Beyond Brats: What to Eat in Milwaukee
Find the best spots for custard, brunch, beer and more in Wisconsin's biggest city.
Photo By: Kevin J. Miyazaki
Photo By: Jeff Cleveland
Photo By: Bill Fritsch
Photo By: Front Room Photography
The Original Farm-to-Table Scene
Forget about its brats-and-beer image: Milwaukee’s dining scene has overcome its cheesy past. Because Wisconsin is second only to California in its number of organic farms, there’s an abundance of cheeses, fresh greens and root vegetables for restaurant menus. But lest you think Milwaukee’s all about cozy cafes, the state’s largest city’s dining scene dips into ethnic fare — such as Szechuan and German — as well as fine-dining (with seven James Beard Foundation Award-winning and –nominated chefs and counting). Quite a few chefs cut their chops across Europe, in New York City or Chicago, and on the West Coast before returning to the Dairy State, showing true allegiance to the city’s evolving culinary scene. Here’s where to book a table.
Tasting Menu: Sanford
New Restaurant: DanDan
If you haven’t licked a scoop of frozen custard, some might say you’re missing out on the Midwest’s most-delicious sweet. Kopp’s has three locations (in Glendale, Greenfield and Brookfield), each with old-school flair (think white-paper hats for the workers, and stainless-steel counters). Founded by Elsa Kopp in 1950, the business is now managed by her son Karl. Pro tip: Check out the Flavor Forecast on Kopp’s website, should you be deciding which day to visit. Flavors are often inspired by restaurant menus, including creative combinations like Tiramisu and Maple Syrup & Pancakes.
Farm-to-Fork Fare: Braise
Power Lunch: Lake Park Bistro
Tucked into the Frederick Law Olmstead-designed Lake Park with a wall of windows overlooking Lake Michigan, the aptly named Lake Park Bistro is the ideal spot for a respite. Channeling France, the lunch menu features bistro classics, including moules marinieres and a croque monsieur or madame, and classic French finales, including cheese plates and chocolate cake. This is the kind of place where you linger over French options from the wine list, including non-vintage Champagne or Brut Rosé from Alsace? James Beard Foundation Award-winning chef Adam Siegel oversees the menu as its executive chef.
Iconic Dish: Fish Fry at Drink Wisconsinbly
Hot Spot: Odd Duck
For the first couple of years after Odd Duck’s opening in Bay View, reservations were as hard to snag as Green Bay Packers tickets. Things have since slowed down, though the small-plates and farm-to-table-focused eatery is still wildly popular. With the menu divided into Vegetable and Animal sections, along with Snacks, Cheese and Charcuterie selections, there’s a huge focus on local sourcing. Dishes are inspired by the globe, including a recent one: Sri Lankan Beet Curry with kale, coconut, pickled lime and basmati rice. Flemish Seafood Waterzooi merges sour beer with fish (mussels, cod, shrimp and Dungeness crab).
Cheap Eat: Vanguard
You expect a low-cost hot dog to taste like, well, a hot dog, right? That’s where Bay View’s Vanguard is different — and better. Customers order a wide mix of artisan sausages and dogs (mostly less than $7) at the counter and then dine communally either on the patio or inside, just steps from the kitchen. Specialty dogs include Hungarian sausage, jerk chicken, and the vegan Soy Meets World. Five varieties of poutine round out the meal. Vanguard is also known for its creative mixology; try The Cher Bear (with rosewater essence, vodka and violet liqueur) or the day’s “wild card” cocktail.
Go to: Vanguard Bar
Cocktail Bar: Bryant's Cocktail Lounge
In lieu of a printed menu, servers pepper customers at this throwback bar with questions on their cravings to nail the perfect order for each. Dating by to the early 1940s, and under new ownership since 2008, Bryant’s has earned acclaim and award nominations for its 400-drink-strong library of cocktails. Sips with a retro bent might include Pink Squirrel (reportedly invented by original owner Bryant Sharp) or an Old Fashioned (Wisconsin’s unofficial cocktail). Sit on a vinyl stool at the curved bar or in a booth, and don’t leave without peeking at the second-floor Velvet Lounge upstairs (named for the fabric of its wallpaper).
Go to: Bryant's Cocktail Lounge
Chocolatier: Indulgence Chocolatiers
Lake Views: Harbor House
Food Hall: Milwaukee Public Market
Brunch: Café Calatrava
Mirroring the art collection upstairs at the Milwaukee Art Museum — not to mention Santiago Calatrava’s soaring white wings — Café Calatrava chef Jason Gorman whips up decadent and social media-worthy concoctions that could woo anyone out of bed on a cold Sunday morning. The café is on the museum’s lower level, with windows overlooking Lake Michigan. Dishes include brioche French toast, bagel-inspired flatbread with smoked salmon and capers, and a brisket burger on a pretzel bun. Don’t leave without sticking a fork into Birramisu, Gorman’s reimagined tiramisu.
Late-Night Eats: Red-Light Ramen
Perhaps in search of his own place to enjoy late-night fuel, James Beard Foundation Award-nominated chef Justin Carlisle opened the after-hours dining concept Red Light Ramen adjacent to his flagship fine-dining restaurant, Ardent. Popular with restaurant-industry workers, including Ardent’s employees, steaming bowls of ramen noodles are served until 1 a.m. Wednesday through Saturday. Although the menu is limited — two ramens are offered, plus Seafood Tins and upscale snacks — so is the seating. There are only two or three tables for two, plus a handful of bar stools, which makes this a hidden little secret in the city’s dining scene. Sake pairings are on the menu, too, as well as a mix of Asian and Milwaukee beers.
Steakhouse: Rare Steakhouse
Anchoring the North Side of Walker’s Point, Stack’d, which serves lunch and dinner inside the former Kramer Foundry, is a no-fuss burger joint with a commitment to local sourcing. This includes grass-fed beef and nine other protein options for the burger patties. There are also plenty of vegan and vegetarian options, such as the house-made black-bean burger or chickpea-walnut burger. Match your burger with sides like onion rings, fries smothered with three Wisconsin cheeses, or portabella fries.
Date Night: The Pasta Tree
Beer List: Café Centraal
With a nod to the Netherlands, Café Centraal on a street corner in bustling Bay View boasts a beer list so thick, it’s more like a book. Inside the leather cover are 15 pages of selections spanning Wisconsin and Belgium, including draught and bottle picks. Lowlands Brewing Collaborative — a special project between the café’s restaurant-group owner (Lowlands) and various breweries — has resulted in seasonal, exclusive beers like the Centraal Quadder Bourbon Barrel Aged, from Central Waters Brewing Company out of nearby Amherst, Wisconsin. Pair your pint with gastropub fare like potato-bacon pierogis or the half-pound South Pacific grass-fed burger topped with bánh mì slaw: Each menu item offers a suggested beer pairing.
Themed Dining: SafeHouse
An institution in downtown Milwaukee, SafeHouse is a spy-themed eatery with gastropub-type fare and a password is required upon entry. Those who fail to deliver the right code are forced to do little tricks â under the watchful eye of a video camera that broadcasts to dining patrons â before theyâre granted access. Look for it in an alleyway across from the Pabst Theater and Milwaukee Repertory Theater. On Monday nights, spy flicks are shown, and Undercover Hour (at the bar only, on weeknights) means happy-hour drink specials. Sharable plates include Fried C4 Cheese Curds and Nachos Camp Stanley, and thereâs a mix of healthy items and meaty picks, like the Bourne Identity Salad, Cuban Missile Crisis sandwich and Mata Hariâs Meatloaf. Diners sit in spy-friendly dimly lit rooms with walls plastered in memorabilia and framed wartime photos.