Milwaukee is a city that evolves slowly. Its roots as a blue-collar town — as the German Athens, as Brew City — are still evident in the names of local landmarks (Pabst Theater, Pfister Hotel, Miller Park, where the Milwaukee Brewers play); the neatly demarcated enclaves that still retain strong traces of their ethnic origins; the countless cozy neighborhood taps; and the locals’ love of sausage, cheese and beer, not to mention the array of festivals (German Fest, Irish Fest, Polish Fest) that overtake the lakefront every summer. Yet this city — Wisconsin’s largest, population 600,000 — is hardly a backward-looking place. Following a few decades of diminishing population, numbers have risen slightly in the years since the 2010 census, much of the increase due to young people moving into a few revived downtown neighborhoods like Walker’s Point and the southerly, suddenly hip Bay View, with its bars and galleries. The result is a city that possesses a renewed vitality while still holding on to an Old World character.
1. Cheese Factory
Improbably, the Clock Shadow Creamery, which opened in the fashionable Walker’s Point neighborhood in 2012, is Milwaukee’s one downtown cheese factory. A small outfit in a corner space in a green building, it produces a variety of products — from ricotta to the local favorite, cheese curds — and offers half-hour factory tours for $3 (reservations required). Keeping company in the same space is the equally new Purple Door Ice Cream, which uses only local and natural ingredients and serves up beguiling flavors like absinthe made by the Great Lakes Distillery nearby, and fig and black tea. A single-scoop cone costs $3.50. Purple Door will move into its own space a couple of blocks away in 2014.
2. Third-Coast Cuisine
Nearby, the airy new restaurant Blue Jacket epitomizes “Third Coast” pride. The seasonal dishes are locally sourced, while the beverage menu, using regional beers and spirits, was created by Bittercube, a Milwaukee-based bitters producer. Whitefish, served with brussels sprouts and guanciale ($16), comes from Lake Superior, and smelt, a Great Lakes staple, are put to good use as kettle-chip batter-fried snacks ($9). They go nicely with the Lake Bluff Gimlet ($9), laced with lavender syrup and bitters made with hops harvested in Door County upstate.
3. Old-Time Cocktails
After-dinner cocktails await in the historic Mitchell Street neighborhood at Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge, a dim, lushly upholstered time capsule of a bar inside a nondescript two-story house. On a recent evening the soundtrack was Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin playing over a vintage McIntosh stereo system. Sit in the barely discernible back room banquettes if you want to be invisible; the alternative is the long bar, crowded with young couples calling out for chocolate grasshoppers, pink squirrels and other ice cream drinks, along with brandy old fashioneds, Wisconsin’s unofficial state tipple. In December, ask for the Christmas punch. Drinks are $7 to $12.
4. Art Inside Art
The Milwaukee Art Museum ($17 adults) houses a fine collection — including works by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Richard Diebenkorn and Joan Miró — but, somewhat like the Guggenheim, the building itself is the institution’s most noteworthy attraction. The Quadracci Pavilion, designed by Santiago Calatrava, looks as if it is about to soar over Lake Michigan. Café Calatrava inside offers lovely views and an ever-changing menu, often reflective of exhibitions. Recent entrees included house-made pappardelle with wild boar ragù and an ale-braised venison osso bucco. Expect to pay $20 to $30 for lunch. Current shows include an exhibition of the undersung 19th-century American painter Thomas Sully.
5. Beer Town’s Boswell
For decades, Harry W. Schwartz’s was Milwaukee’s great hometown bookstore. When it closed in 2009, the Downer Avenue location was taken over by its book buyer and rechristened Boswell Book Company. The sprawling shop has long hours, a huge Wisconsin section, many author readings and a smart, attentive staff. Down the street, be sure to take a gander at the vintage Downer Theater movie house, in operation nearly a century.
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This week on Wisconsin Foodie we visit Door County to meet with farmer Tom Lutsey from Waseda farm. Then travel the Wickman House to dine on some products from the farm.
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Wisconsin has been honored in Wine Spectator’s newly released 2014 Restaurant Awards