Milwaukee: An Urban Sense of Small-Town Charm

An Urban Sense of Small-Town Charm

By guest author, Linda Stewart

The Midwest is noted for its warm, authentic sense of place and that accurately describes the city of Milwaukee.  Visitors can feel this city’s distinctive identity.  Known as Brew City for its long history of beer making (the birthplace of Pabst and Schlitz, and home to many craft breweries), Cream City for its 19th century cream-colored brick architecture, City of Festivals for its many musical and cultural events, and A Great Place on the Lake for its contiguity to Lake Michigan, Milwaukee embraces its past and its present-day character.  On a recent visit to Wisconsin (my first to the state), I was captivated by all Milwaukee has to offer.

The Historic Third Ward

Milwaukee is a diverse city with a sense of neighborhoods. The Historic Third Ward is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  Once a commercial center and warehouse area, it now has a new life consisting of mixed-use, trendy boutiques, galleries, restaurants, and theatres.  The Public Market  has a vast array of artisanal selections.  There you will find fresh local produce, baked goods, chocolates, meat, seafood, cheese, wine, ethnic restaurants, apparel, and the list goes on.  The Broadway Theatre Center is located in a renovated warehouse, and is home to the Cabot Theatre and the Studio.  Skylight Music Theatre, under the artistic direction of Ray Jivoff, offers a creative repertoire of opera, musicals and light opera in its beautiful Cabot Theatre.  The décor, trompe l’oeil (French for “to fool the eye”), gives the illusion of a dome and whimsically personifies the nine muses of Greek mythology.   The Skylight Bar and Bistro, with fine dining, is open two hours prior to performances.  Founder Clair Richardson, whose remains are interred at the theatre, began the theatre’s journey with the words, “Do you want to have some real fun?”

The Third Ward’s Kimpton Journeyman is a chic boutique hotel with a rooftop bar, an Italian gourmet restaurant, and an early evening wine reception in the lobby.  For guests’ added enjoyment, they are greeted in their room by a chimerical ceramic dog with a personalized dog dish.  Top Chef Heather Terhune reigns supreme at the Tre Rivali, preparing delectable dishes inspired from her worldwide travel experiences: aromatic Moroccan Lamb Ragout, Grilled Swordfish with Corn Flan, Olive Oil Braised Octopus, Apple Salad with Pork Belly Croutons, and Salt Beets with Feta and Pistachios.  Her pièce de résistance?  Butterscotch Budino with Rosemary Shortbread.

Brady Street

Established in 1840, Milwaukee’s historic eastside neighborhood Brady Street was first populated by German, Polish, and Irish immigrants, followed in the 1930s by Italian immigrants.  In the sixties, Brady Street became known as Milwaukee’s Haight-Ashbury, attracting an alternative, hippy culture.  Experience Brady Street by taking a guided walking tour from Milwaukee Food Tours. The first stop with our friendly, knowledgeable guide, tour owner Theresa Nemetz was at Peter Sciortino Bakery, where baked goods of breads, pastries, and cookies are made fresh daily.  Peter and Grace Sciortino opened the bakery in 1947, and half a century later sold it to siblings Maria, Joe, and Luigi Vella, who had started working at the bakery when they were teenagers. I recommend sampling their cookies.  My favorites?  Limoncello Burst – a luscious lemon sugar cookie with lemon flavored icing, and Tutu – a walnut, chocolate butter cookie with white sugar icing.  Other Brady Street highlights:  Some of the best pizza with a toasted cracker-thin crust and a hearty, loaded Italian salad are served at Zaffiro’s Pizza, owned by the Zaffiro family since 1954.  A fourth-generation market, opened in 1946, Glorioso’s Italian Market is a deli, a bakery, a gift store, and a culinary school. An aside for trivia buffs – at one time, Psycho author Robert Bloch lived up above the market.

Bay View

Located just west of Lake Michigan, in the southern section of Milwaukee, Bay View has become a trendy area for professionals and young families.  Galleries showcasing local art, bars in vogue, and restaurants with innovative menus dot the neighborhood.  Odd Duck Restaurant, owned by Melissa Bucholz and Ross Bachhuber offers a locally sourced, creative global-themed menu of small plates and imaginative cocktails with an impressive wine list. Here is a sample of the fare available on the evening I was there:  Seared Sea Scallops with Ramp (a leafy vegetable with a garlic-onion flavor) Salsa Verde; a Peruvian Potato Causa, a layered dish of roasted poblano, caramelized onion, fried avocado and egg; Seafood Hot Pot, crab shrimp, mussels, cod, Thai chilis, and Daikon; Thai Fried Oyster Mushrooms, friend rice balls, and herb and bean sprout salad.  Every bite was delicious.

On the Lakefront

Situated on Lake Michigan, the Milwaukee Art Museum has a collection of over 25,000 works of art – paintings, drawings, sculptures, photographs, and decorative arts. Not only does the museum have a premier collection of O’Keefe (a native of Wisconsin), Kandinsky, Picasso, Chihuly, German Impressionism, Folk Art, and more, but the building itself is also a work of art.  The Quadracci Pavilion has a stunning brise solei (sun shade) with movable wings, designed by Spanish architect, engineer, and artist Santiago Calatrava.  The wings are scheduled to open and close a couple of times during the day, dependent upon the wind speed.  The beautifully designed Café Calatrava has a lake view and artistically inspired cuisine.

Henry Maier Festival Park along Lake Michigan is the perfect setting to celebrate the city’s cultural heritage with Polish Fest, German Fest, Irish Fest, Bastille Days, Festa Italiana, Mexican Fiesta, Indian Summer Festival, and the Wisconsin State Fair.  Certified by the Guinness World Records as the “World’s Largest Music Festival,” Summerfest is an eleven-day musical gathering of over 800 bands,  and the end of June 2017 it celebrates its 50th anniversary.

Bartolotta’s Lake Park Bistro north of the museum, is a French inspired restaurant with a gorgeous view of the lake.  I began my lunch by ordering a Gin Bloody Mary and discovered that in Wisconsin, Bloody Marys are always served with a beer chaser.  It was a tasty combination.  For my meal, I had a perfectly prepared Croque Madame, a Parisian ham sandwich, with Gruyere cheese and Dijon mustard, topped with Mornay sauce and a fried egg.  Dessert was a French classic, a delicate Crème Brulee.

On the Riverfront

The Harley-Davidson Museum, along the Menomonee River, captures the vision of two Milwaukee men over a century ago, William S. Harley and Arthur Davidson.  In 1903 they produced a bicycle with an engine and the rudimentary motorcycle was born.  First, brother Walter Davidson joined them and then another brother, William Davidson joined the fledgling company.  The history of the motorcycle is fascinating. Serial #1, located in the lobby, is not the first prototype, but it is the first motorcycle that was ready for production.  By 1917 the company was producing motorcycles for the U.S. military in World War I, followed by major contributions to the war effort in World War II.  Police departments and posts offices also used Harleys.  Then Hollywood came calling with bikers Marlon Brando, Peter Fonda, and Elvis Presley.  Daredevil Evel Kneivel rode a Harley in his jumping stunts. It was interesting to see all the artifacts, the toys, the posters, and especially the creatively designed custom bicycles.

The Potawatomi Hotel & Casino sits across from the Menomonee River, and began as a bingo casino in 1991, when the Forest County Potawatomi Native American tribe regained some of its Menomonee Valley property.  After a few major renovations and expansions, it is now a beautiful hotel and casino with over 6 million annual visitors.  The well-appointed hotel rooms are contemporary in design with a rich color palette. An added plus – room service is available from 7:00 am to 11:00 pm.  The casino is a trifecta jackpot, with gaming, dining, and live entertainment.  There are seven restaurants, which include a steak house with kangaroo and ostrich, Italian, Asian, traditional American fare and comfort food, a casual café, and a buffet. If you are feeling lucky, there are 3,000 slots machines, 100 gaming tables, and poker and bingo rooms.

Avenues West/Marquette University

Designed in the Flemish Renaissance Revival style, The Pabst Mansion is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and is located on the western edge of Marquette University.  Beer Baron Captain Frederick Pabst built his mansion in 1892 for $254,000, a considerable amount of money in those days.  Born in Germany, he immigrated to America at the age of 12 and went on to become a Captain of a Great Lakes steamer ship.  He married Maria Best, daughter of the beer brewer Phillip Best.  Shortly thereafter, the Captain bought a half interest in the brewery, which he later re-named Pabst Brewery.  Through the years, the couple accumulated an ambitious art collection, along with elegant furnishings, the best fine china, linens, and silver.  The home displays exceptional wood craftsmanship and elaborate ironwork.  In 1908 the Archdiocese of Milwaukee purchased the mansion, and until 1975 it was home to a succession of priests and sisters. The mansion was then purchased by the Wisconsin Heritages, Inc., and with donations they began a restoration, some of which continues today.  Saved letters from the Captain to his children show a loving and thoughtful father, “Never forget that your parents are always your best friends in time of need.”

Downtown Milwaukee

“Sometimes you want to go…where everybody knows your name…and they’re always glad you came” could easily be the theme song of Taylors Neighborhood Bar.  Regular customers gather throughout the week, ordering their favorite cocktails.  My favorite cocktails?  A Dirty Martini and the traditional Milwaukee Old Fashioned, made with brandy instead of whiskey.

For cocktails and a spectacular view, visit Blu Bar & Lounge at the Pfister Hotel on the 23rd floor.  Live music is offered on weekend evenings.  The Savior Faire (French for having social discernment) consists of lemon flavored Stoli vodka, blood orange puree, fresh lemon juice, elderflower liqueur, and simple syrup.  It was divine.

All Around the Town

Cheese curds, frozen custard, and beer are Milwaukee staples.  Curds are produced in the early stage of the cheese-making process, then they are then pressed, formed into blocks, and aged to make cheese.  Fresh curds squeak when you chew them. You will find batter-fried cheese curds served as appetizers in most area restaurants and bars.   Ice cream made with egg yolk is called frozen custard, which makes for a richer dessert.  Kopp’s Frozen Custard is a landmark in Milwaukee and has a rotating “flavor of the day” served along with their traditional vanilla and chocolate frozen custard.  Most beer historians credit Milwaukee’s 19th century prevalent German population and their beer making skills for the Brew City moniker.  Milwaukee has a multitude of brewery tours and tasting rooms.  I enjoyed visiting Best Place at the Historic Pabst Brewery, site of the original Pabst Brewery.  The tours offer an informative history lesson on the early beer industry and the vintage gift shop is a fun walk down “brewski lane.” To assist in planning your trip to the Greater Milwaukee Area, check out Visit Milwaukee, a great online resource for visitors.

A portion of my itinerary was made possible by Visit Milwaukee, however, all opinions expressed are my own.

One thought on “Milwaukee: An Urban Sense of Small-Town Charm

  1. Who knew Milwaukee had so much to offer? Our trip to the city made me truly appreciate what this metropolitan area has to offer. The Milwaukee Art Museum is worth a trip by itself.

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