Owners share their love of Hawaiian lifestyle in town’s historic hall
It takes more than a healthy portion of imagination to confuse the quiet hamlet of Waubeka with the South Pacific.
Still, that is the feeling — or at least the mood — Dave Salkowski and his wife Nancy hope to convey at their restaurant, The Islands at Waubeka Fire Hall.
Rather than offering a hint of the featured cuisine, the name reflects the couple’s fondness for the Hawaiian islands.
“We spent our honeymoon in Hawaii in 1987, and in 2000 we went back and put money on a time-share condo,” Dave Salkowski said.
“Since then, we have gone back 17 times. We like to call it our Happy Place. Our hope is the restaurant reflects that Aloha spirit … a welcoming, casual setting with good food at a reasonable price.”
Despite the name, don’t expect the menu to be dominated by pineapple and fish entrees.
However, there is at least one Hawaii-inspired specialty.
“We offer a Loco Moco, which is served at everything from food trucks to five-star restaurants in Hawaii,” Salkowski said.
The dish of island comfort food includes two scoops of rice, two hamburger patties smothered in gravy, topped by two eggs.
Although the item will never make anyone’s healthy choice menu, Salkowski said he usually prepares three or four Loco Mocos a week.
The rest of the menu reflects the diversity expected at a family restaurant, highlighted by homemade soups and desserts.
While they serve dinners only on four nights a week, Salkowski said, as many as 150 people come to The Islands for Friday fish fries. Racks of ribs and prime rib are popular on Saturdays.
Sunday meals are served family style, with guests asked to pass entrees and side dishes among themselves.
When possible, Salkowski likes to add a few local touches.
That includes serving a cocktail called an Evie Old Fashioned, named after family friend Evie Rathke, who mixes a little homemade maple syrup into her drinks.
The business is about half way through its initial two-year lease and Salkowski still does all the cooking.
Although he said the restaurant is the answer to a long-held dream, Salkowski spent much of his working life as a construction contractor and finish carpenter.
“I’ve always loved cooking, and it got to the point in my life that I realized if I didn’t try running a restaurant now, I was never going to do it,” Salkowski said.
Nancy Salkowski still works full time as a medical technician at Aurora Medical Center in West Allis, but helps at the restaurant whenever she can.
The couple rented the historic fire hall at W4121 Center St. from the Waubeka Fire Department Association, the fundraising arm of the volunteer fire department.
By committing to the building for their venture, the couple took on its historic past, as well.
“As best as anyone can tell me, the building was used as a hall dating to the 1860s. It was originally known as Fredonia Singers Hall and was used by that group for community performances in a time before people turned to TV for entertainment,” Salkowski said.
The two-story building was rebuilt following a fire and eventually purchased by the fire department when the performance group disbanded.
It hosted community gatherings and basketball games, as well Friday fish fries put on by the firefighters, until 2001.
“The firefighters used to say they were the only restaurant that was open just five hours a week,” Salkowski said.
Part of the hall’s history was also as a popular teen bar in the 1960s, when underage revelers were confined to an area of the second-floor called “The Cage.”
Salkowski has thrown himself into the three-headed enterprise. It includes the restaurant, the upstairs hall and a catering business.
“Right now, catering is carrying the business but eventually we hope to turn things around so that the restaurant is responsible for the bulk of what we take in,” he said.
The couple have kept close ties with the fire department that extends well beyond the tenant-landlord relationship.
“They have been great to work with, and we help them out whenever we can. We even did the catering when the department did a house burning earlier in the year,” Salkowski said.
The restaurant has a seating capacity of 90 people, and the 2,500-square-foot dance hall upstairs can accommodate 170 guests.
Using the expertise he gained from his prior career, Salkowski has restored much of the hall — including removing an old stage and adding two bathrooms.
Although there is plenty of room and high ceilings, some of the hall amenities are on the spartan side. There is no heat or air conditioning, and the only way to access it is via a set of stairs.
“As we become more profitable, we hope to be able to convince the fire department to put in heating and air conditioning and maybe even a lift,” Salkowski said.
“We’d also like to refinish the floor, but it still dances pretty good.”
Image Information: THE ISLANDS at Waubeka Fire Hall reflects the affection restaurant owners Dave and Nancy Salkowski have for the Hawaiian islands. Photos by Mark Jaeger