By Mariah Beckman
There are few things in life as luxurious as a hearty, home-cooked breakfast. Whether it’s a thick stack of fluffy pancakes, crispy hash browns heaped beside a savory breakfast scramble or just an aromatic and bottomless cup of coffee with toast, the first meal of the day can easily be the tastiest, especially if you’re dining at the Old Milwaukee Café on Tacoma’s 6th Avenue.
This classic eatery has been owned and operated by husband-and-wife team Chad and Patricia Kerth since 1992, and it doesn’t get much more mom-and-pop than their sweet story. Patricia met Chad in 1981 when she moved to Tacoma from sunny California. The two wooed and married in 1986, and by 1992 they decided to try their hand at running their own business in Tacoma’s Freighthouse Square.
A Tacoma landmark for over 105 years, the Square was originally a freighthouse for the famous Milwaukee Railroad. To Chad and Pat, it made sense to name and theme their business after the spot where their adventure in good eats began. The business has relocated since, roughly four miles from the original Freighthouse flagship, but today the Old Milwaukee Café has become a Tacoma institution in and of itself.
There is a vibrant relief of a red bullet train along the side of the building, as well as subtle signage rendered in vintage hues, but if you’re not looking you might just drive past this consistent Best Breakfast in Tacoma award-winner and honoree.
Perhaps the surest way to spot Old Milwaukee is to look for a gaggle of folks loitering along the sidewalk on 6th and Cedar. It’s not uncommon to see a crowd of patient regulars waiting outside to snag a seat. “People are quick to say that it’s always a long wait,” says Sharon McClane as she and her date wait outside for a coveted table. “Saturday, especially, it can be pretty packed here. But there’s always a line out the door because the food is just that good.”
Old Milwaukee offers timeless breakfast fare served up with a dash of mom-and-pop ambiance. The building has that iconic Gottfried Helnwein diner feel to it: a floor-to-ceiling window casts the dining room in natural light and offers up a broad view of Tacoma’s shopping and dining hub, 6th Avenue. The eatery seats no more than seven tables at a time, and Milwaukee’s single table and six booths are almost always full.
A wall of condiments greets customers at the door. The robust array of hot sauces and toppings are available to sample, and a handful of fan-favorites are even available to take home. There isn’t much room to amble indoors, but inside patrons can scope out the fanfare and accolades that line the wall just inside the entryway while they wait. Outside, visitors can take in the scenic mural that faces Cedar Street or have a seat at a long painted bench out front.
As busy as the restaurant can get, some diners marvel that this little nook operates with such a modest staff. Patricia and her husband Chad, who have been working side-by-side since the restaurant opened nearly 15 years ago, are the restaurant’s only two employees.
Chad mans the grill, where he prepares the café’s famous 10-inch huckleberry pancakes, mouth-watering hash browns and delectable scrambles using hand-mixed, freshly grated and generously-portioned ingredients. Pat wears all of the hats in the front of the house: she takes orders, seats guests and clears tables all day, long after she’s come in to prep the pancake batter, portion the sides and help slice all the fresh veggies in the wee hours of the morning.
Patricia says that the secret to all of the great food at Old Milwaukee is that she and her husband Chad cook food the way they would want to eat it. “We make everything from fresh ingredients to order. Real food. Served hot.” Fresh ingredients, Patricia goes on to explain, are the essence of this classic small-town diner fare. “Nothing we offer comes for a mix or a package. We’re well-known for our pancakes; I come in and make the batter each morning from my own recipe. We even grate our own hash browns.”
The restaurant really captures the iconic essence of Tacoma, however, with its fine and subtle details. For instance, every table is graced with a shaker of gourmet table salt produced by Libertine Tacoma. Trifecta Gourmet Sea Salt, a combination of black, red, and pink sea salts, packs a flavorful punch and lends a pinch of South Sound zest to every tabletop. Bluebeard Coffee, another aromatic taste of Tacoma, supplies Old Milwaukee with its freshly roasted coffee beans. Another dollop of homegrown flavor comes to patrons in the form of a regional hot sauce produced by Mile 9 in Ardenvoir, Washington. This rich and smoky hot sauce is available to sample and also to take home.
More than just a diner famed for generous portions and made-from-scratch meals, Old Milwaukee also prides itself on making a difference in the community it calls home as well. The diner routinely contributes to the Rainbow Center, donating 10 Desserts and Breakfast for Two for a Year to the organization’s annual fundraiser. The Pierce County AIDS Foundation has also found a friend in Pat and Chad, who have participated in Dine Out for Life campaign for more than a decade.
“Last year,” a beaming Pat Kerth says, “I even received the Ruby Award from the Pride Foundation, of which I am extremely proud.” This award, along with nominations from community and statewide Best Of round-ups, sits on a shelf in the café for all to see.
Whether you decide to swing by Old Milwaukee to revel in the diner’s small-town atmosphere or to experience its famous South Sound flavor, be sure that you come with an empty belly and an appetite for Tacoma hospitality.
Old Milwaukee Cafe & Dessert Co
3102 6th Ave in Tacoma
Open Tuesday – Sunday from 6:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m.