Famous in its day: the Public Natatorium

Sometimes a brilliant idea hits you, but then you wake up the next day and see why it won’t work. But other times you don’t see why it won’t work until much, much later – after you’ve lost a lot of money.

That’s what seems to have happened with John and Margaret Garlic’s plan to turn a 19th-century public bathhouse in Milwaukee into a restaurant with dolphin shows. The future looked bright when they bought the building from the city for a mere $4,000, but then things became more complicated.

They hoped to open the restaurant one year after their January 1978 purchase, but the actual opening date was delayed by a year by city regulations, trade unions, and late equipment deliveries. Gutting the building and reconstructing the interior purportedly cost upwards of $800,000. And then there were unexpectedly high costs of leasing dolphins and providing for their care and feeding, as well as for federal inspections and trainers’ salaries.

It was not the Garlic’s first foray into the food and restaurant business. Around 1976 they had opened J. J. Garlic’s, a casual restaurant that soon gained popularity in Milwaukee for its cheese fondue, soups, burgers, and jumbo shrimp. Around 1973 the Garlics had pioneered the industrial production of the now-ubiquitous gyro cone, beef and lamb scraps blended and pressed into a Spam-like substance supplied to concessionaires, roadside carts, and restaurant operators.

But then in 1978 J. J. Garlic’s received a devastating review by none other than the celebrated writer Herbert Kubly who wrote restaurant reviews for The Milwaukee Journal from 1970 to 1984. According to G&G Enterprises, Ltd., the official owner of Garlic’s, the review caused a 25% drop in business, amounting to a loss of half a million dollars.

As it happened, the menu at the Public Natatorium – as the new 1979 restaurant was named — borrowed heavily from J. J. Garlic’s. This was especially the case on the Natatorium’s “gourmet” second level where prices ran considerably higher than on the lower level.

While the lower-level menu had sandwiches in the $4 to $5 range, the upper level was meant to provide an elegant dining experience, with chilled golden salad forks, marble-topped tables, and a parchment-like menu. Yet even the lower level was deemed too expensive by some Milwaukeeans. A review that appeared shortly after the opening pointed to skimpy servings such as the Peel & Dip Shrimp at $7.50 which a reviewer described as “five small shrimp . . . with cocktail sauce, a slice of lemon and a lot of ice.” The writer also grumbled about a $1 entrance fee assessed on all customers.

Nonetheless, the Public Natatorium became a must for tourists attracted by the dolphin shows and as far as I can tell did reasonably well overall. At some point after its opening, G&G Enterprises opened a third place with the characteristically jocular 1970s name Fried Eggs & Tootsies, aka F.E.A.T.S. Located near the Milwaukee campus of the state university, F.E.A.T.S. was mostly a drinking spot with bands.

Still, the fine dining concept at the Public Natatorium showed signs of consumer resistance. A 1980 review in a Racine WI paper titled “Taking a bath at the Natatorium” was extremely negative. It described in great detail how, despite high prices, the wine glasses were dirty as were some raw appetizer mushrooms, while several main dishes were submerged in thick, tasteless sauces. The reviewer also cited a shrimp dish that “reeked of the freezer.” He found a small loaf of warm bread the best food served to his table. A 1982 Los Angeles Times story about places to visit in Milwaukee advised visitors to take the children there for the dolphin show but “certainly don’t go for the food, which is mediocre.”

It’s likely that the Natatorium was not doing too well by 1983, the year in which G&G Enterprises filed a $1.1 million lawsuit against The Milwaukee Journal for the 1978 Kubly review of J. J. Garlic’s and to forestall a forthcoming review of the Natatorium by Kubly which they believed would be negative. The suit, which went nowhere, claimed that the paper, an editor, and Kubly were “engaged in a conspiracy to put plaintiff out of business with yet another defamatory article.”

Kubly’s review came out anyway and was indeed negative, detailing slow service, cold food, and a high degree of inept pretentiousness. He included inauspicious quotations from the menu such as “Wild Boar Chasseur, cousin of the domestic sow” and “Hippopotamus Bordelaise, chewier than beef.” What was appealing about Lion le Blanc, Buffalo Navajo, or Veal Chop Andrea Doria (“once served on the famous ship that had the unfortunate collision”)? Kubly must have recognized some of the same dishes he had been served at J. J. Garlic’s, namely the cold fondue (“incorrigible, starch-laden, over salted”), cold consomme (“contained tough bits of meat, a few peas and carrot lumps”), and baked potatoes (“cold and had an unappetizing scorched taste”). A lengthy two and a half hours after arriving, he and his companions made their way out of the then-empty restaurant as the staff brought out a cake – which they took home in its Pepperidge Farm box supplied by the waitress.

The following year John Garlic announced he would sell J. J. Garlic’s and F.E.A.T.S. and move to Florida, while The Public Natatorium would remain open under a manager. But that didn’t last long. By January 1985 the remaining dolphin, Soda, was in peril due to a heating breakdown. A bankruptcy judge ordered that he and two sea lions be sold immediately as part of the restaurant’s liquidation proceedings.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

16 Comments

Filed under atmosphere, food, guides & reviews, menus, odd buildings, Offbeat places

16 responses to “Famous in its day: the Public Natatorium

  1. Julie S

    My brother Steve was the “manager” of the restaurant for a time. I remember going in before they opened and being allowed to pet Gypsy and Star, the first dolphins. I remember my brother showing me glass tiles leading to the ladies room and explaining that they were all hand painted by an artist. All the tables had plants hanging above them and I remember telling him I thought it was a bad idea because the leaves would fall in peoples food and drink. I think after a month they removed them for that exact reason.

  2. mike

    Thank you for this! Brings back way too many memories! I worked for John & Margret Garlic, back in the Nats heyday before all the gold goblets and flatware was stolen, one of the worst and best jobs as wait staff I ever had. I knew John & Margret well. And worked at all their restaurants. Many stories to tell… I also was the original artist whose painting (1978 – “Fried Eggs & Tootsies) was the base idea for F.E.A.T.S. I always felt for those dolphins (and the too many parakeets who lived above them for a short time). I remember having to shovel coal into the furnace in the lower level that kept the dolphin pool warm and that was “staff required” on very cold nights in between waiting tables, so I can see how keeping that old system up wasn’t enuf to sustain proper living conditions.

  3. Peter

    I had my 7th birthday party there in 1983. I only remember the vaguest details, but we do have a few pictures of me touching dolphins and of a bunch of kids eating burgers and drinking tall cups of milk. What a cool place for a birthday party. I gotta hand it to the Garlics for coming up with such a wacky idea.

  4. Anonymous

    WOW, I used to swim there when I was 9ish and it was funny, because I was a young Latino boy and back then… the regular swimmers were German and/or Polish older men, like grandfather older. The times were changing, which it did not make sense when they open such a fabulous restaurant during the change of people/ culture and even income status. However, I was very happy to read this article, because I never knew the whole story and history. Thank you. I love Milwaukee for its rich history. Hopefully we can get back on track. God Bless

  5. Speechless. John Garlic, the Ed Wood of restaurateurs.

  6. Sandra Hunter

    Kudos to you!!! Your column is always interesting and informing! Going back to feast at one of these places while waiting in line to savor the entree….. I think I can taste a steak right now!

  7. Quite a story! I can’t quite imagine the combination of chlorine fumes from a pool and fine dining. Maybe that also helped lead the operation to, uh, tank.

    • Interesting — and funny — thought. I suppose that the plexiglass windows prevented fumes from getting into the dining area, though I have to wonder.

    • Anonymous

      There was no chlorine as this was a salt water pool meant for dolphins, however the fish stench was immense and made for a terrible dining experience just as well!

  8. I love reading your blog – and this particular post was a real gem! Where you find your information I cannot imagine but it is always amazing.
    Dolphins in a restaurant, what a surreal idea! The food sounded absolutely hellish at that place and at the owners’ other earlier ventures. How they survived as ‘restauranteurs’ heaven alone knows.
    I do hope you will produce a book from all your posts – it would be the perfect gift for ‘foodies’ around the world, I can think of at least seven people I would buy copies for… just a thought.

    Hope you have a wonderful Christmas and may 2018 bring you health, wealth and happiness – and bring peace for us all.

  9. My parents took us here when we were young. I’ve wondered about it ever since. I even looked for it myself once I was older. I never saw or heard of it again until I saw this today. It sounds like I’m lucky I don’t remember the food! I sure remember those dolphins though. Thank you so much for writing and posting this!!

  10. Karen H.

    Great story! Good illustration of what poor reviewers can do.

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