in a modern world, there is value in tradition. Food has always served as the catalyst for conversation and a good time. Restaurants are timeless. Every generation wants a place to call their own to experience an aura of laughter and vibrancy, and to create distinct life-long memories. 

While chain restaurants continue to grow in dominance and offer convenience, students should make an effort to continue visiting local restaurants. It is comforting to know that your dollars are going to a family who cares deeply about their business and the food they serve.

Historical businesses are a gift. One generation passes on the place and all its glory onto the next, and so forth. As years pass, they cease to become a manmade institution. They are there like the sun in the sky or rock on the ground, permanent and everlasting.

In the Marquette area, we are lucky to have restaurants with such rich history. It’s up to students to continue frequenting these small businesses to keep them alive and thriving.

If historical businesses leave, future Marquette students will miss out on the experience of going to these restaurants. They will no longer have something of an ancient family heirloom — a place to share and treat as their own.

This story was written by Lucia Ruffolo. She can be reached at lucia.ruffolo@marquette.edu