Needed a Vacation, Didn’t Have the Time,
So I Ran Away to Brew City
Last Saturday was Jacob’s birthday and we were both in desperate need of some time away so I swept him off to Milwaukee. Though we only had one day to spend in the city, I wanted to simulate a full, meditative, leisurely vacation, one that would make us feel as though we had escaped for much longer. In one short 24 hour period, I packed in the perfect itinerary of eats, drinks, and activities. I’d like to think that I nailed it – even my AirBNB host was impressed.
Here’s a short guide highlighting some of my favorite spots in Milwaukee. You can do it all in a day, or spread it out over several. If you have some suggestions, leave them for me in the comments. I’ll check them out on my return trip.
Special thanks to Visit Milwaukee and to my Facebook friends for offering up their excellent tips.
To prepare for Milwaukee, I spent a week eating nothing but sweet potatoes and smoothies because I was planning to go hard. I did not disappoint. We began at Bavette La Boucherie, my picture-perfect lunch destination. It’s a small butcher and cafe in the Historic Third Ward, a small and scenic neighborhood. Their menu consists of items like cheese and charcuterie platters, smoked fish, lard-coated nuts, bread and bone marrow butter–everything I’ve ever wanted for brunch. They also have a wonderful beverage program, including a variety of wines on tap.
We had one of the best dinners of our lives at Ardent, a tiny, award-winning restaurant that was definitely the main pull of our sojourn. At hardly a dozen seats, it’s furnished like somebody’s living room and, randomly, transforms into a ramen shop around 11:30 pm on Friday and Saturday nights. We opted for the relatively affordable tasting menu; it was orgasmic–each of the eight courses caused me to let out a slow, deep-throated moan audible, I swear, to the kitchen. If any of the staff at Ardent are reading this, I want to say I am very sorry but it is indeed your fault. You’re the one making sex-on-ecstasy food. Every dish, including the amuse, was a highlight. My favorite was the milk course: a platter of pain au lait, butter, and cheese all made in house using milk from the same herd of cows. It’s a small celebration of the dairyland in one course. I also have to mention the beef tartare topped with whipped marrow. With almost as much staff as diners, the service is also incredibly attentive and helpful, yet entirely casual.
For sweets, check out Indulgence Chocolatiers. In addition to crafting truffles in alluring flavors like black pepper and olive oil or balsamic fig, they also offer chocolate pairings. There is an actual flight of chocolate truffles paired with cheese – highly recommended. Next door is a popular ice cream place called the Purple Door. Another dairy attraction, which we unfortunately could not make, is the Iron Horse Hotel, which I’m told has phenomenal fried cheese curds.
If you spend the night, pop by The National for a solid American breakfast. Milwaukee is particularly known for having a well developed coffee culture for such a smaller city. Mornings – or afternoons if you’re like me – are incomplete without a stop at either of the local favorite coffeeshops, Anodyne (also carried at The National) and Colectivo.
Everyone knows that Milwaukee has some great (and classic not-so-great) beer. Lakefront Brewery has a fantastic tour, entertaining and educational. You can even go on a technical tour if you want, which caters toward homebrewers. But there’s a whole lot more than great beer to be excited about.
To relax and get cozy with an evening or late-night cocktail, hit up Bryant’s, the oldest lounge in the city. It’s quite inconspicuous from the front, but the intimate inside is dim, lined with velvet, and charmingly shabby. They make their drinks from a proprietary repertoire of classic, secret recipes. There’s no menu: you simply describe what you like and they do the rest. I gave them “Bourbon, strong, and stirred” and they presented me with a delicious Lonesome Highway. Another great bar, especially later in the night, is Foundation, an unassuming-looking shack in a residential area that encloses a lively tiki bar with great drinks.
Though the main attractions are eating and drinking, you’re going to need something to do while you’re digesting. The Milwaukee Public Market is adorable and has everything the Chicago French Market does not: charm, substance, and a great wine seller. Get yourself stocked up on some New Glarus Beer, and if you are not slipping into a food coma, get a snack at Nehring’s.
If you’re looking for real tourist attractions, I highly recommend visiting the Harley Davidson Museum. There are so many cool, shiny bikes and it’s such a delicious morsel of classic Americana. Plus, they let you ride one. (It’s a simulation, but it’s still cool.) The Milwaukee Art Museum is quite stunning – but I’ve only seen it from the outside. I have heard that the cafe is incredible though. Oh, and the art, too. Afterward, pick up some fresh quark or tour the cheese-making facility at Clock Shadow Creamery, the city’s first urban creamery.
On your way out of town, if you’re headed back in the direction of Chicago, stop at the Mars Cheese Castle off 94 in Kenosha. They stock all of the Wisconsin cheddar you’ll ever need, plus a ton of interesting accoutrements. I even met my newest lover there: Wisconsonian Delectables spicy spinach tortilla chips. Imagine a beautiful, fresh-from-the-oven croissant made sweet love to a handmade tortilla, but while the tortilla was in labor they all fell into a frier. They are the flakiest, most moan-worthy chips I’ve ever pressed to my lips. The spicy spinach flavor will destroy chips for you forever.