Beyond Brats: What to Eat in Milwaukee

 Find the best spots for custard, brunch, beer and more in Wisconsin's biggest city.

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

An original when it comes to fine dining in Milwaukee, Sanford Restaurant founder Sandy D’Amato was crowned the city’s first James Beard Foundation Award winner in 1996. Though he’s decamped to Massachusetts where he now runs a cooking school in Massachusetts, the classic French restaurant (bolstered by ingredients sourced from Wisconsin farms) — born out of his parents’ grocery store on a residential East Side street — continues under new owner (and former sous chef) Justin Aprahamian with a nightly a la carte menu and two tasting options. Go for the seven-course Surprise Tasting Menu, which is offered Monday through Friday only, folding in any allergies or dietary restrictions.

New Restaurant: DanDan

Fed by their love for Chinese food, and an epic road trip to Chinatowns across the U.S., two Milwaukee chefs named Dan, Dan Van Rite and Dan Jacobs, opened DanDan last summer, named after not only them but the popular Szechuan noodle dish. Fusing high brow with low brow, the menu features delicacies like Peking duck, fried red snapper with pineapple fish sauce, and a stellar wine list (sourced from boutique wineries around the world) alongside pork pancakes, dumplings and potstickers. The popular $13 lunch special includes an appetizer and an entrée. A newer addition is the 10-course, pop-up dinner series EsterEv in the restaurant’s private-dining space, Thursday through Saturday at 7 p.m. The menu changes monthly.

Custard: Kopp’s

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

In 2012, Braise Chef-Owner Dave Swanson debuted the country’s only restaurant-supported-agriculture program, linking local chefs with Midwest farmers. Since then, Braise has expanded to include a cooking school, rooftop garden, snacks-to-go and CSA offering. On a non-descript corner in Walker’s Point — an area just south of downtown that, until a decade ago, was strictly industrial buildings — the dinner menu rotates each night based on what’s fresh and in season. On a recent night, this meant a “root to leaf” savory rice pancake with tomato-sumac curry, followed by six nose-to-tail dishes that included goat sausage with rye spaetzle and lemon-pepper quark cheese, concluding with an apple galette baked in an aged-cheddar crust for dessert.

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

Drink Wisconsinbly — open since early 2016 in Walker’s Point — is a restaurant so popular it has its own apparel line, including a hoodie. It’s also in perfect pitch with Milwaukee’s unofficial Friday-night meal, a fish fry. Per tradition, cod is breaded and beer-battered (in this case, using Milwaukee’s own Eastside Dark by Lakefront Brewery) and served alongside coleslaw, fries and marble-rye bread. Don’t stop with the fry, however. Starters are an ode to Wisconsin’s other food traditions, such as Bavarian pretzels, fried cheese curds and Swedish meatballs in lingonberry sauce. Close out your bill with the State Fair dessert: Oreos battered in brown sugar, plus cookies-and-cream ice cream from Purple Door down the street.

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

With three retail stores in the Milwaukee area, Indulgence Chocolatiers’ founder Julie Waterman has a corner on local chocolate. She’s committed to culling ingredients from throughout Wisconsin to weave into hand-painted truffles, chocolate bars with crunch and kick (like cayenne pepper in the Mayan Spice bar), and toffee. Each of the stores sports a different vibe. In Wauwatosa you can get a scoop of ice cream; the Walker’s Point location — where chocolates are made behind a glass wall — offers beverage pairings, like a glass of South African Pinotage with Indulgence’s raspberry St-Germain truffle, available in a flight of three or four. The Walker’s Point store also offers classes in pairing chocolate with drinks like beer, whiskey and wine, plus cheese.

Lake Views: Harbor House

This glass-walled seafood-focused restaurant juts out into Lake Michigan in a bay wedged between the Milwaukee Art Museum and Discovery World, affording lake views from all angles. Locals know that the best views between May and September are out on the patio, snug in a white Adirondack chair, gazing out at the water. Like its name suggests, Harbor House specializes in seafood, including the city’s best raw-bar menu. Pick from the daily selection or three tiered towers perfect for sharing (including The Yacht, with oysters, clams, shrimp, crab and lobster).

Food Hall: Milwaukee Public Market

Mimicking Seattle’s Pike Place Market, Milwaukee’s only food hall celebrates its 12th anniversary this year. Specialties of the Dairy State — like artisan cheese, six packs of craft beer, and jars of pickles and mustards — are sold at Milwaukee Public Market as take-home souvenirs, but one can also grab a meal in-house. One example is at St. Paul Fish Market, where a Maine-lobster feast ($15.95) is served at the bar. For differing palates in a group, grab a table at Thief Wine in the middle of the market, where food can be brought in from market vendors for no fee to enjoy with wines. For an extensive selection of Wisconsin cheese, even locals travel across town to shop at West Allis Cheese & Sausage Shoppe, a cheesemonger with at least 200 varieties, including the award-winning producers Mobay from Carr Valley and Pleasant Ridge Reserve from Uplands Cheese Company.

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

One of the newcomers to downtown Milwaukee’s growing list of steakhouses, Rare Steakhouse, with its wood-paneled walls and tufted-leather booths, has a sibling eatery in Madison (also called Rare). The meat mania includes a prime rib cart at lunch, and a 34-ounce Wagyu tomahawk steak at dinner, as well as rich sides like foie-gras butter. Rare sources only from the top two percent of beef purveyors, and it shows, from an eight-ounce wet-aged filet to a 28-ounce double bone-in Frenched filet. Surf-and-turf rules the menu, too, including butter-poached lobster and grilled branzino. Pair it all with a bottle from the 1000-strong wine cellar.

Burger: Stack’d

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

The love story Chef-Owner Suzzette Metcalfe weaves in the kitchen each night is about as romantic as the setting itself. The Pasta Tree has been an East Side staple since opening in 1982; Metcalfe, who used to work at the restaurant, took over in 2007. Couples cozy up in either the original dining room (narrow and elegant, with a mix of tables and banquettes) or the newer wine bar, which features a crackling fireplace. Among the dishes on the menu since nearly the beginning are Smoked Salmon Alfredo and Scallop Artichoke Cream. The rich Chocolate Nemesis Cake is in perfect pitch for a romantic date and the wait staff are fine with lingering diners.

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 — under the watchful eye of a video camera that broadcasts to dining patrons — before they’re 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 there’s a mix of healthy items and meaty picks, like the Bourne Identity Salad, Cuban Missile Crisis sandwich and Mata Hari’s Meatloaf. Diners sit in spy-friendly dimly lit rooms with walls plastered in memorabilia and framed wartime photos.

Safehouse: SafeHouse