Port Hotel inn reopens, restaurant soon to follow

New owners of landmark building renovate ‘niche’ rooms, plan to open dinning room, Moonlight Tavern by end of summer
By 
KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM
Ozaukee Press staff

The Port Hotel, a more than 100-year-old Port Washington landmark, is taking on new life.

While renovations to the restaurant and bar continue under new owners Angel Tello and Jim Read — they plan to have them up and running full speed by the end of summer — the inn recently opened its doors to travelers and those just looking to get away.

The 10 rooms have been refurbished and updated but still provide the elegance and luxury befitting the historic inn.

The rooms have a max of amenities, including whirlpool tubs, high-end shower towers and fireplaces.

A former office on the second floor of the building has been converted into a lounge for the guests, offering a comfortable spot to gather.

But the focus of the inn has changed a bit, Read said.

“Before, it was almost like a couples retreat,” he said, but now the inn is being marketed as housing for business travelers, tourists and people coming to the area for long-term assignments, such as visiting professors at Concordia University Wisconsin in Mequon.

“It’s a niche hotel,” Read said, but one that’s ideal for a community with a lot going on in downtown. “Our philosophy is this hotel is not just going to be a room for the evening. It’s going to be a place where people have things to do.”

The inn is being marketed through Airbnb, and guests have been stopping by, especially on weekends, he added.

“People’s experiences have been positive,” Read said.

The inn reflects the original purpose of the building, which was built in 1902 as the Thill Hotel. It later became the Mayer Hotel, and was owned by the Mayer family until 1960. While the hotel later closed, the building continued to be used as a restaurant and tavern for decades.

The resaurant closed in about 2017 and the inn a short time later. Last November, Read and Tello purchased the building.

“Our prime interest is to be great stewards of this historic building,” Read said. “I love historic buildings.”

It was Tello, who operates Tello’s Grille and Cafe in the former Hoffman House on Grand Avenue, which Read restored after a fire, who broached the idea of buying the Port Hotel.

“I saw the opportunity,” Tello said. “It’s such a beautiful building.”

While he wasn’t sure he wanted to run another restaurant, Tello said, the idea of a partnership with Read, who is an architect, drew him in.

“It’s been a very hands-on process,” Read said. “Angel and I have been spending a lot of time here.”

“Every day there’s a little progress,”  Tello said.

  Like the inn, the restaurant and bar on the first floor are getting their own facelifts.

“They had a real ’50s feel,” Read said. “We wanted to update that while not losing the character.”

  The restaurant had included a number of small dining areas, some of which are being opened up with an eye toward versatility.

They have updated the kitchen, and in the main dining area they’re adding a service bar there to accommodate parties. The small section of the L-shaped room is fitted with larger tables to create a family dining area.

Across the hall, a small room that was once cordoned off by a pony wall is now opened up. Wallpaper designed to look like shelves of books and a fireplace give what’s been dubbed “the library” a cozy feeling. The menu there will be largely tapas and small plates, at least on weekdays, Read said.

The former jury room — so named because juries hearing cases at the Ozaukee County courthouse across the street from the hotel were often sequestered there — has been converted into the garden room that will open to the patio.

“The patio has become more integrated into the restaurant,” Read said. “People like to live outdoors when the weather’s warm.”

The intent, he added, is to make the patio feel cozy and comfortable, like it’s someone’s back yard.

Patrons can also reach the patio from a small dining area adjacent to the bar, now called the Moonlight Tavern. That room has a Northwoods cabin feeling, with an antique Richardson boat made in Sheboygan Falls on the ceiling and converted into a lighting fixture.

A television in the room will allow customers to catch up on the big game or breaking news.

Like the rest of the building, the bar has been updated. The railing on the bar is gone so patrons can grab a bite with their beer, and the carpeting has been replaced with flooring.

The name Moonlight Tavern was selected in honor of the Moonlight, a tall ship built in 1856 in Milwaukee that visited Port, Read said, adding the captain was Denis Sullivan — the name of the tall ship moored at Discovery World that has visited Port many times since it was built in 2000.

A large photo of the Moonlight hangs in the bar, and several other photos of the vessel will be hung in the building, Read said.

Also in the bar are the call box used by boarders in the Port Hotel when it served as a rooming house, as well as the stained glass windows. Read said he wanted to bring back the high ceilings in the building but couldn’t because conduit, ducts and electrical services would then be exposed.

Some columns from the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee are being added to the building to help give it more character, Read said.

The building, Read noted, was built in 1902 “but there’s very little that shows 1902. It looks more like the supper clubs  of the ’40s and ’50s.”

The Port Washington Historical Society has also loaned them the original Thill Hotel sign, which will be displayed in the building, he said.

The menu, Read said, is a blend of old and new.

“We’re trying to make it a transition between the old supper club and what’s new and happening today,” he said.

The restaurant will serve traditional items such as prime rib but also have a fair amount of seafood, Read said.

“There’s probably going to be a baseline of supper club food, done elegantly. Steak and seafood will be the basis,” he said. “Of course, there’s going to be a burger, but in this case it’s going to be an over-the-moon burger.”

There will likely be a regular menu supplemented with a lot of specials, he said, while the bar menu will include “elegantly done” tapas, small plates and burgers, as well as specialty drinks.

Two chefs will run the operation, Read said.

“We’ll be the mentors but they’ll be the ones making the day-to-day decisions,” he said.

There are plans to add an elevator onto the south side of the building that will lead to the rooms on the upper floors and the roof, Read said, adding the elevator won’t be added until late this year or next.

“There’s so much involved in setting up a restaurant that this has taken a back seat,” he said.

The rooftop, which will hold 15 to 20 people, will be a place for people to “enjoy the view, maybe have a picnic,” Read said.

 

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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