There's Never Been a Better Time to Eat and Drink in Milwaukee

The Midwestern city is having a major moment — here are the bars, restaurants, and cafés we can't get enough of.

Uncle Wolfie's Breakfast Tavern
Photo: Mann Frau

Restauranteur Wolfgang Schaefer has a saying about Milwaukee food 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.

"That's the Midwestern way — make great food, treat people well, and have a ball doing it," said the lifelong Wisconsinite.

If you think that sounds a little too laid-back, you clearly haven't been to Uncle Wolfie's Breakfast Tavern, the everyday brunch spot Schaefer opened with his wife, Whitney, at the tail end of 2018. Chef Joe Singer excels at elevating familiar items, from a crepe-like omelet — 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," said Whitney Schaefer, "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 in Chicago in 2011. "I never planned on staying in Milwaukee, but it sunk its teeth into me and my wife very hard," he said. "The dining scene has come far from what it was eight years ago. If I were to move now, there are 20 places I would want to work for."

Kevin Miyazaki

Luckily he doesn't have to pick. Jacobs and Green Bay native Dan Van Rite helm two very different restaurants in Milwaukee's Historic Third Ward: DanDan, which serves frisky Chinese-American food, and EsterEv, which specializes in experimental multi-course meals.

One Milwaukee restaurant that was a success right from the start is Odd Duck. Owners Melissa Buchholz and 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 often 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.

John Sturdy

"I always want to be learning," said 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," added 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: it's whole when you're here, you're family vibe, something that local chain George Webb really got right back in the day.

Odd Duck
Artemio Photo

"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 a few other Milwaukee food and drink spots that strike a perfect balance between celebrating the city's past, present, and future.

1840 Brewing Company

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 1840 Brewing Company, which opened in 2017, 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.

Bavette La Boucherie

Karen Bell earned a James Beard Award nod for Best Chef: Midwest four times thanks to the progressive food program of her artisanal butcher shop Bavette La Boucherie. 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.

Bryant's Cocktail Lounge

It takes a minute for your eyes to adjust to the dim lighting at Bryant's Cocktail Lounge, an institution since it opened in 1936. 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.

Leon's Frozen Custard

If you still don't know the difference between soft-serve and its eggy, truly creamy counterpart, Leon's Frozen Custard 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 it has locations in Brookfield and Franklin. Greek flavors and filing portions shine throughout the menu, from potatoes fried in olive oil and blanketed with feta, lemon, and bacon to an omelet flanked by avocados and bursting with shrimp, garlic, tomato, onion, pepper jack, and cheddar.

Snack Boys

"Nightlife for your mouth" and "highbrow snacks for lowbrow folks" are the taglines for this neon-tinged, budget-priced munchies palace. Bring friends and order the 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.

Strange Town

Strange Town
Courtesy of Strange Town

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 celeriac remoulade, smoked salt, and micro greens 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.

Third Coast Provisions

Fresh catches are the star of the show at Third Coast Provisions, peaking with sea scallop ceviche served over oysters and decadent lobster pot holes with jumbo lump crab, garlic, herb butter, and sourdough. If you're craving something more low-key, head to the owner's other restaurant, Merriment Social, which boasts a seasonal menu of crowd-pleasers like Monte Cristo egg rolls, baked cheese curds, burgers, and fish tacos.


Wisconsin's love of beer and bratwurst gets an upgrade at Vanguard, a Bayview staple that 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.

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