The Engine Company Number Three firehouse was built in 1904 in a Milwaukee fur trading quarter called Walker’s Point. It was built in a time when mustachioed firemen perched in the lookout tower to spot blazes for miles around. They slid down a copper pole to harnessed horses ready to pull both men and steam pumper swiftly to the site of the flames.
Milwaukee firemen served the Walker’s Point neighborhood from the brown brick building at 217 W National Ave for 25 years until its tower was dismantled in 1930 and its doors were shackled shut. Over the next 84 years, the brown brick building sat vacant, floor rotting, ivy vines crawling across crumbling brick, fireman’s pole sold for its copper. It sat lonely and deserted, like a broken toy soldier.
Until in 2013, when Peter and Sonia Sandroni blew the dust off the old firehouse and breathed new life back into it.
Peter and Sonia opened their international tapas restaurant, La Merenda, in 2007. They drove by the firehouse every day, and finally, following six successful years at their first restaurant, they rescued the firehouse that had rescued so many before.
The structure of the building was in good shape– the Sandronis just had to patch a brick here and there– but they were starting with a skeleton. “There were no stairs,” remembers Sonia. “You had to jump to get to the second floor.”
The Sandronis went to work restoring the original wood floors, brick interior and charming facade of the building. Reclaimed wood from throughout the building was used for the rebuild and will be used on the restaurant’s new outdoor deck, opening in 2017.
The original pulley door was replaced by a shiney new black glass door that now opens to the front patio on warm, sunny days. Though the lookout tower was gone when they arrived, the base of the original shaft can be seen from inside the front door.
The Sandronis’ hard work paid off, and the new-old restaurant– Engine Co. No. 3— opened on September 9, 2014.
I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: when it comes to Hipstoricals, it’s all in the details.
Engine Co. No. 3 teamed up with the Milwaukee Fire Historical Society to give the place its finishing touches. Framed badges are hung above the bar, and behind it on shelves are rusty lanterns, axes, hoses, bells, boots, and helmets. A focal point of the room is a 12-foot life net, hung on the wall that evokes images of a cartoon fire brigade rescue.
At the back of the restaurant is half of a 400-pound, 30-foot fireman’s ladder; the other half is upstairs in the private party area. All of the items have either been donated or are on loan from the museum. Photos from the museum’s archives hang in frames on every wall, including one of the original crew from Engine Co. No. 3.
Sonia Sandroni is a native of Colombia, her husband has Italian and Irish heritage, and their butcher is South African. Combine those diverse backgrounds with the success of La Merenda’s international menu, and it only made sense for the team to create a new menu for Engine Co. No. 3 inspired by flavors and dishes from around the world.
My visit was during brunch, and so I had the difficult job of choosing between the South African Queen Brekki, the Quiche Lorraine from France, the Kolbasz and Paprika Krumpli from Hungary, and the Wisconsin Omelet, just to name a few.
Sonia and her team use farm-to-table ingredients from Wisconsin farmers. Engine Co.’s locally sourced meats are prepared by Engine Co. No. 3’s in-house butcher, Matthew, and the menu changes each season based on what’s fresh.
“We tried to create a very unique menu, and it took a little time for people to get used to it,” says Sonia. “But La Merenda welcomes curious visitors from all over the world, and that’s what we wanted to do here too.”
My friend and I decided on the Hungarian dish– smoked Hungarian sausage, Bryntag Farms sweet potato puree, and three Brothers Farm sunny eggs– and the Colombian Patacon con Huevo– smashed and fried plantains with cilantro rice, Flyte Family Farm beans, hogao (a spiced tomato sauce), and fried sunny side up eggs. The latter was also enjoyed by President Obama who stopped by for a bite to eat when he was in town, and both were inexplicably delicious and unlike anything I’d tasted before– exactly what I’m looking for on my hipstorical travels!
The old-school neighborhood of Walker’s Point may have been shy at first– unsure of the international flavors on the menu at Engine Co. No. 3. But I think it’s places like these are exactly what we need right now. Engine Co. No. 3 didn’t go running. They stayed put and were true to their uniqueness. They didn’t try to change who they were to fit the neighborhood. They waited for their neighbors to come around and become comfortable with the different.
Embrace the different. Be open to newcomers and new flavors from around the world. Be your unique, delicious self.