There's Never Been a Better Time to Eat and Drink in Milwaukee
Wolfgang Schaefer has a saying about Milwaukee's restaurant scene that sums it up better than any outsider ever could: From comfort food to fine-dining, it's "awesome and approachable," a sleeping giant that doesn't take itself too seriously.
"You can goof off and get shit done at the same time here," explains the lifelong Wisconsinite. "That's the Midwestern way—make great food, treat people well, and have a ball doing it."
If you think that sounds a little too laid-back, you clearly haven't been to Uncle Wolfie's Breakfast Tavern, the everyday brunch eatery Schaefer opened with his wife, Whitney, at the tail end of 2018. Chef Joe Singer excels at elevating familiar items, from a crepe-like omelette—with sweet potatoes whipped right into the egg wash, fresh avocado and house-made chorizo for its fillings, and a coup de grâce crown of mango and raspberry salsa—to a stacked multi-grain sandwich of bacon, smashed avocado, balsamic-roasted tomatoes, field greens, and thick-cut, beet-cured salmon.
Uncle Wolfie's could stop right there and keep its seats filled, but Whitney also runs one of Milwaukee's best lifestyle shops (Orange & Blue Co.) in the back of its sunny Brewer's Hill space. What better way to contend with a long wait on the weekends than a tightly curated collection of clothing, jewelry, and self-care scents, oils and serums, right? It certainly shows how far Cream City has come from its supper clubs and steakhouses.
"I moved back to Milwaukee in 2012 after being gone for many years," says Whitney, "and fell in love—for the first time, really. A friend took me to this tiny restaurant that had just opened called Centro Cafe. The tables quickly filled up with flavorful bruschettas, bowls of handmade pasta, glasses of wine, and chocolate cake. I felt at home there; the seafood risotto was reminiscent of something I would have gotten off the Adriatic Coast in Italy. It was then that I began to realize the life I could create for myself in this city.
Chef Dan Jacobs has had a similar experience since leaving his longtime home of Chicago in 2011. "I never planned on staying in Milwaukee, but it sunk its teeth into me and my wife very hard. I love it here; the dining scene has come sooo far from what it was eight years ago. If I were to move now, there are 20 places I would want to work for."
Luckily he doesn't have to pick. Jacobs and Green Bay native Dan Van Rite helm three very different restaurants in Milwaukee's Historic Third Ward: the frisky Chinese-American fare of DanDan, the experimental multi-course meals of EsterEv, and the Fleetwood Mac-scored French food of the newly opened Fauntleroy.
"[Fauntleroy's] soundtrack is some of our favorite music," explains Jacobs. "It reminds me of riding around in the back seat of my dad's car, listening to Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd, and The Who."
Not everyone gets it. In many ways, Fauntleroy's tropical interior and lush '70s look—more glam-rock than glamorous—stands in stark contrast to its previous tenant, the nearly 20-year-old French bistro Coquette Cafe.
"We took the opportunity to modernize it," says Jacobs, "to give Milwaukee something new."
"For Coquette regulars," adds Van Rite, "it's like going to the same place for breakfast every day, then someone takes it over and it's just not the same thing. Our hope is that they'll come around to give our version a chance; it's delicious."
No kidding. A limited lunch menu offers a masterful croque madame, an umami-packed French onion soup (thanks to mushroom stock and miso), and a Grand Royale burger featuring German butterkäse cheese, two brisket patties, special sauce, and a pile of utterly perfect fries. Meanwhile, dinner stretches its ambitions to a caviar service, chicken liver eclairs, and two-person take on duck a l'orange, complete with leg confit, foie gras, dry-aged breast meat, grilled hearts, and contrasting waves of citrus, crunchy potatoes, and lightly dressed greens. The only thing missing is Mick Jagger, sitting across from you with a big smile on his face.
One fairly recent Milwaukee restaurant that was a success right from the start is Odd Duck. Melissa Buchholz and chef/co-owner Ross Bachhuber were so blown away by the overwhelming response from their 2012 opening that the couple eliminated its lunch service and large plates entirely. Bachhuber can now be found careening between culinary styles and cultures in the sprawling Animal and Vegetable sections of his ever-evolving menu. Our spring visit revealed such immediate standouts as a fiddlehead fern fricassee, Oaxacan fried eggplant, and nasi lemak rounded out by pandan rice, fried oyster mushrooms, chili sambal, peanuts, acar pickles, and a hard-cooked egg.
"I always want to be learning," says Bachhuber, "and I hire kitchen staff that wants that, too. Some dishes stay just a day or two; some stay for months. Nothing is sacred. Once we did a grilled duck heart with shallot vadouvan, kadhi, and tamarind chutney, Indian style. I love doing duck hearts because they are so beefy, and since we are called Odd Duck, people are open to trying them!"
"Everyone deserves to have a good time and great food with their friends or family," adds Buchholz. "A formal, white tablecloth experience can be intimidating to some, so we changed that. We made fine-dining level food in a bar, basically. And most Wisconsinites feel comfortable in a bar. We grow up in them. You take your kids there; it's not weird. They have kiddie cocktails and eat fish fry with you."
Wolfgang Schaefer agrees. In fact, that's the one thing he remembers about Milwaukee growing up: its whole when you're here, you're family vibe, something a local chain (George Webb) really got right back in the day.
"No one would ever say they had interesting or adventurous menus," he explains, "but that wasn't the point. They just let us all be there—sometimes all night long—sitting in a booth smoking cigarettes, doing homework, and refilling coffee after coffee. When you treat someone you don't know with all the respect and kindness you'd afford a friend or a relative, it changes their whole day. Those experiences bled into our mission statement at Uncle Wolfie's; we wanna treat every first-timer like a regular, so every first-timer becomes one."
Here are ten of the many other food and/or drink spots that strike a perfect balance between Milwaukee's past, present, and future.
The Brewhouse Inn & Suites is one of the area's top-rated hotels for a reason: because its soaring ceilings and copper-plated bones—Pabst's former headquarters—reflect downtown Milwaukee's roots as an epicenter of clean and crisp lagers. The two-year-old 1840 Brewing Company pays homage to that history with its name, a nod to the city's first batches of commercial beer. But its founder, brewmaster Kyle Vetter, backs up its "urban farmhouse" identity with barrel-fermented beauts like a raw Kveik IPA (Norwegian Wood) and small-batch collabs with such like-minded locals as Working Draft, Good City, and Eagle Park.
Karen Bell earned a James Beard Award nod for Best Chef: Midwest the past three years thanks to the progressive food program of her artisanal butchershop. Grab a lunch table to pore over a Wisconsin-worthy cheese and charcuterie plate or such wow-factor sandwiches as roast pork with feta, turmeric cabbage, curried garbanzos, preserved lemon, and herbed yogurt. If you have nowhere to be that afternoon, now's the time to try a Milwaukee-style Old Fashioned, too, complete with Wollersheim brandy, muddled orange, and Wisco Pop Cherry Bomb soda.
It takes a minute for your eyes to adjust to the dim lighting at this 81-year-old institution—a den so dark it renders the innate need to Instagram it all mute. Focus on the drinks instead, classic and contemporary recipes pulled from a secret menu of more than 450 cocktails. Tell your bartender what you're in the mood for and they'll whip up something extra special. This being Milwaukee, though, many bestsellers start in an old-fashioned blender and end up like a spiked, pretense-free milkshake. Embrace it.
The second act of local roaster/reigning nitro champion Pilcrow Coffee is a third-wave cafe by day and cult fine-dining fav by night. Tasting menus for two cost $160 including drink pairings and such bold minimalist bites as a black walnut and ramp madeline, sunchokes doused with aioli, malt vinegar and pollen, and a ribeye cut with capers, sprouts and celery root. (Turns out chef Travis Cook worked at San Francisco's Saison and French Laundry before landing at MKE's Ardent and Interval.)
If you still don't know the difference between soft-serve and its eggy, truly creamy counterpart, Leon's will change all that with its ethereal vanilla, chocolate, and butter pecan cones. Although to be clear, it's not alone; Milwaukee is the unofficial home of frozen custard, with the nearby Robert's, Gilles, and Kopp's all getting love from locals.
Weekend brunch is a contact sport at Mimosa—a place so popular owner Apostoli Evreniadis is opening a second location west of Milwaukee this summer. Greek flavors and filing portions shine throughout the menu, from potatoes fried in olive oil and blanketed with feta, lemon and bacon to an omelette flanked by avocados fans and bursting with shrimp, garlic, tomato, onion, pepperjack, and cheddar.
"Nightlife for your mouth" and "highbrow snacks for lowbrow folks" are the taglines for this neon-tinged, budget-priced stoner palace. Bring friends and order the market-priced Snack Attack to sample the entire menu, a seemingly endless procession of queso fundido, fried bologna, 7-layer taco dip, roe-topped tater tots, braised curds, slow-roasted pork ribs, fried confit chicken, deviled eggs, meatballs, and, well, you get the point. It's a lot. And totally worth it.
Quite possibly the most creative and compelling new restaurant in Milwaukee right now, Strange Town calls itself a "plant-based bistro." Which is really a modest way of saying it makes vegan food absolutely sing, whether it's an amaranth tartine of tofu and cashew ricotta and cultivated local mushrooms or a show-stopping sea vegetable salad of "ocean ribbons," kelp noodles, spirulina ginger crema, herbs, watercress, and house-made furikake seasoning. If that's not enough of an excuse to snag a reservation or bar seat, Strange Town's left-field drink menu leans heavily on natural wine and amari without making you feel like you need a sommelier to translate it.
Also of note on the natural wine front: the newly opened Voyager bar, which features a special Sunday Spritz menu and hosts wild events like Modern Kicks, a night of "Pet Nats & Punk Rock."
Merriment Social's owners make fresh catches the star of the show here, peaking with a $67 Plateau of oysters, Maine lobster, whitefish, shrimp, and seafood salad. Or if you're looking for more of a low-key meal, head down to its sister bar Oak & Oyster, which offers a rotating pop-up menu of playful dishes. Right now that means upscale fast food like Big Mac Croquettes, Cinnatwist Chicharrones, Curly Fries with a Frosty Dip, and a Shamrock Shake Cake.
Wisconsin's love of beer and bratwurst gets an upgrade at this Bayview staple, which features house-made draft cocktails, a lengthy bourbon list, and new-school sausages that work in Thai, Serbian, and Italian flavors and a host of so-weird-they-actually-work ingredients. Or you could just stick to a craft pint and a snappy cheddarwurst featuring aged curds from the one-and-only Hook's.