Think you know Milwaukee? You may be in for a surprise. The food scene has blossomed in recent years—from excellent fine dining to great grazing. And summer is the best time to visit: Bikers and joggers animate the lakefront paths, sailboats and kitesurfers glide across the horizon, and neighborhoods hum with life. Summerfest, the city’s gargantuan 11-day outdoor music festival, starts on June 27.
A view of the Milwaukee Art Museum's Quadracci Pavilion
You’d be foolish to tackle a day downtown—say, strolling through the ivory recesses of the Calatrava wing at the Milwaukee Art Museum (700 N. Art Museum Dr.; 414-224-3200)—without fuel in your system. Start with corned beef hash or the ancho chili steak and eggs at the U-shaped counter of the art deco-fied Cafe at the Plaza (1007 N. Cass St., 414-272-0515; breakfast from $5). Or grab a Scotch egg and fish and chips at The Rumpus Room (1030 N. Water St., 414-292-0100; entrées $14), a Victorian-meets-steampunk-themed restaurant that’s also handy for a classic cocktail or craft beer at the bar later in the day.
Within walking distance of the art museum, Discovery World (500 N. Harbor Dr.; 414-765-9966) is worth a visit for families; at the museum’s pier, you can board a replica of a 19th-century tall ship for a quick deck tour ($2 to $5) or a two-hour sail on Lake Michigan ($35 to $40). The nearby Harbor House (550 N. Harbor Dr., 414-395-4900; entrées from $14.25) is a New England-style fish emporium that offers scenic backdrops—sailboats drift by just beyond the windows—and the rousing experience of downing fresh oysters with a crisp white wine.
Downtown is also where you’ll find the city’s best white-tablecloth dining. At Sanford (1547 N. Jackson St., 414-276-9608; entrées from $33), Justin Aprahamian executes one of the most progressive, challenging multicourse menus in town. Milwaukee Street, once primarily a retail district, is now home to hot spots like Carnevor (724 N. Milwaukee St., 414-223-2200; entrées from $26), where swarming servers deliver Mangalitsa pork ravioli and 20-ounce dry-aged rib eyes.
Milwaukee’s Third Ward, a historic enclave south of downtown, may no longer be the seat of all things cool, but there are some necessary stops. First and foremost, Hinterland Erie Street Gastropub (222 E. Erie St., Ste. 100, 414-727-9300; entrées from $20) is the local hub of charcuterie. Its menu offers dramatic plates alongside housemade sausages, pâtés, and preserved meats; beers are brewed at the restaurant’s Green Bay location. In the same brick warehouse building, decor lovers should drop by The Home Market (222 E. Erie St.; 414-755-2165) to browse Kate Barrette Kazlo’s lovely collection of shabby-chic furnishings and home accessories. Right across the street, Ryan Braun’s Graffito (102 N. Water St., 414-727-2888; entrées from $14), named for a Brewers left fielder but blessedly free of baseball kitsch, provides cocktails and couches on an expansive patio facing the Milwaukee River.
Walker’s Point, across the river from the Third Ward, is quickly becoming the city’s new destination district. Old storefronts and warehouses—reincarnated as bars, nightclubs, restaurants, and stores—buzz with life. Zak’s Cafe (231 S. Second St., 414-271-5555; entrées from $4.99) is a local favorite among early risers; order the breakfast burrito and a plate of golden, slightly crisp pancakes. The Noble (704 S. Second St.; entrées from $10.95) captures a DIY aesthetic complemented by an appealingly simple menu of salads, flatbreads, and a few daily specials. While you’re in the area, the Harley-Davidson Museum (400 W. Canal St.; 414-287-2789) makes for a fun pit stop; Worn to Be Wild, an exhibition dedicated to the black leather jacket, opens June 16.
No Walker’s Point building has drawn more recent interest than the one housing Braise Restaurant (1101 S. Second St., 414-212-8843; entrées from $16), a sophisticated farm-to-table restaurant (a rooftop patio and garden is in the works and due later this summer). East of Braise, La Merenda (125 E. National Ave., 414-389-0125; tapas from $3.50) offers a global small-plate menu. For a quintessential Milwaukee experience, dip into charming, cozy, and therefore usually jammed Crazy Water (839 S. Second St., 414-645-2606; entrées from $20), a former German watering hole that cranks out vibrant American cuisine from its tiny kitchen.
To the south and east of Walker’s Point, Bay View is the city’s latest working-class neighborhood to get a hipster makeover. Kinnickinnic Avenue offers affordable dining gems, such as Honeypie (2643 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., 414-489-7437; entrées from $11) for hand-cut fries smothered in barbecued pork and from-scratch pies and Classic Slice (2797 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., 414-238-2406; items from $4.25) for creative pizzas like the Meatallica—meatballs, pepperoni, sausage, and bacon—in slices as long as your forearm. The un-uppity feel extends to Cafe LuLu (2261 and 2265 S. Howell Ave., 414-294-5858; from $7.95), a two-storefront bar and restaurant that makes burgers and pita sandwiches seem cool. Divert slightly west to 27th Street for a true Milwaukee classic: a cone at Leon’s Frozen Custard (3131 S. 27th St.; 414-383-1784). Butter pecan is the way to go.
City explorers should venture north to Riverwest, a residential neighborhood that’s picking up steam as a fun eating destination. Fuel Café (818 E. Center St., 414-374-3835; sandwiches from $4.95) used to be a smoke-filled den for espresso drinkers. The air is now fresh, the coffee’s still good, and the sandwiches are meaty, with some vegan options. Once the sun passes over the yardarm, grab a Mojito at Art Bar (722 E. Burleigh St.; 414-372-7880). Follow with the $10 Ciccio antipasti platter at Nessun Dorma (2778 N. Weil St.; 414-264-8466), a friendly corner tap. Watch the chef prepare penne alla Bolognese in sizzling skillets in the front kitchen at Centro Café (808 E. Center St., 414-455-3751; pasta from $8). Or admire the Day of the Dead decor at Cafe Corazon (3129 N. Bremen St., 414-810-3941; entrées from $5) as you sip one of its potent housemade margaritas and tuck into a burrito filled with beef from the owners’ family farm.
Photography: Jeff Milles/Courtesy of Milwaukee Art Museum