Anthony Bourdain inspires a fundraising event along the Rock River this Saturday.
If you had to guess where in Wisconsin you can celebrate Anthony Bourdain Day, the famous chef’s June 25 birthday, with a “Negronis for Tony ” fundraiser, would you pick Janesville?
Probably not. When most people in Wisconsin last paid attention to Janesville, it was being declared dead by the national media after General Motors shuttered its assembly plant here in December 2008, just as the country was slumping into the Great Recession.
But funny thing, Janesville didn’t die and at least in its downtown along the Rock River, has become trendier than it ever was. That’s where you’ll find the Sandwich Bar, where on Saturday you can sip a bitter Italian aperitif to salute Bourdain, the chef and author who died in 2018.
The restaurant’s owners, Joan and Richard Neeno, are donating all of Saturday’s proceeds to HealthNet of Rock County, to help it provide free and reduced cost mental health services. You can raise a Negroni toast to a giant mural of Bourdain, who looks down from the wall.
Joan Neeno once met Bourdain at a trade show when she was representing Madison chocolatier Gail Ambrosius.
“I was so nervous, and he was very nice,’’ she said. And after he died of suicide, she said she found it difficult to watch his travel shows such as “Parts Unknown.”
“It felt like a personal loss and I think it was that way for a lot of people,’’ she said. “He was so humane, so eloquent. He really mattered to a lot of people.”
If Bourdain was still around, I could see him hosting a droll special on downtown Janesville’s rebirth.
Sandwich Bar is one of three establishments the Neenos own along a stretch of Main Street that is bright with murals from a festival called Art Infusion that brings muralists to town every fall. Their upscale American eatery is called Lark, which opened in 2017. During the pandemic, they opened the Lark Market, to keep their kitchen staff employed while no one is eating out.
The store has a curated assortment of wines and liqueurs for craft cocktail making, and such celebrated Wisconsin brands as Hook’s Cheese, Potter’s Crackers and Gail Ambrosius chocolates.
“We decided to stock the things we like that we were getting tired of having to drive to Madison or Rockford to buy,’’ she said.
Neeno said that Janesville’s sad reputation wasn’t entirely wrong. She came to town in 2008 when SSM was building a hospital here. She remembers when the Janesville St. Mary’s Hospital received 13,000 applications for 300 job openings.
“People wrote Janesville off for so long, and with justification,’’ she said. “GM leaving was a wakeup call.”
Even during the glory days of General Motors, the town was known as “Chainsville” because you can find every fast food chain restaurant known to Americans near its I-90 interchanges.
Neeno says that things began to change for downtown Janesville in the mid-teens, when the Studer family bought and began to renovate Block 42 of Main Street. Today it’s home to the Bodacious Shops of Block 42, which include a coffee and sandwich shop, an olive oil and specialty kitchen store, and a salad restaurant called SoChopped. You can take your lunch and eat on a deck outside along the river, watching pelicans paddle beneath the dam.
Nearby, a wisteria-hung doorway marks the entrance to the Sugar Exchange, an old fashion candy emporium.
Another downtown redevelopment family, the Graffts, bought a Second Empire building that had housed a church and a Masonic Hall upstairs, and retail on the street level. They rehabbed it and reopened in 2015 as a wedding and event space called The Venue.
Up the street, the Genisa wine bar features an Italian menu and has outdoor dining. There’s an event space on the second floor and a luxury loft on the third floor of the historical Italianate building. Across the street is the modern-styled Drafthouse, where you’ll find dozens of beers on tap. Janesville’s sushi restaurant, Sandee’s Thai Fusion, is also on Main Street.
And if you like history to go with your dinner, you shouldn’t miss the oldest Chinese restaurant in Wisconsin, which is located across the river at 214 W Milwaukee St. Look for a vintage Chop Suey neon sign and climb the stairs to the second flood. The 100-year-old Cozy Inn is the oldest Chinese restaurant in Wisconsin, and one of the oldest in the country. Upstairs you’ll find mid-century curved banquettes and retro Cantonese food.
Thus fortified, how should you wear off your lunch? Well, Janesville is home to one of the state’s premier garden showcases. Rotary Botanical Gardens features 20 acres of plants that showcase 26 styles of gardens ranging from Japanese to French Formal and English Cottage. The gardens are familiar to listeners of Wisconsin Public radio’s Larry Meiller show, as former horticulture director Mark Dwyer is a frequent guest on the Garden Talk segments. During winter the Rotary garden draws visitors from across southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois for its Holiday Light Show, which displays more than 1 million lights throughout the garden.
The Tallman House, a restored Italianate mansion that once hosted Abraham Lincoln, offers two tours—a traditional historic tour, and a view of Victorian life from the eyes of the servant class.
There are some nice downtown shopping opportunities, as well. Velvet and Tulle has women’s clothing, and there’s Classy Rascals next door for those occasions when the kids must dress up. And if you’re a second-hand deal shopper, Carousel Consignments is a treasure chest.
Part of Janesville’s rebirth includes a new Town Square, complete with a splash pad for kids and a Festival Street, located along the river. It hosts a farmers market every Saturday morning.
If you’re in town on a Tuesday, don’t miss free “Music at the Marv,” the Marvin W. Roth Community Pavilion located in Courthouse Park along Main Street. Wednesday nights in the summer the Rock Aqua Jays put on a water ski show on the river.
And don’t leave Janesville this time of year without a basket of fresh berries from Skelly’s Farm Market.
Neeno says that when she’d chat with restaurant visitors and learn they made the trip from Madison, she used to feel surprised, something she attributed to an “inferiority complex” that developed during the city’s hard times. Now she’s pleased to show off her city.
“I’m really proud of Janesville,’’ she said. “We’re really stepping things up.”
So if you’ve been harboring an image of Janesville as a Rust Belt has-been, it might be time to hop in the car and see what’s happening. After all, Bourdain himself advocated travel as a way to rid ourselves of out-dated notions.
“I always entertain the notion that I’m wrong, or that I’ll have to revise my opinion,’’ Bourdain once said. “Most of the time that feels good; sometimes it really hurts and is embarrassing.”