Milwaukee Inspires My Colorblind Heart
By Bruce Northam
Some places inspire you to follow your colorblind heart while not being afraid to roam out of bounds. Eighty miles north of Chicago and similarly adjacent to Lake Michigan, enjoys all the benefits of a mega-city but Milwaukee does it without any of the hassle or bloated prices.
The royal throne of American brewing has it all, sandwiched between its lakeside mansions and museums on the water to its pro-sports arena and stadium zone. Always an enduring live music city, it has also become a thriving foodie destination.
For a half-million residents, its number of theaters and performance spaces is mind boggling with more than 15,000 theater seats among all its venues.
This epic big-town-feeling city was the land of the American beer barons, and although now only 10 of the 40 former breweries still stand, the legacy of beer and the wealth it created is aptly represented here.
The majority of Milwaukee’s population in 1900 were German immigrants and their beverage of choice was, drumroll, beer!
I visited in winter and that did not diminish any of the excitement of this getaway. Yeah, and in the midst of winter, I saw several dudes wearing shorts.
Milwaukee is an ideal walking city with wide sidewalks, courteous drivers who respect pedestrian crossings, and friendly locals who will gladly redirect you to their favorite hangout.
If your daily destinations are not walkable, the ride services in Milwaukee are amazingly efficient and affordable—not to mention the medley of local and multi-ethnic drivers who set the stage for mini world tours. The compact city has always been a microcosm of American immigration, and it still swirls all of that variety and color.
Where You Hang Your Hat Matters!
I’ve been writing about travel for decades and am rarely surprised by new hotel concepts—until I stayed at the Kinn Guesthouse Downtown. Yes, you sleep in a huge, luxurious hotel room with a master bathroom, but there’s a communal twist.
There are 31 well-appointed rooms on four floors with each floor having a signature fully furnished chef’s kitchen, a big-TV living room, a work/meeting space, a fireplace, and a free laundry room.
This guesthouse style is the ideal hybrid of a micro-boutique hotel and a more residential-style rental, making it fluid for casual and business travelers to mingle (or not) in curated spaces that fuse modern hotel luxury and the creature comforts of home under one roof.
A Homey Hotel
Redefining the homey hotel while I was there, a mom cooked her overworked son a holiday meal as someone else made tea while standing in their socks and pjs.
This historic city-corner building was once the domain of hat makers, wholesalers, lawyers, and an ad agency. Check out its rooftop event space, hip ground-floor restaurant (The Wolf on Broadway, noted later), and the gym in the basement.
You’ll be in the heart of Milwaukee’s downtown and a short walk to some of its best restaurants, attractions, and the full pulse of the city—steps away from the fabulous Milwaukee Public Market.
Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge (1938) is Milwaukee’s oldest and proudest swanky lair. A 1971 fire obliterated its interior, which was replenished with plush velvet walls, exotic-dim lighting, and tunes from a vintage multi-speaker audio system.
The melted cash registers were salvaged and gold plated. So, this cozy hideout’s decor is archetypal 1971 cool.
Bryant invented many of the drinks while working on ships plying the Great Lakes. The recipes for the bar’s 600 classic signature cocktails (not counting its rolodex) are all top secret. Some of the sensational swills come with “little buddy” sidecars.
This is an affordable high-end cocktail haven. I’ve never witnessed the word pro so aptly attached to bartenders. Tradition squared; no swearing.
On the other end of the spectrum is Wolski’s Tavern, another house in a local neighborhood. This clean dive is a darts joint; a landmark; a gotta want to find it kind of place.
Local loyalty aside, revelers come from far and wide. If you close the joint, they give you a bumper stick to prove it!
Vino Third Ward is a likable wine shop and tasting room in the historic Third Ward neighborhood that also has a standalone bar also offering curated selections of craft beers, spirits, and cocktails.
The atmosphere is enhanced by a witty bartender and a wide selection of artisan Wisconsin cheeses from Carr Valley, Sartori, and other artisan producers.
Milwaukee’s festive Lakefront Brewery is an enormous beer hall with 30-foot ceilings that adjoins America’s first certified-organic brewery. It has an outdoor deck overlooking the Milwaukee River and its Riverwalk. Its live music stage features bands, mostly on Fridays. Its brewery tour includes facts, lore, jokes, and beer (while you are mobile).
Mader’s is an old-style German destination restaurant that was founded in 1902 when lunch was four cents and a stein of beer was three cents. If you drank two steins of beer, your lunch was free. It has served more Presidents and big-time celebrities than any other restaurant in the United States from JFK to ZZ Top, Hitchcock to Belushi—and a wall of fame with pictures to prove it.
Dripping with German nostalgia, the opulently decorated walls include sepia-toned photographs and a waitstaff dressed in lederhosen. Try the stuffed portabella (baby spinach, caramelized onions, red pepper provolone, spaetzle, veggies).
Mader’s survived prohibition by focusing on sauerbraten, wiener schnitzel, and pork shank. To this day, Wisconsin’s most famous restaurant is still entirely family owned and operated.
The James Beard award-winning The Diplomat specializes in shared plates in its handsome bar and cozy dining room. One of its culinary choice stars is the trout (kohlrabi-radish salad, tonnado).
Plates can be chic, like its avant-garde arrangement of pureed, pickled, and roasted carrot, or they can be fundamental, like the pleasing double burger. The simple menu and relaxed service matches a drink menu extending from premium wines to Miller High Life.
The Wolf on Broadway serves exquisite American comfort food with some Parisian and Indonesian inspiration.
If pork chops had a hall of fame, yes. Dive into the garlic indo-mie (wild mushrooms, egg noodles, sambol sweet soy sauce, mushroom butter, fried shallot, market vegetables, garlic bits, pickled shallot). It’s a trip around the world in a comfortable, hip space—with curated cocktails.
This architectural marvel serves elevated Wisconsin-inspired pub cuisine including Wisconsin cheese curds and beer-brined wings and 12 Wisconsin beers on tap.
Conveniently around the corner is Best Place at the Historic Pabst Brewery, a former schoolhouse once under the tutelage of Jacob Best, a German immigrant who became a Great Lakes steamship captain. Take in the Pabst Blue Ribbon story with its Best Place Tour and understand how its winning of beer medals at several World’s Fair forever changed America’s imbibing landscape.
Crossroads Collective is a truly local neighborhood food court where the seafood ramen and sushi corner seem to be the biggest hit. It’s in the midst of a day or nighttime bar-merriment zone and has nine micro-restaurants with rotating guest vendors. It has become the place for up-and-coming chefs to debut without too much risk.
Surprisingly, Downtown Kitchen, which I stumbled upon, was a lucky find. A cafeteria-style food court in an office building, it offers dozens of options that were fresh and sumptuous. And I can pretty much guarantee that I was the only non-local to swing through here in a long time.
Milwaukee has an unimaginable number of live music and performance spaces. The Rave/Eagles Club is a multi-level, multi-venue, concert and entertainment complex that’s truly one of a kind for taking in a band, or bands. The historic 1920s building has four performance spaces.
The Eagles Ballroom is the storied landmark’s showpiece, featuring a 25,000-square-foot oval wooden dance floor under an old-fashioned domed ceiling with the stage on one side. The original ballroom—enhanced with Corinthian columns—was built to host everything from boxing matches to concerts to ethnic dances.
The second floor is a curved row of VIP balconies that surround the Roman-ish oval, whose history includes gigs by Robert Plant, Bob Dylan, and The Grateful Dead. Simultaneous with The Black Keys show I saw in the ballroom, Lukas Nelson was also jamming in The Rave, just a staircase away.
Proudly parked on the lakefront of Lake Michigan, the Milwaukee Art Museum is one of America’s largest. Spectacular galleries aside, it includes a café and several hangout areas that overlook the lake.
Designed to represent the shape of a ship looking over the lake, its Quadracci Pavilion has a 90-foot-tall grand reception area topped with a glass roof. The design includes movable sails (or wings) that collapse back to flat each night.
Ralph Albert Blakelock’s Shanties, Seventh Ave and Fifty-Fifth St (Manhattan, NYC in 1875) resurrects the unauthorized housing built by Irish immigrants when this was undeveloped land.
Demonstrating the creative breadth of the museum, its walking sticks/canes exhibit shows how they function as physical supports, status symbols, and prestige items, often with elaborately carved narratives and personal insignias.
Each artist conveys his or her unique vision through form, line, and color, without sacrificing functionality. The person who used the stick is often identifiable by the imagery and the symbolism carved into the walking stick, because it relates in some way to its owner.
The Pabst Mansion (1892) is a grand Flemish Renaissance Revival-styled house built for the beer baron for all time, Captain Frederick Pabst (1836–1904), founder of the Pabst Brewing Company.
After almost becoming a parking lot in the 1970s, it thankfully landed on the National Register of Historic Places and is now a historic house museum offering public tours that share the rewards of early American royalty.
This place is a big whoa, especially if you enjoy hand-carved wooden creations and hand-painted details.
As a NYC Lower East Side walking tour guide, I know a good tour when I take one. City Tours Milwaukee’s Discover Iconic MKE Tour sees it all via a five-passenger electric vehicle—I recommend veteran-guide Brian Quirk.
Oh yeah, this is a big-time sports town where an underdog city, population-wise only, boasts the baseball Brewers and the basketball Bucks—and they surely do love both, which is evident with superb attendance numbers.
It also features a flight museum and ultra-quick check-in/security. Ubers between downtown and the airport cost approximately $25.
The Author’s visit was sponsored by Milwaukee Tourism but the opinions are all his own.