As summer approaches our fair city, Milwaukeeans of all affiliations are taking to the streets and sampling the best that Brew City has to offer. Between the many excellent restaurants and suppliers dotting the city, the festivals taking place all the time, a farmer’s market in almost every neighborhood, and our growing number of food trucks, the choices are getting better and better all the time.
With that in mind, I’d like to talk about a few places I love here in the city, without going into too much detail on any of them. These aren’t necessarily my favorites (though quite a few are), but they’re my go-to places when I want something good and cheap, and I feel that no one should live in Milwaukee without having gone to every one of these places at least once:
- Pizza Shuttle
- Bel-Air Cantina
- Real Chili
- Comet Cafe
- Kopp’s Frozen Custard
- Oakland Gyros
- Jake’s Deli
- Gourmet Cajun Grill
- Fuel Cafe
- Old German Beer Hall
We’ll start off with a newer Milwaukee classic; Pizza Shuttle. While it’s definitely not the best pizza in Milwaukee, it’s damn good, and it definitely competes for a specific portion of the market: Greasy fucking pizza for late-night hunger pangs. Sitting on N. Farwell Ave in the Lower East Side since 1987, they have become iconic of the city’s drunk college population (and pretty much everyone else, for that matter). Open 10am-2am every day, and delivering until 3am (or 4am on Fri-Sat), they provide the basics: Pizza (including their famous Mac & Cheese Pizza), wings, breadsticks, sandwiches, beer, slushies, and frozen custard (No ice cream! This is Milwaukee!). Their restaurant itself is a collection of shiny plastic kitsch and colorful Milwaukee pride mostly commissioned by local artists; basically everyone in the city finds themselves in the Shuttle at some point, so the people who go there are just as colorful. The photo booth in the dining area, the electronic jukebox, the arcade games around the corner, and the massive TVs adorning the walls all betray its roots as an Old Milwaukee-styled late-night stomp transformed into a glossy reflection of the upbeat and energetic East Side neighborhood itself. If you can manage to drag yourself there after a bender on North or Brady, a concert at Shank Hall, your senior prom, your wedding, a few tightly-packed bowls, or just whatever, you won’t be let down.
Probably one of the city’s most well-known Mexican restaurants, Bel-Air Cantina is a bar/restaurant ripped straight from California surfer culture and dropped in Milwaukee. Their main restaurant, on Humboldt and Water, is a massive, gleaming, curved aluminum construction with giant pane windows that open to the sidewalk, a decent-sized bar with two massive flatscreen TVs, and possibly the best riverside patio in the city (Riverwalk be damned). Freshly-made chips, salsa and guac, huge tacos and burritos, and an enormous tequila selection make Bel-Air a great place to go to watch the game, feel the breeze, and get a little toasty on those fine, fresh margaritas, caipirinhas, or mojitos. With a scenic outlook of the riverbanks and across into Riverwest and Brewer’s Hill, and a location gently tucked away behind the busy parts of Water Street and Brady Street, it’s one of my favorite places to go eat in the city. Just get there fast or go during the day; it’s almost always packed (though never uncomfortably so). With specials almost every day of the week and a great happy hour, you can’t miss it.
One of the great things about Milwaukee’s East Town area is the sheer number and concentration of bars, restaurants, pubs and clubs. You can find an establishment that suits you, matter what your preferences in atmosphere or drink (from nerd-themed 42 Lounge to the esteemed Newsroom Pub, from upscale Distil to dive-bar Rosie’s, and everywhere in between). But there’s only one caveat: They all close up at 2am, as does every licensed bar or tavern in Milwaukee. Where to go after you’ve been kicked out of your crawl, and need to soak it all up with some late-night eats in walking distance? For countless Milwaukeeans and visitors to the city, the answer has been the tiny, run-down Real Chili (tagline: Preventing Milwaukee’s Hangovers), on Wells and Jefferson. Opened in 1931 (yes, that’s two years before Prohibition was repealed!) on 14th and Wisconsin, and moving around a bit to settle into two locations on the East Side and the West Side, Real Chili has been serving mostly the same thing since they opened: Chili, soda, and beer. There’s some contention as to whether the “419” (the Downtown one) or the “Marquette” (the West Side one) is better; I’m a fan of the 419, but I’ll leave it up to the reader to make their own decision. They’ve added a few scant items since then, like hot dogs, nachos, and subs, but their core offering (the only reason to go there, really) is for their chili. Honestly, it’s nothing to write home about; a good, thick mix of spices, beans, tomato, peppers and ground beef over spaghetti (yes, spaghetti – none of that macaroni crap) and sided with onions, cheese, jalapenos and sour cream by request, but it goes down perfect with a soda or a beer, especially when you’re blitzed off your rocker. Oyster crackers are free and by the bowl, and all orders come with a packet of saltines. Order at the register and sit at either the bar or the long front table with compatriots, close friends and total strangers, and try not to puke within the restaurant, please?
Ah, Comet Cafe. Seeing the name brings back good memories of my first explorations into the local restaurant scene; I was told by a friend that “it was good” and “you have to go there”. These things are usually a good sign, and Comet does not disappoint. On N. Farwell Ave on the Lower East Side, Comet is an ode to the bike-riding, coffee-drinking, logo-bedecked Milwaukee student-type; a bar and cafe serving comfort food, a good solid Milwaukee Bloody Mary (loaded with toppings and accompanied by cheap beer chaser, of course), halfway-good vegetarian/vegan options (considering my opinion of vegan food, this says a LOT), and delicious dessert muffins. The place looks like what would happen if a 1950’s-era diner/cafe got a few tattoos, developed a smoking habit, and woke up with a nasty hangover. It’s one of my favorite places to go for comfort food in the city; from classic meatloaf and mashed potatoes to duck confit poutine, they know their food and they do it well. They even offer Bacon Night on Sunday evenings; a free plate of bacon for every customer (after spending at least $2.50). If you haven’t seen their white rabbit logo, you probably don’t live here. And if you haven’t been there yet, why the hell not?
Kopp’s Frozen Custard
Aside from beer and cheese curds, another of Milwaukee’s uniquely regional attitudes regarding food is that frozen custard is in many ways superior to ice cream and frozen yogurt. Milwaukee county has a wide variety of frozen custard shops: Gilles’, Oscar’s, Leon’s, and Kopp’s are the big names, but there are dozens more. No matter where you go, it’ll be good; it’s almost a religion here. Open since 1950, and with three locations (Brookfield with the peaked roof to the west, Greenfield with its outdoor garden to the south, and Glendale with the cow statues to the north), Kopp’s may not be the best in the area (a point of much debate), but it’s definitely the biggest. Serving custard, shakes, malts, and classic burger-and-fryer fare, Kopp’s is probably my favorite old-school custard place (just don’t tell that to the folks at Gilles’). They define themselves and stand out from the rest by their two Flavors of the Day (which are always creative and delicious), and their Featured Shake and Featured Sundae. Today, those are:
- Bark in the Dark (dark chocolate custard, with bits of dark chocolate and sea salt almost bark)
- Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough (made with Hershey’s chips and chunks of cookie dough)
- Chocolate Peanut Butter Shake
- Chocolate Banana Cream Pie Sundae
Their banana splits are my absolute favorite in the whole world; a massive plastic container is loaded with custard, bananas, strawberries, chocolate sauce, peanuts, pineapple, raspberries, and maraschino cherries, and then sealed so it doesn’t make a mess of the counter. Give me one of those and a burger, and I’m set.
Milwaukee isn’t especially known for its Greek culture; in the midst of our German and Polish heritage, the impact of Greek culture on Milwaukee’s history and culture is notably less pronounced. There are still a few good Greek places: Apollo on Brady, Ouzo Cafe downtown, Mykonos Cafe in Yankee Hill, and Oakland Gyros on Oak&Loc in the Upper East Side. Oakland Gyros is (like many places on this list) a great place to go after you’ve been sufficiently liquored up by nearby Axel’s or The Black Rose, or after a house party in the surrounding college neighborhoods of Murray Hill, Riverside Park, and Downer Woods, just south of UW-Milwaukee. They’ve got all the goodies: Gyro dinners for cheap (just get an extra pita and have a friend help you finish it!), spanakopita, chicken kebab, Athenian chicken, legs of lamb, awesome French fries, and really good burgers and chili dogs as well. I come here basically once every week or two, mostly to satisfy mine and Sydney’s constant cravings for their food. They’ve got round corner booths perfect for fitting 6-8 drunk fuckers who need to get their food on, and smaller booths for 2-4 people; every table comes equipped with a squirt bottle of ketchup and their cucumber sauce (which technically isn’t tzatziki). The line is commonly out to the door, but don’t let it bother you; it’s worth every minute of the wait. As a side note, don’t skip their shakes and Sprecher’s root beer floats; they’re great for washing down the massive serving sizes of gyro meat and fries.
So, when you think of a deli, what do you picture? A big, open, older restaurant with lots of steel and glass display cases, neon signs, white tiles, smudgy aprons, and huge piles of homestyle meats, tucked on a back street away from the hustle and bustle of pedestrian activity (though not intentionally), an overweight guy behind a counter posting dupes to the kitchen staff? I can say that Jake’s Deli is all that, and none of that, and so much more. Their main building is at North and 17th, in the middle of the now-ghetto neighborhood of Lindsay Heights, where it has been since 1905 (operating as a butcher shop, then as Cohen’s Delicatessen, before being bought out in 1953 and rebranded as Jake’s in 1955, by founder Jake Levin); they operate two food court outposts as well, one in Grand Avenue Mall in Westown (which offers delivery!) and the other in Southridge Mall in Greenfield. Despite the dilapidated-looking exterior of their main building, everything about this company radiates class and quality, and they’re every bit as good as your grandfather remembers, if not better, despite their decidedly modernized design approach. There’s nothing more comforting than ordering up a North Ave. Reuben from the deli and snarfing it down with a nice Dr. Brown’s or Stewart’s and some fresh-cut waffle fries, and knowing that it’ll be there for you, just as it’s always been. I only just recently discovered this place during a trip to the Grand, and I gotta say, it’s one of three reasons I keep going back there, and why I think more people ought to.
Gourmet Cajun Grill
Speaking of hidden gems in the Grand Avenue Mall, here’s another place I gotta recommend to more people. Now, let me preface this by saying that there are only three types of restaurants which can survive inside a mall food court: Fast-food franchise outposts, design-centric gap-fillers, and hidden wonders. The first are obvious; Subway, McDonald’s, Panda Express, Qdoba, Taco Bell. These get customers because they are reliable and familiar in branding and offerings, but they’re never as good as full-fledged restaurants in the franchise. The second are restaurants that no one’s ever really heard of, but which provide some category of food that isn’t offered by the fast foods, and they look clean and pretty, so why not? Usually, these are frozen yogurt places, salad-centric hippie bars, pizza-by-the-slice places, or the iteration of an (insert-ethnicity-here) place that isn’t or isn’t quite a chain. The Jake’s Deli outposts, as mentioned above, fit roughly into this category. The last of these, however, are places that look like they’d never last anywhere, much less a mall food court, competing for customer attention; they’re the scruffy-looking places with cheap signs and giant pictures of the menu items, usually with earnest, hard-working foreigners running shop. The owner’s kids might be running around or sitting at nearby tables with crayons when it’s not busy. And the food is (nearly) always ridiculously good.
Gourmet Cajun Grill blinks at you from between a Subway and a Rocky Rococo’s, with its bright red flame-encircled neon sign shouting “Cajun Grill”, subscripted by the word “Gourmet” in green. On the mirrored back wall, there are a ton of lightbox signs touting traditional Cajun combos; bourbon chicken, corn on the cob, macaroni and cheese, greens… sushi? What? The great secret of Gourmet Cajun Grill is that it’s not cajun at all; it’s more Mexican-Cajun-Asian fusion, serving Chicken Soba alongside Bourbon Chicken, Tuna Nigiri alongside Ancho Chile BBQ burritos, and ridiculously good lemonade. The undoubted highlights of this place (aside from watching the owner and his son playing together in the dining area) are the Bourbon Chicken, the LA-style Chinese food, and the lemonade. It’s someplace I go every time I stop by the Grand, and they’re almost always happy to see Sydney and me. Heck, even the sushi, while spartan and not very pretty, isn’t half bad (which says a lot considering it’s next to a Rocky Rococo’s in a dead mall).
Where to begin here? Out of any other neighborhood in Milwaukee, Riverwest is probably my favorite, for its sheer sense of community. Hipsters, hippies, drug addicts, the homeless, the rich, bicyclists, cat owners, art students, musicians, weirdos, transvestites, drag queens, goths, bikers, radio jockeys, veterans, chefs, athletes, gay, straight, black, white, Peruvian, Martian, all come together and hang out, helping each other whenever possible and talking and sharing ideas. It’s a pretty welcoming environment for everything except crime, which unfortunately makes its way over frequently from the poverty-stricken neighborhoods of the North Side (though it is improving steadily). And there are tons of bars and restaurants scattered throughout, most of them labors of love by their owners for the distinctly bohemian nature of the place and its inhabitants.
Where does Fuel Cafe fit into all of this? One could say that Fuel is one of the few places where such gatherings of the mind occur on a daily basis; a veritable pinnacle of social convention in the area. Or, one could say they have a stoop out front and some tables and chairs they don’t charge people to sit at. The front window is plastered with paper flyers touting the latest event at the Riverwest Filling Station, Mad Planet, the Squirrel Cage, or the Riverwest Co-Op. People come from all walks of life, some privileged, many others not so much, and just hang out in front of Fuel when the weather’s nice. Bikers love it; they’ll use it as a starting point for group rides, or just stop in and get something to eat and some coffee. Sydney’s formerly-estranged father, a truck driver, essentially lives there when he’s in town. And the food and coffee is amazing. Serving locally-produced, slowly-brewed Alterra coffee, snacks, and sandwiches (including the semi-famous Buttafuoco, which is cheese, tomatoes, onions, lettuce, mayo, olive oil, and hot peppers on French bread) since 1993, Fuel caters to the punk and biker crowds, and nearly every wall surface is either painted by a local artist, coated in stickers for local spots, or affixed with some sort of sign for something cool. It’s run-down, laid-back, and full of attitude and spirit without being snobby or coming across as fake or trying too hard.
Old German Beer Hall
Milwaukee is a German city by nature. It’s got German architecture everywhere from the massive influx of immigrants to the area from the early 20th century, it’s famous for its beer, and everywhere you look you can see little trappings of German tradition and culture, especially in our love of everything corny and old-school. (Chicken Dance, anyone?) That being said, on Old World 3rd Street in Westown, there is a little, narrow restaurant wedged between two other arguably great places to eat (Who’s on Third and the contextually-appropriate Milwaukee Brat House) that is adorned with the white, gold, and blue insignia of Hofbräu München. This is the Old German Beer Hall, and it’s modeled after the original Hofbräuhaus in Munich, Germany. Everything about the place oozes original German influences, from the tables shipped wholesale from Munich to the authentic Beer Maiden outfits and lederhosen the servers wear. One would think this would be tacky, but no; they do everything as authentically as possible, shipping in the beer regularly (every other day, if I remember right) from HB in Germany, teaching their servers to hold as many giant glass tankards as they possibly can, and even setting out a traditional Hammerschlagen stump (it’s like Nagelspielen, but with a hammer instead of an axe!) The sausages and meats are made next door at Usinger’s, and they are always fresh and delicious. It’s a fun place to go when you’ve got a lot of people with you who want to get blitzed the old-fashioned way, or when you’re attending an event in the Theater or Stadium District and need someplace that will hold a decent-sized group meal. If you want a more calm, sit-down German meal, try down the street at Mader’s, but if you just want to keep those giant tankards of beer coming, you can’t do much better.