In search of an activity to transport us far away from frigid and snowy Wisconsin, I was thrilled to come across a bistro with a distinctly French name – not all that common in Milwaukee – offering a socially distanced opportunity for our taste buds to experience tannins and terroirs from around the world. Which is how on a Saturday in January, Dan and I found ourselves partaking in a private, but unpretentious, wine tasting at my next Small Business Spotlight: Charles E. Fromage.
Owners Honore and Tony Schiro opened their bistro in the Washington Heights neighborhood at 5811 W Vliet St in June 2019 after purchasing and renovating the building that was formerly a barber shop. It’s a cozy and inviting space, perfect for socializing with a beverage and bite to eat at the bar or a table indoors, or out on the patio, when the weather permits. With a casual French café inspired ambiance, guests are encouraged to and seemingly have embraced the bistro’s tagline “a place where adults can be adults”. If you’ve already figured out that the name Charles E. Fromage is an homage to Chuck E. Cheese, you are more perceptive than me as the literal English translation only dawned on us after our second glass of wine.
In addition to wine, Charles E. Fromage has a rotating snack menu, which includes the delicious Aunt Mary’s Meatballs with Ricotta and Mamie’s Olive Salad, a few local Milwaukee beers on tap, and seasonal cocktails – I can strongly recommend the hot buttered rum on a cold evening. Other notable menu items are the meatball sandwich served with onions, peppers, and spinach, and a Super Sandwich Saturday offered during the warmer months. A personal favorite indulgence is their ½ price wine bottle Wednesdays, currently also available for pick-up.
Tony and Honore are former teachers embarking on their “second career” as café owners after 30+ years of teaching mostly in Milwaukee and the near suburbs. Tony actually spent five years teaching English in Japan and noted that their bistro is not all that dissimilar from some of the bars you would find in Japan.
Having pivoted in their careers, I have to say that they are well-equipped to pivot in the midst of a pandemic. Charles E. Fromage currently offers limited indoor seating, with a reservation, and curbside pick-up of snacks, wine, and BYO growler beer fills. They have also been hosting private wine tastings for groups smaller than six, which were inspired by their crowd-sourced wine tastings prior to the pandemic.
According to Honore, prior to the pandemic, they had their customers come in for quarterly wine tastings to rate the wine and write comments on the selections. The highest-rated wines of the evening were the new additions to their wine list. They would then use the comments and the customer’s name in the description on their menu, with a few even surviving today (which I can confirm)! During the pandemic, they moved to virtual tastings, and when the weather was nice, they were able to do a rosé tasting party on their patio. When winter rolled around, they figured people could use a break from the virtual environment, which is how the private tastings in the bistro came to be. Honore said they have been delightful and they will continue them until we can be back outside.
I can confirm, the private tasting was delightful! With the café to ourselves, we leisurely sampled five wines – a French Crémant, South African Chardonnay, Californian Red Blend, Argentinian Tinto, and an Australian wine – while seated at the bar enjoying lively conversation with Tony and a few bites in between sips. I think the tasting was only supposed to last an hour or so, but we had such a fantastic time with Tony as our host that our tasting turned into an evening event and we didn’t leave empty handed, having ordered a few bottles to enjoy from home.
If a wine tasting isn’t to your liking, they are also offering pod parties where a group can rent the bistro space for time with friends or family in your “pod” to enjoy as you please. Honore added that these have been wonderful because people are so happy to be out and also feel safe.
It wouldn’t be March in Wisconsin if I didn’t mention what guests at Charles E. Fromage can look forward to as the weather warms. Tony and Honore are excited to commence work that will allow for expanded outdoor seating on the rooftop and hope to even offer rooftop music events in the future! Be on the lookout for that as well as the city’s smallest shuttle to Brewers games. They are the proud owners of the Charles E. Fromage red, four-seater MINI Cooper and are hopeful the shuttle service can be brought back in the not-so-distant future!
To find the latest updates and events from Charles E. Fromage, find them on Facebook and Instagram. Their website has updated information about their offerings as well and is where you’ll find their to-go menu with a mouth-watering snack menu and beer and wine list.
A big thank you to Tony and Honore for hosting us for a fantastic wine tasting and their support in confirming details for this post!