Anchoring both visions is the city’s iconic Art Museum, designed by Spanish star-chitect Calatrava with futuristic flying-buttress “bird wings” that flap open each day at noon. The art inside is equally arresting, going beyond its Old Masters with shows like haute couture from Ebony Magazine’s Fashion Fair to be followed by Modern Rebels (Van Gogh to Pollack, Warhol to O’Keeffe).
The art museum’s bird wings point to neighboring caches of cool, like the boho Third Ward: six square blocks of behemoth warehouses reborn as epicenters of enjoyment, from out-there galleries (two dozen in the Marshall Building alone) to indie boutiques (don’t miss Shoo; Third Ward Jewelry; and NL Suits bespoke tailors, for starters) . Food finds range from destination cafes to the Public Market, an indoor emporium celebrating over 20 local vendors—cheese to fine chocolates, sausages to spices—highlighted by St. Paul Fish Co. with its (believe it) $14 lobster dinner, an act of charity.
Meanwhile, rebellious lobsters have been netted by nearby Harbor House, seafood flagship of the revered Bartolatta restaurant clan, boasting a postcard-ready lakefront view of twinkling city lights as you slurp the lobster fricassee, lobster Louie salad, bisque (shrimp and crabs basking in its cream as well), or lobster roll, gussied up with Old Bay mayo and brioche bun, while your politer companions enjoy trout almondine and salmon in dill pesto. (Hint: happy hour oysters are only 89 cents.) For the Grand finale? Go for the maple crème brulee. And what to drink? A dictionary-sized wine list, divided into Great Whites and Red Snappers, is as thorough as it is costly; instead, we listened to our Inner Wisconsin voice and ordered Old Fashioneds—fashioned, here, from brandy. (Wisconsin drinks more brandy than any other state; blame it on the cold.)
Close by, at trending Walker’s Point, enjoy breakfast at the fledgling Story Hill BKC (bottle, kitchen, cup, celebrating what they do best) on artworks like shakshouka (local eggs in cumin-tomato sauce with smoked lentils, cilantro, goat cheese and sumac mayo) or local Clock Shadow quark on toast with house-made jam and local honey.
Return at dinnertime for hog trotters atop kale, oyster mushrooms and cracklings, or pork country spare ribs with yellow peas and cabbage. Order a breakfast cocktail (just because you can) from a list that includes, of course, a steaming Irish coffee. All the wine, liquor, beer, chocolate and coffee served in the café also are available for take-home purchase. Or enjoy a bottle at your table for a mere $5 corkage fee.
Snap up a second breakfast at Engine Company No. 3, housed—natch—in a former fire house, complete with ladders, trampoline and other once-smoky artifacts. The restaurant salutes local producers on a menu starring omelets pillowing smoked pulled pork, sweet peppers, mushrooms and cow’s-milk cheese . Pork also rules the kitchen’s quiche, Salad Lyonnaise, pork loin sandwich with sweet and sour cabbage, a BLT and Club. My Salmon Madame starred the sleek and satiny, house-cured flesh on brioche from local Troubador Bakery as well as mornay sauce lapping a deftly fried egg. Prefer vegan? Clamor for the oatmeal with milk and dried fruit, all locally sourced.
Then aim for Second Avenue, where foodies storm into Indulgence Chocolatiers (include the Thai peanut butter truffle, the wicked-dark number crusted in sparkling sea salt, or the best-selling bananas Foster). Proprietor Julie Waterman, who joined the Army at 17 and left it with a taste for European sweets on her palate, also hosts flights and pairings with wine, beer, spirits and cheese.
Proceed to neighboring Purple Door Ice Cream; coffee roaster Anodyne Coffee; and Movida, a brand-new tapas-forward café spotlighting shared boards of Spanish cheeses, sausages and imported jamon, along with toasts (two words: pork belly) and mini-paellas in individual iron skillets, born of bomba rice from Murcia and saffron plucked in Albacate. Choose it “socarrat,” with the crunchy brown bite at the bottom of the pan—choice pickin’s in Spain—along with a side of live guitar. The maple flan, however, registered as close-to-rubbery. Red and white sangrias, but only three sherries, and my personal tapas addiction, patatas bravas, is available only at happy hour.
Proceed to Clock Shadow Creamery, launched in 2012 in a former bike works by Bob Wills because, for shame, his cheese-centric state boasted nary a single urban factory. His goal, he declares, is to “support farmers on the urban fringe” by making superior cheeses (“fresher than anyone”) that reflect the neighborhood’s ethnic heritage, from German quark to Mexican queso blanco (with free samples, of course). His eco-stewardship shines through in floorboards culled from the Pabst Brewing Company, siding fashioned from one-time pickle barrels, and a rooftop garden.
Farm-to-table? Please, that’s so yesterday. In Milwaukie, it’s roof-to-table, like Clock Shadow, and the Pfister Hotel’s bevy of beehives, supplying its buzzy (sorry) Mason City Grill with a honey-sweetened pavlova topped with honey ice cream. I loved the deep-fried lake perch with perky coleslaw on the lunch menu, too.
The hotel’s concierge, Peter, a Downton Abbey butler type in cutaway, vest and silk cravat, regales visitors with tales about the hotel’s launch in 1893 as proof the city “had arrived!” Betting on a fad, they installed electricity instead of gas. Near its grand staircase and barrel-vaulted ceiling, where painted cherubs frolic, stands the atelier of the hotel’s artist in residence, currently showcasing an installation of a fainting couch and “bearskin” rug composed entirely of condoms.
The urban hotel/casino complex of the Potawatomi Nation got the memo, too. Its prime restaurant, Locovore, lives up its promise with Growing Power farm’s spinach fueling my Oscar Benedict (mighty tasty crabmeat, too), its spinach salad and Florentine omelet. The kitchen calls on Carr Valley’s cheeses to fuel its sensational grilled cheese sandwich and on Growing Power’s lake perch to insert a local stamp on dinnertime’s fritto misto. Oh, and poutine? If you’re as addicted as I am to this dangerously delicious French Canadian improvement on French fries, try them here dressed with Clock Shadow’s cheese curds.
Pigs and Hogs
At dinner before a performance at downtown’s Milwaukee Repertory Theater, I’m at The Rumpus Room (another friendly Bartolatta outlet, modeled after a British pub), overdosing on pork belly—maple-glazed and coffee-rubbed, served with caramelized apples and a potato-onion cake, abetted by a locally-crafted milk stout. But I can’t help eying the adjoining table’s Usinger’s born-in-Milwaukee summer sausage and braunschweiger platters, teamed with Wisconsin cheeses selected from 10 statewide producers (and a beer-cheese soup with a Wisconsin pretzel on the pre-theater menu, too).
Here in Milwaukee, “high on the hog” applies to more than pigging out on the Rumpus Room’s pork schnitzel or sausage-wrapped Scotch egg. Spend time at the iconic Harley-Davidson Museum, along with visiting congregations of hog whisperers, and you’ll see what I mean. This museum salutes every model Harley ever made by the hometown company, starting with Serial Number One in 1903. Maverick inventors Harley and Davidson went from an initial annual production of three bikes to 20,000 only 10 years later—replacing the postal service’s ponies in 1916, outfitting police departments and the U.S. Army in wars abroad, and introducing the Sensational Streamliner in 1925; the 1950’s model, “enabling your boy to enjoy the good, clean companionship of other lads interested in healthy outdoor sports;” outfitting the postwar rebels and outlaws of the movies; and designing custom hogs for daredevil performers like Evel Knieval and Elvis Presley’s red model, purchased at age 21 on a $50-a-month payment plan. You can even climb on for a selfie at the end of your tour.
Prance along the three-mile Riverwalk, heading north to Brady Street, to join a food tour (www.milwaukeefoodtours.com) that offers “a meal with a side of neighborhood history,” according to Robert, our guide. Brady Street, he explains, has evolved from Polish to Irish to Little Italy, followed by the dicey years of Miami Vice and Haight-Ashbury lifestyles until the locals said “Enough!” and reclaimed the avenue. Today it’s punctuated by our stops—Zaffiro’s, since 1957 an institution for pizza, Milwaukee style (twice-baked cracker crust cut into squares, “tavern style”). Next, Cempazuchi, offering authentic Mexican fare like our tinga tacos, as well as tequila/mescal tasting sessions. On to Peter Sciortino’s Bakery, as Italian as it sounds, for cannoli and cookies and an intro to Ham Sundays (another locals-only institution: After church, maybe at St. Hedwig’s across the street, purchase a pound of ham and get six rolls gratis). Grand finale: Glorioso’s Deli, which lives up to its name, offering everything, from prosciutto and Parm to olives and espresso. (Don’t miss the Juggling Emporium across the street, just one of many indies showcased along Brady.) Other food tours celebrate the traditional Friday fish fry, frozen custard, and coming up, a barbecue tour.
To probe further into the Good Old Days, stroll through the Public Museum’s Streets of Old Milwaukee, or its even-older guide to the Near East’s Crossroads of Civilization, its brand-new permanent exhibit. The Jewish Museum also brings to life the business, cultural and religious roots of these residents, including the original Settlement House with its James Beard-praised cookbook, founded by well-off Jewish families to aid more recent immigrants. Surprise bonus: a magnificent 1972 tapestry by Marc Chagall to honor Israel’s 1969 Prime Minister, Golda Meir, who grew up in Milwaukee (both were born in Kiev).
Dr. Eckhart Grohmann grew up here, too, and continues to feed his passion, collecting artworks from around the world depicting “Man at Work” from the 1600s (there’s a Breughel) to today. In 2001, he donated more than 1,000 pieces to the Milwaukee School of Engineering, where it’s housed in a building that’s an artwork in its own right, from mosaic-tiled rotunda with stained-glass ceiling to a rooftop garden patrolled by life-size statues. The collection celebrates what the doctor hails as “human achievement” in paintings ranging from “The Building of the Tower of Babel” to “The Building of the Autobahn”: shepherds, steel workers, dentists, brewers.
Speaking of which: From macro (Miller, Pabst, Schlitz) to countless craft micros with tasting rooms and tours (even by boat on the river), breweries are simply table stakes in this city. These days, distilleries are making a splash. In the city’s newest, Central Standard, in Walker’s Point, young, vanguard distiller Brian Blazel is producing gin, vodka and clear whiskey to savor in his salvaged-barnwood tasting room.
The lakefront hosts a festival every summer weekend, beginning in June. But who can wait till then? Start planning your spree at www.visitmilwaukee.org. — By Carla Waldemar, RFT Contributor, photos courtesy visitMmlwaukee.org
If You Go
Milwaukee Art Museum mam.org
Harbor House www.harborhousemke.com
Story Hill BKC storyhillbkc.com
Engine Company No. 3 www.enginecompany3.com
Indulgence Chocolatiers www.indulgencechocolatiers.com
Purple Door Ice Cream www.purpledooricecream.com
Clock Shadow Creamery www.clockshadowcreamery.com
Andoyne Coffee anodynecoffee.com
Milwaukee Food Tours www.milwaukeefoodtours.com
Zaffiro’s Pizza www.zaffirospizza.com
Cempazuchi Comida Brava www.cempazuchi.com
Peter Scortino’s Bakery www.petersciortinosbakery.com
Milwaukee Public Museum www.mpm.edu
Jewish Museum www.jewishmuseummilwaukee.org
Milwaukee School of Engineering www.msoe.edu
Central Standard Craft Distillery www.thecentralstandard.com