Friday, February 27, 2009

Serb Hall Revisited

Back in its day, Serb Hall was one of, if not the, best fish fry place in Milwaukee. The fish was tender and tasty, the fries crisp and warm. The service staff was always friendly and efficient. The place just hummed along like a high performance machine, and everyone was happy.

Then new management came in and nearly destroyed their business with some really bad decisions. The customers were displeased and started to take their business elsewhere. In that post from last June, Dad29 recommended The Venice Club, which we found to our liking and have returned their numerous times.

Meanwhile, Serb Hall continued to suffer. I would drive by their parking lot on a Friday and would see only 20 or 30 cars where there used to be hundreds, with even more driving around looking for a parking spot. A friend of the family who works at Serb Hall as a waitress would tell us that she would only have three or four tables to wait on for an entire shift.

She even had to take a few months off during the winter because business was so slow, she couldn't afford to hire a babysitter.

Our friend called us last week, sounding very excited. She urged us to come back and give the fish fry another chance. She thought we would be very happy with what we found.

My wife and I were originally planning on going up north tonight, but changed our minds at the last minute due to my working late, the inclement weather that they had last night and this morning up there, and the fact that I was plainly too tired to drive that far and be safe on the road.

To make up for it, I suggested we go to Serb Hall tonight. We hadn't seen our friend since Christmas and missed her a lot. My wife eagerly jumped at the chance. I warned her that we didn't know what to expect, with the changes and with it being the first Friday of Lent.

Now, for those unfamiliar with Serb Hall, it is a large building with two good sized banquet halls, a roomy bar area, and of all things, a bowling alley. There is a small parking lot on the west side of the building and a larger one on the south side. Most people try to park in the smaller one, as that the two main entrances are on the west side of the building.

When we arrived, we were surprised to see that the parking lot was pretty full. They also had a long line of cars waiting to go through the drive through. We were lucky enough to find a spot in the small lot rather quickly. We entered through the northern doors.

Upon entering, the first thing we saw was the new manager, John S. Cwiklik, Ph.D., the guy who screwed everything up in the first place. We developed a deep sense of foreboding. But we went forward without trepidation, and told him that we were there for the fish fry. He pointed down the hall, which we saw was divided by some velvet ropes. The left side was for the a la cart menu, which included the all you can eat fish fry. The right side was for the buffet.

You could quickly see that this was Cwiklik's first Lenten season running a fish fry in Milwaukee, and was not ready for the crowd. The hall was packed with people waiting to be seated. To make matters worse, people that came in through the southern doors didn't know of Cwiklik's plan and just started to mingle in the lines. Added to this was two large groups of people that spent too much time in the bar area on an empty stomach. It was very chaotic in that little section of the hallway, to say the least.

Fortunately, the usual maitre d', Tim, was heading things up from there and was able to quickly restore order and get people seated in a more timely manner. Because we had asked to be seated at one of our friend's tables, which were all full at the moment, we had to wait for a little longer than we might have otherwise, but we knew it would be worth it.

They eventually ended up setting up a special table for us in the bar area, which was out of her serving area, but she readily agreed to take on that added responsibility when she realized it was for us.

She quickly brought us our bread, coleslaw and a pitcher of soda. The pitcher was the first surprise, since they had stopped doing that when they had stopped the all you can eat. The bread was also improved. It had two slices of dark rye, two slices of Itatlian bread, and a roll of light rye. This is opposed to the previous bread baskets which were all just slices of light rye.

The next new thing we noticed was that instead of the waitress bringing out the order, a young man would carry it out to the table. Then the waitress would serve it. We didn't have to experience this personally, since we are VIPs, at least to our friend, who brought out the food to us personally.

But while we were waiting for her to get our food, I had an opportunity to look around a bit, and saw this young man do his job, in a fashion of speaking. The young fellow was dressed in a manner that reminded me of a butcher, or some other worker at a slaughterhouse, which was a definite detriment to the ambiance. To make things worse, he would come out with this large tray of food, but not know what table he was supposed to take it to. It would end up in a comical farce of him going from waiter to waitress to see if this was the order from one of their tables. When they finally found the right table, the order seemed to be incorrect more often than not, thereby forcing the waitstaff to go to the kitchen anyway to get the right order. While it was amusing to watch, I would have been annoyed to have to go through that extended waiting period.

The other thing I noticed was that there were several vacant tables that were not being bussed. In fact, they were never bussed for the entire time we were there, which was approximately 90 minutes. (We had after dinner coffees and got a chance to chat with our friend briefly since the restaurant was slowing down with the later hour.)

Anywho, when our friend brought our food, I noticed that it still came with those sickly covers that still remind me of the food that one is served while convalescing in a hospital. However, I cannot describe my delighted surprise when she placed the covered dishes int he center of the table, taking the covers off and revealing a large bowl of fish and another bowl of fries. I swear that I almost teared up when she told us the family style dinners were back! (I could almost see my grandpa smiling down from heaven, seeing that at least this was coming back to normalcy. If you wonder what I mean, refer back to this post again.)

The fish fry was back to normal, tender and tasty. The fries were again crisp and warm, and not too salty. The downside for me was a very minor one. The lemons still came in the half a lemon instead of wedges, which I find easier to use, and less likely to overuse.

Our friend warned us that they also changed the tartar sauce. My wife liked it. Even though I don't care for tartar sauce, and am in no way an aficionado of the stuff, I thought I would try some, just for you, gentle reader. Like I said, I am no aficionado, but to me, it tasted like pure mayonnaise with chopped pickles mixed in. I found it to almost completely obliterate the taste of the fish. But like I said, my wife liked it, and she is a more discriminating eater than I am.

When I went to pay the bill, I saw what was the likely cause for the back up in the hallway, and the delays in seating. Previously, the buffet line was set up against one of the walls. To increase efficiency, they had now pulled the buffet tables away from the wall so that people could access both sides. Unfortunately, the pulled the buffet tables so far out that they were now in the middle of the dining area, in such a way that it was fairly obvious that even though people could get through the buffet faster, they would be stuck trying to navigate between the other diners hitting the buffet and the tables.

The bill for two all you can eat fish fries and a pitcher of soda came to be just over $25 dollars.

Overall, we found that the dining experience was much improved and worthy of more visits. It is still not as good as it used to be, back in the day, but the improvements have gone a long, long way towards getting there. Management now has to figure out a better way of controlling the flow of traffic, both for people waiting to get seated and for the people already seated and partaking of the buffet.

My recommendation would be for Mr. Cwiklik to stay in office and do balance sheets or something else, just as long as he is out of the way, and let the pros that have been doing this for years do their jobs they way they know they should be done.

And bring back the lemon wedges.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds good. I like fish frys. As to tartar sauce, I use miracle whip, sweet pickle relish and a touch of cayenne pepper to give it a bit of zip. Not hot, just a little zip. Yummy.