Milwaukee has been appearing on a lot of those "Best Cities for ____" lists lately. It's brought the city a lot of attention, both as a great place to live and to visit. Our food scene has been growing leaps and bounds in the last decade or so, and we have everything from dive bars only serving a Friday fish fry to restaurants with James Beard award-winning chefs. And yes, we have lots and lots of beer and cheese and meat, too. Here's some of my favorite places to go, including some iconic Milwaukee traditions.
While brunch is a big deal in Milwaukee, I have trouble tearing myself away from a diner-type breakfast. Mad Rooster opened recently on the near west side of the city, and it's known for large portions of delicious things that most places don't bother making from scratch. Don't pass up the house-made Greek yogurt made from organic milk, which is topped with honey and granola. Omelettes are massive, fluffy, and served with red breakfast potatoes and pancakes or toast (with house-made jams) in case you just happen to be starving.
North Avenue Grill is a tiny diner in nearby Wauwatosa that serves a short order breakfast all day long, including some really interesting breakfast quesadillas filled with bacon and avocado and corned beef hash.
For someone looking for a unique breakfast, Blue's Egg is the place to be. There's always a long wait for a table on the weekends because people line up for things like a shrimp, scallop, and calamari scramble with pulled ham and cheddar stuffed hash browns. (Bonus: Each of these breakfast stops serves alcohol!)
I'm not much of a coffee drinker (okay, not at all), but even I have a soft spot in my heart for Colectivo. They started life as Alterra and built up a brand recognition that had the big guys knocking. They sold the name and logo to Mars in 2010, but continue to operate as Colectivo in their local cafes. They continue to keep it local by partnering with a number of Wisconsin-based bakeries, dairies, and meat suppliers. If you aren't thoroughly caffeinated yet, try one of two locations of Anodyne. They roast all their certified organic coffee in Walker's Point where they also serve craft beer and wine and host events.
Milwaukee has a large Hispanic population, so I'd be remiss if I didn't mention a couple Mexican spots in this roundup. First is a small restaurant in the hip Bayview neighborhood just south of downtown. It's proper name is Guanajuato, but everyone in the know calls it GTO. The sign states they have the best steak tacos in the city, and it's hard to argue with the claim. I almost always stick to tacos and tostadas here because they're so good and cheap to boot, but the huaraches are massive and filling. Though most go for the steak, don't pass up the lengua or pork—which is like a glorious cross between carnitas and al pastor.
If you're near the Third Ward, the Milwaukee Public Market can satisfy many different tastes in one fell swoop. It's an indoor market with vendors selling everything from lunch salads and sandwiches to spices and cheese. The lobster roll at St. Paul's Fish is worth the (small) splurge.
You can get a burger at the market, but Milwaukee's a burger town and you'd be much better off at Oscar's on Pierce, just southwest of downtown. It's a great little neighborhood joint that makes one of the best half-pound bar burgers in the city (check out my AHT review). Don't forget to order a Bloody Mary too, since burgers and bloodies go hand in hand in Milwaukee.
Even with our cold climate, we love our frozen desserts. If you're looking for interesting flavors, try Purple Door Ice Cream. I recommend getting a flight of four hefty scoops of whatever looks best in the case. My favorites (so far) are the chai with pink peppercorns, rum raisin and black tea, and fig. Flavors are heavy on the booze, and the best seller is whiskey made with liquor from Great Lakes Distillery, just down the street from the shop.
Of course, you can't come to Wisconsin without trying frozen custard. It's fresh from the machine and served at a warmer temperature than ice cream, giving it a luxurious texture. Kopp's is my favorite, and has two rotating flavors of the day. Grasshopper fudge, butter pecan, and red raspbery are all classics around here.
Head to the south side of the city for Indian snacks from Bombay Sweets. They serve an all-vegetarian menu of things like daal, paneer, idli, and dosa at ultra-cheap prices. Don't pass up the massive cases of Indian sweets without filling a few take-out containers of burfi and gulab jamun for later.
Milwaukee has not been immune to the small plates trend. One place that does it exceptionally well is Wolf Peach. You'll get inventive drinks and small plates for sharing, and if you're around in summer, the patio has one of the best views of the city around. My favorites are the scallops with braised short ribs and mushroom vinaigrette and the wood oven-roasted broccoli with apricots, pickled peppers and almonds. This is also one of the few places where you can order bone marrow, if that's your thing.
We also have a huge number of steakhouses, since we Midwesterners love our meat and potatoes. A personal favorite of mine is Mason Street Grill downtown. No, it's not an old supper club, but every meal I've had there has been great, from the steaks and seafood to the supurb burgers and happy hour specials. They also have some really refreshing Andalusian-style summer gazpacho, often topped with rock shrimp or crab meat.
If you happen to be visiting Potawatomi, our casino just outside downtown, you may be surprised that you can get a very good meal there at RuYi. They serve a mix of Asian cuisines from Singapore noodles to pho, but all of it is done well. The highlights by far are the fresh whole fish, usually bronzino or red snapper. You can get them either steamed with soy, ginger and scallions or—my favorite—deep fried whole and topped with a dark, Thai basil and vegetable sauce.
If you're looking for a sure bet to impress someone, then go to Sanford. It's arguably the best restaurant in Milwaukee, and now its head chefs (Sanford D'Amato and Justin Aprahamian) have both won James Beard awards for their work there. Need I say more?
Perhaps the late night dining king of Milwaukee is Ian's Pizza. It's a transplant from Madison, where you may have heard of them in relation to the labor union dispute protests a few years ago. People all around the world wanting to help the protesters called Ian's to order pizzas to hand out to the hungry masses, and gained quite a bit of news coverage. They're a little more low key here in Milwaukee, and mainly serve the bar time crowd at two of the main party and bar areas in the city. Skip the most popular mac and cheese (it's boring), and try any slice with potatoes, drunken ravioli with spicy vodka sauce, or chili cheese Fritos. Yes, those are all on a pizza crust!
Farther from those late night bar zones is Taqueria Buenavista on the south side. They're open late night on the weekends and there's nothing better than late night tacos, if you ask me. You'll get chips and four salsas if you dine in their small building. Make sure you douse everything liberally in the sauce in the red squeeze bottle. It's a hot, creamy green salsa that they call "grandma sauce" and it's heavenly.
We have more bars and taverns than grocery stores here in Wisconsin. Milwaukee named "Bar City of the Year" by Esquire in 2012. We are undeniably proud of that fact, so narrowing this category down was probably the hardest part of writing this round up. Let's start with Bryant's. They are the oldest cocktail lounge around, opening in 1938. Their claim to fame is that they don't have a cocktail menu; instead the knowledgable bartenders ask customers what they normally like and are in the mood for, and make cocktails to suit. This is the best place in the city to get old fashioneds, sazeracs and pink squirrels (which was invented at Bryant's!).
Of course we love our beer here, and there are a ton of bars that carry a huge selection of craft beers on tap. One of them, Benno's, is located in the suburb of West Allis ('Stallis, for the uninitiated). They may not have the most tappers in the city, but they seem to rotate the beer out more than any other bar, so at any given time you can try something new. You won't find any hipsters at this bar.
Milwaukeeans also love to do things when we drink (since we do it so often, I guess). You can listen to some live music at Kochanski's Concertina Beer Hall, which has dueling stages. Polka on one stage, and bluegrass rock on the other? Yes, please.
We also love to bowl when we drink, which makes the Holler House a pretty popular spot. They're home to the oldest certified bowling alley in the US. Sure, it's only two lanes, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in character. Try to avoid hitting the pinsetters with the bowling ball.
Stuff to Buy
If you're up for venturing further afield, Elegant Farmer in Mukwanago is your one-stop shop for all things Wisconsin. They have local mustard, honey, maple syrup, homemade jams, pickles, and sausages. Plus they're a farm, so they have pick-your-own strawberries and apples. If you get one thing, however, it must be the apple pie baked in a brown paper bag. This is the only commercially made pie worth buying and it's very unique. I instead of a top crust, there is a domed layer of super crunchy sugary goodness. I suspect a meringue-like substance. Kenji, can you please reserve engineer this pie??
Staying closer to home, pick up some fresh brats and other meats and sausages from the Usinger's factory downtown.
Wisconsin Cheese Mart is also on the same block as Usinger's, so that's a two-fer.
You can also get fresh cheeses like curds, quark and Mexican specialties at Clock Shadow Creamery, one of the few urban creameries. Take a tour, then buy all the cheese.
If it's beer you're after, stop at Discount Liquor on the south side. This cramped store has a massive selection of beer and liquor, plus a small selection of eastern European snacks. If you're from out of state, buy anything from New Glarus brewing, especially Spotted Cow and Belgian Red Ale made with Door County cherries.