These longtime Waukesha restaurant owners are opening a new sports bar serving comfort food downtown

·5 min read
Funky Monkey, 351 W. Main St., will open in September in downtown Waukesha at the former site of Bernie's Taproom. The sports bar restaurant will have a food truck theme, serving up comfort and stadium-type foods (but not at stadium prices) that are not available downtown, according to co-owner Mike Gonzalez.
Funky Monkey, 351 W. Main St., will open in September in downtown Waukesha at the former site of Bernie's Taproom. The sports bar restaurant will have a food truck theme, serving up comfort and stadium-type foods (but not at stadium prices) that are not available downtown, according to co-owner Mike Gonzalez.

WAUKESHA - Michael Gonzalez, along with his family, has long catered to the tastes of those awaiting culinary delights.

Until recently, his tastes seemed to strictly lean toward Mexican favorites served by his family for a quarter century at Casa del Rio, the East Main Street mainstay that closed in 2018, when his parents finally backed away from the restaurant.

But now, as Michael re-emerged with his brother Robert as a proprietor of upcoming Funky Monkey, a new Main Street restaurant expected to open in September in the heart of downtown Waukesha, he's taking a new direction.

While some Mexican favorites will be on the menu, the Gonzalez brothers would rather lean more toward the kind of "comfort" foods that have been missing from downtown.

"It's a pretty funky step for us to get away from our natural surroundings," Gonzalez said. "We're trying to create something new for Waukesha, to add to its landscape, but be different," he said. "We're surrounded by a lot of bars and restaurants downtown and we just don't want to be another brick in the wall."

There will be a food truck inside the restaurant, sort of

Located at 351 W. Main St., Funky Monkey at least brings something far different than its two most recent predecessors: The Craft Lounge (2021-2022) and Bernie's Taproom (2012-2020), which closed amid the pandemic in 2020.

Think of it as a food truck inside an eatery. The pickup window will look exactly like a food truck along the rear wall of the restaurant.

The kitchen will turn out brats and pulled pork — basically the kinds of foods you would expect to find inside a stadium — without the stadium pricing, Gonzalez said.

There will not be pizza and burgers, which already are readily available downtown, he said. Instead, he is aiming for "something to give the people another choice downtown."

"That's how we created the stadium and street-eats (concept)," Gonzalez said. "You'll order like you would do at a food truck with primarily stadium-type food.

"Yes, there will still be some Mexican food, because we are Mexican. We got to have it because we like it, but it won't be nearly like our full menu was at Casa del Rio."

None of the food will be deep fried. Funky Monkey will use air fryers instead for that part of its menu, which also will include soft-serve ice cream. And you can expect tequilas and margaritas on tap at the bar.

The stadium food will be complemented by a thoroughly sports-bar atmosphere, with TVs lining the sidewall behind the bar and hanging from the high ceilings. A projection screen television will dominate the other sidewall.

The family is known in Waukesha for the Casa del Rio restaurant

The family's roots in Waukesha run deep.

Michael Gonzalez recalled how, decades ago, his father, Severo, helped set up a Mexican grocery store at what's now Funky Monkey. That was a time when downtown was still a central retail destination filled with essentials.

"That was when you could afford to put small grocery stores — and this was an ethnic grocery store — in and compete with what was your surroundings (downtown)," Michael Gonzalez said, noting that the owner, a Mexican immigrant, "had (the store) for quite a long time."

The Gonzalez family had other business ideas in mind.

Severo and Nancy Gonzalez, as a husband-and-wife team along with Michael, indelibly marked their stake in downtown with Casa del Rio, 408 E. Main St., which he believes was the first restaurant to introduce Mexican cuisine to Waukesha.

It wasn't easy giving it up, with a long tradition stretching from the mid-1990s until the family, as a team at least, decided to retire from the daily grind in 2018, allowing Margaritas Mexican Grill to move in and at least continue the building's Mexican food tradition.

Of course, that didn't mean that Michael, 61, was done. This year, after the Craft Lounge closed, he convinced his brother Robert, 62, to again dig into downtown into what he gently calls their "fourth-quarter of life."

Robert Gonzalez, the hands-on type helping orchestrate the complete interior remodeling of main floor of the West Main Street building, calls his brother the "visionary," whose ideas he is trying to implement.

"We got to talking and he said 'We should get a little place and start something," Robert said. "This place isn't little."

True enough. Both The Craft Lounge and Bernie's Taproom were known for their space, suitable for company gatherings or simply large crowds. Certainly, people were accustomed to going there and are wondering what's next.

"I don't know how many people have come up me asking about the place," said Robert,  who has also been catching up with old friends after spending two decades in the Houston area before deciding to return to his family roots.

It's certainly a significant investment, both in dollars and time, as they work to open a place that as of early August was still evolving, he said.

The brothers are aiming for a soft-opening in early September, with a grand opening sometime later in the month. Updates will be posted on the business' Facebook page.

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More: A Mexican restaurant is eyed for the former Burger King on Forest Home Avenue in Greenfield

Contact Jim Riccioli at (262) 446-6635 or james.riccioli@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jariccioli.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Waukesha family of restaurant owners to open new sports bar downtown