There are many reasons to visit Milwaukee, and eating and drinking are among the best. I credit my Milwaukee-raised former roommate for introducing me to the city and its culinary splendor years ago. Only an hour-and-a-half journey from Chicago, it’s one of my favorite getaways.
Milwaukee’s ethnic European enclaves, Brew City pedigree, and proximity to heartland farms invite inventive takes on classic dishes. You’ll find beer and cheese in spades as well as more unexpected flavors.
I shared some of the best places to eat and drink in Milwaukee in an article for Chicagoist.
Best Brunch—Wolf Peach
This restaurant’s name is derived from an Old World nickname for the tomato, but Wolf Peach’s vibe is decidedly modern rustic. The sweet and savory brunch menu identifies each ingredient’s local Wisconsin source. Brunch pizzas come straight from a 6,000-pound wood-fired oven and the Bloody Marys are served with a Rhinelander shorty. Don’t miss the house-made English muffin or the baked polenta ($11), a satisfying mélange of cornmeal, eggs, ham, roasted mushroom, charred scallion vinaigrette, and the namesake tomato. Wolf Peach’s perch on Brewer’s Hill means diners get a bird’s eye views of downtown Milwaukee from its three patios. (1818 N. Hubbard St.)
Best Bloody Mary—Wicked Hop
Wisconsin is a land where Bloody Marys are done right with a solid, spicy base, generous garnish portions, and a beer chaser. The Wicked Hop’s version ($10) has been my favorite for years (recently challenged by the one at The Old Fashioned in Madison). The flavorful mix is crowned with a lemon, olive, pickle, Walnut Street portabella mushroom, Old Wisconsin beef stick, and peeled shrimp. Cascading mozzarella whips top off the mini-meal, which is served with a five-ounce Riverwest Stein chaser. Stop in while strolling the historic Third Ward. (345 N. Broadway St.)
Best Corned Beef—McBob’s
For a taste of the real Milwaukee, head to this dimly lit Irish pub on the edge of Washington Park. The diverse crowd included families, a roller derby team and grizzled Harley heads on our visit. McBob’s is one of the few places you can still find a third shift happy hour (8-11 a.m.), a holdover from the neighborhood’s blue-collar roots. Most visitors come for the half-pound mountains of tender, slow-cooked corned beef ($7.75 – $10) on toasted marble rye with melted Swiss. Don’t look for Thousand Island dressing though, McBob’s favors a slather of horseradish mustard for a tangy finish. (919 W. North Ave.)
Best Brewery Tour —Lakefront Brewery
Wisconsin’s second-largest craft brewery is first in providing engaging tours. In a town renowned for Miller, Pabst and Schlitz, Lakefront stands out by brewing great beers and serving them throughout the tour instead of waiting until the end. Try the Riverwest Stein amber lager to sample Milwaukee’s most popular craft brew, or pour a New Grist for a refreshing cider-like pilsner that just happens to be gluten-free. Whether you book online for a weekend tour ($10) or walk up for an abbreviated mini-tour ($8), it’s the best deal in town. It even comes with a souvenir pint glass. (1872 N. Commerce St.)
Best Reason to Break Out Your Lederhosen—Mader’s
Milwaukee’s German heritage is on full display at the city’s oldest restaurant. You’ll feel like you’ve entered an Old World lodge with servers wearing dirndls and $3 million worth of antiques, from stained glass to suits of armor, lining the walls. Enjoy a traditional, rich German dish like sauerbraten ($33) or sample the cheese and sausage board ($14) with links made at Usinger’s, a fellow landmark across the street. Need to wash down the mammoth “giant pretzel”? Mader’s has you covered, with taps from Spaten to Franziskaner and, of course, Spotted Cow. Prost! (1041 N. Old World 3rd St.)
Once you’re stuffed with German fare, cross the street to stock up on Wisconsin’s specialty. Founded in 1938, this classic Old World Third Street shop carries over 200 varieties of cheese. Friendly staff will introduce you to unique flavors like mango habanero cheddar, smoked black peppercorn Gouda, tongue-sizzling habanero ghost pepper cheddar and classic curds. Grab a local brew in the adjoining pub after you’ve purchased your weight in cheese. (215 W. Highland Ave.)
Best Buzz—Collectivo Coffee
Need a wake-up from that beer and cheese coma? It’s not hard to find one of Collectivo Coffee’s thirteen locations around town. The local roasters, formerly known as Alterra, have been slinging caffeine since 1993. Stop by their Humboldt Blvd. café to watch the hand-roasting process in person, or visit the Lakefront café in a former water pumping station to enjoy the Lake Michigan breeze. (1701 N. Lincoln Memorial Dr.)
Best Song and Supper—The Packing House
Wisconsin’s supper clubs should be named a state treasure. The traditional restaurants offer a menu of old standards (like steak and fish) at a good value, a convivial atmosphere. They often have entertainment, too. They recall a time when going to dinner was a night out and provided a sense of community, rather than checking the latest restaurant off your list. Like most supper clubs, the Packing House is located on the edge of town, specifically at the southern tip of Milwaukee near the airport. Grab a brandy old fashioned in the cocktail lounge and enjoy a swinging live jazz band before making your way to the white-tablecloth-clad dining room. Entrees start at $25 and include a bread course, soup or salad, and the requisite relish tray. The tender salmon ($26.99) is served with fresh asparagus, Burgundy cherry sauce, and a generous bleu cheese croquette. Reservations are recommended, especially on weekends. (900 E Layton Ave.)
Best Sweet Treat—Leon’s Frozen Custard
Before we catch flak from the Kopp’s fans, let’s just say that you can’t go wrong with frozen custard in Milwaukee. The concoction’s egg and cream content (of which Milwaukee has an ample supply) makes it smoother and denser than ice cream and not as cold or sweet. Pulling up to Leon’s feels like walking onto the set of a Happy Days, and indeed the soda fountain is rumored to have inspired Arnold’s drive-in on the series. Servers in white paper hats dole out affordable hot sandwiches and scoops of custard ($2.12) at a neon-lit counter, just as they have since 1942. The frozen custard is available in vanilla, chocolate, and butter pecan with a rotating flavor on weekends. (3131 S. 27th St.)
Best Place to Experiment—Dock 18
In a town that reveres its staples, Dock18 serves a dash of the unknown. Confuse your Uber driver with a stop at an unmarked door in Bay View’s Lincoln Warehouse and use the call box to be buzzed inside. An intimate speakeasy awaits, with space for 20 around a bar and cluster of tables (reservations recommended). The mad scientists behind Bittercube bitters and Twisted Path distillery make their products in-house and man the experimental, rotating cocktail program. An antique radio served as our table while the knowledgeable and attentive staff guided us through tastings of the house fernet and honey-like chamomile liqueur ($8). The updated Harvey Wallbanger ($9) is fragrant and frothy with the addition of egg whites and Bittercube cherry bark vanilla bitters. Raise a Dock18 Wisconsin Old Fashioned, featuring Twisted Path dark rum and Bittercube Trinity bitters, and toast to Milwaukee’s ever-enterprising spirit. (2018 S. 1st St.)
This article originally appeared on Chicagoist.