Absence makes the heart grow fonder, right? Wisconsinites know that saying applies to not just love, but summer too. Milwaukee doesn't exactly get a ton of summer days, so make them count when they arrive. So when the thermometer hits 70 degrees, restaurants and bars are quick to get outdoor spaces ready for the rush of locals who will do everything possible to soak up the sun. Here's a list of some of the best outdoor eating and drinking spots around Milwaukee.
For Belgian Fries and Beers: Cafe Benelux
Benelux boasts an enormous selection of beer, and in fact it takes a massive book 20 pages long to list and describe them all. You can enjoy these brews inside at the spacious bar, but they're best enjoyed on the massive rooftop patio just south of downtown in the Third Ward. You'll get great city views in this bustling area, plus there's plenty to do and see in the neighborhood before you drink the night away. The burgers are pretty good here, but don't pass up an order of Belgian-style frites ($4.95), especially with the crave-worthy sriracha mayo for dipping. If you're not feeling beer, or maybe if you're feeling a little rough from the night before, try one of the delicious house Bloody Marys ($7).
For an Upscale Biker Bar: The Yard
The Iron Horse Hotel was built just down the street from the Harley Davidson Museum, however this is definitely not your average biker bar. Everything about the hotel, including its restaurant, accommodations, and outdoor patio and bar, is classy, with exposed beams, vintage motorcycles, and plush leather everywhere. So even if you're not a HOG—that's a Harley Owner's Group member—or have no cultural connection to the brand, you'll still feel at home here. The patio is bordered by the river and tucked up next to an elevated bridge. There's definitely an industrial vibe going on with all the purposely rusted metal, but it's softened with flowers and cloth canopies.
The small menu features everything from brats and burgers to escabeche with octopus and a charcuterie board. In other words, there's definitely something for everyone, making this an excellent place to bring a large group. If you do come with a crowd, make sure to grab one of the large couch seating areas.
For Burgers and Custard on the Beach: Northpoint Custard
Located right between a downtown lakefront park and Bradford beach, Northpoint is the place to go when you're feeling peckish from all that beach volleyball and sandcastle building. They offer char-grilled butter burgers ($3.50), which can be topped with everything from Merkt's cheese spread to avocado. Make sure to get a side of the fried cheese curds; they have an interesting spongy texture, which is the telltale sign of fresh curds. Wash everything down with a shake ($3.95) or malt ($3.95) and you'll have plenty of energy left for more fun in the sand.
For Fresh Seafood with a View: Harbor House
The patio at Harbor House offers the best view of the city. This Bartolotta-group seafood restaurant is located downtown on a small peninsula that juts out into the lake, giving you unmatched views of the harbor and the Calatrava-designed Milwaukee Art Museum. Even though the restaurant can get a little pricey (it is fresh seafood in the Midwest, after all), the patio space is laid back and welcoming, with white adirondack chairs and tables all around. Don't miss happy hour, where fresh oysters ($.89 each), fried smelt ($7.95 with fries), and mussels ($7.95) are cheap and plentiful. We're a city of brunchers, and the expansive seafood-heavy Sunday brunch buffet ($39.95 per person) is best enjoyed on the patio.
For the Baseball Fan: Friday's Front Row at Miller Park
Yes, this is technically a TGI Friday's location, but hear me out. It's actually a brand extension call Friday's Front Row, aptly named because its two locations are both inside MLB stadiums (the other is at Chase Field in Phoenix). It has a massive patio lining left field and just above the Brewers bullpen with clear views of the field. When the roof is open, you're essentially sitting outside. On game days the place is absolutely packed, and you generally have to reserve a table, while also paying attention to the minimum order requirement. But the great thing about this place is that it's open year round. So if you've ever wondered what goes on in a stadium in winter, or what the field sprinkler schedule is, this is the place to figure it out. It's just plain neat.
The menu is standard TGI Friday's fare, but when you're in a ballpark, you're probably going to be craving things like brats and wings anyway. Go during happy hour, which they have weekdays on all non-game days. Grab a couple discounted beers or a long island iced tea, plus some cheap appetizers and enjoy meticulously kept grounds. It's great for kids, sports fans, and anyone looking for a unique outdoor destination.
German Beer in the Park: Estabrook Park Beer Garden
Beer gardens seem to be the new trend here. I guess that's not surprising considering how much Wisconsinites love their beer, even if it is puzzling why it's taken so long to open a beer garden with the abundance of German Milwaukeeans. Estabrook Park's beer garden was one of the first of the new wave, and features music many nights, even if it's just a lone accordion player serenading the tables. Families, dogs, and picnics are all allowed, making this a bustling meeting place.
Beer from the Munich Hofbrauhaus is served in half or full liter glass mugs (just remember the $5 glass deposit). With all that beer, it's a good thing they offer some snacks, too. The giant pretzel can be ordered with an oniony house-made cheese spread, and it goes great with landjaeger, a garlicky smoked sausage served cold.
Key West in Wisconsin: Barnacle Bud's
You'll never just run across Barnacle Bud's by happenstance. Hidden between winter boat storage buildings in an industrial area by the Kinnickinnic River, you can only access the restaurant by driving up through some warehouse parking lots or by docking your boat out front.
The inside is tiny, so the place really only comes alive in summer, when the large patio opens right on the river. The decor is an eclectic mix of local beer signs, driftwood and other nautical items, and blow up sharks. It's a little frenetic, but completely fun. The menu is standard bar food fare, with an emphasis on fried fish, including a grouper sandwich ($8.95). They also have special events like an annual crawfish boil ($30 per person) to watch out for.
The Quintessential Custard: Kopp's
There's a few Kopp's locations, but the one in Greenfield has the best outdoor area. Even though it's on a busy corner, the patio area is sunken and surrounded by high walls, including one with a waterfall. It's a sanctuary, with flowers planted and birds looking for stray fries, allowing you to enjoy your custard or burger in relative peace.
I love the burgers here. They're about the diameter of your head, but nice and thin, so the bun-to-meat ratio is perfect in every bite. Because this is Wisconsin, each burger also gets a smear of butter and a thick slice of gooey American cheese.
You also cannot skip the custard. There's two specialty flavors each day, along with chocolate and vanilla. My favorites are grasshopper fudge, red raspberry, and cookie dough, but I'm finding myself craving the intensely-flavored plain vanilla more and more. If you're in a shake mood, definitely try the hot fudge shake. The salty hot fudge is a great foil to the creamy vanilla custard.
Riverwalk Brewery: Milwaukee Ale House
Milwaukee Brewing bottles up some of the city's favorite beers, including Louie's Demise, Love Handle, and Pullchain. You can get the most popular selections at most bars across the city, but if you want to try any of the smaller batch brews or flights, this is where you need to come.
The two-story patio backs up against the river and the Riverwalk, a long pedestrian pathway through downtown and the Third Ward. Expect get sweeping views up and down the river and enjoy some people watching, too. One thing to note that isn't true of most patios: happy hour specials are valid outside, and not just at the bar. So take a load off, enjoy the weather and the view, and try as many discounted Milwaukee Brewing beers are you can handle.