City Life

PrintPrintEmailEmail
 

Milwaukee’s people retain a warm respect for their community’s roots. There is much to celebrate here, and the citizens often do just that. You can see this impulse in the crowds attracted to the much-heralded ethnic expositions at the Lake Michigan festival grounds and at the Holiday Folk Fair International at Wisconsin State Fair Park. Those seeking a more intimate experience can still discover snug neighborhood taverns such as the unassuming but delightful Wolski’s (414-276-8130).

Dining in the Third Ward
 
2006_2_68

Milwaukee’s people retain a warm respect for their community’s roots. There is much to celebrate here, and the citizens often do just that. You can see this impulse in the crowds attracted to the much-heralded ethnic expositions at the Lake Michigan festival grounds and at the Holiday Folk Fair International at Wisconsin State Fair Park. Those seeking a more intimate experience can still discover snug neighborhood taverns such as the unassuming but delightful Wolski’s (414-276-8130).

Dining and drinking retain a congenial Old World charm in Milwaukee, even as international cuisine finds a comfortable home here.

Here are some institutions that are exemplars of the old Milwaukee—and the new.

Dining

After a century and a half German cooking still attracts fans who appreciate traditional schnitzel, sauerbraten, and wurst made with the authority that comes from decades of doing it right. Two of the oldest restaurants—Mader’s ( www.madersrestaurant.com / 414-271-3377), founded in 1902, and Karl Ratzsch’s ( www.karlratzsch.com / 414-276-2720), which opened two years later—are downtown. The Bavarian Wurst Haus (414-464-0060) and the Bavarian Inn ( www.bavarianinnmilw.com / 414-964-0300) are on the North Side.

Sanford Restaurant ( www.sanfordrestaurant.com / 414-276-9608) is one of Milwaukee’s leading locales both for closing business deals and for conducting romance. Chef Sanford D’Amato and his wife, Angie, hold sway over the intimate 50-seater that once housed his family’s grocery store; it opened in 1929 and ran for about 60 years. D’Amato was one of the chefs chosen by Julia Child to prepare her eightieth birthday dinner. Try his seared sea scallops and lobster on paella rice or the black-olive-crusted loin of Strauss veal, and find out why.

For more casual dining, the D’Amatos have opened the Coquette Cafe ( www.coquettecafe.com / 414-291-2655) in the Landmark Building, a 1914 newsprint warehouse that was renovated and renamed in 1987. The Coquette fits happily into the Old Third Ward arts district and is a popular after-theater destination.

The Coquette is about a block from the Milwaukee Public Market, with its vendors offering produce, seafood, cheeses, and prime meats. The market is only a year old, but it is just north of Commission Row, where Italian and Jewish fruit merchants ran their businesses for decades, right on into the 1990s. Their warehouses have become condos, stores, and nightclubs.

Three Brothers (414-481-7530) was opened in 1956 by the Radicevics in a South Side neighborhood called Bay View, overlooking Lake Michigan’s chilly blackblue waters. The Serbian restaurant is now run by Branko Radicevic, the son of one of the founders, and his family. The building began life as a tavern in 1897 and has retained a cozy charm, made more charming still by its old-fashioned kitchen tables, the subdued lighting, and such offerings as roast suckling pig and burek, a rounded pastry filled with beef, cheese, or spinach. The care the owners put into their food is suggested by the fact that they pickle their own cabbage.

A Friday-night fish fry is as much a part of Milwaukee’s heritage as a shot and a beer chaser at Art’s Concertina Bar or a suds frame at Koz’s Mini-Bowl. Demonstrating the scope of the fish-fry scene, a local food critic recently conducted a poll to find the city’s favorites. Hundreds of dedicated “fryers” responded, praising more than 500 establishments.

This tradition of dishing up deep-fried cod, perch, or walleye originated generations ago. Milwaukee’s German and Polish Catholics dealt with their religiously ordained meatless Fridays by dining out at neighborhood taverns, corner restaurants, or church halls as a transition from the workweek to the weekend. A true Milwaukee fish plate must be accompanied by french fries or crisp potato pancakes, applesauce, coleslaw, and lavishly buttered pumpernickel. One of the better-known fish fries can be found at the American Serb Hall ( www.serbhall.com / 414-545-6030), a cavernous 55-year-old building also used for political rallies, concerts, and wedding receptions.

Another fine fry is served in the 1906 powerhouse that now is the Lakefront Brewery’s Palm Garden ( www.lakefrontpalmgarden.com / 414-273-8300), where the fish is accompanied by a polka band. And then there is Turner Hall ( www.historicturner.com / 414-276-4844), built in 1882 to serve the Swiss Turners, a gymnasts’ organization. The dining room is hung with old portraits of heavily mustached athletes. The Turner Ballroom Preservation Trust is working to renovate the structure’s magnificent 7,000-square-foot upstairs hall.

Lodging

Milwaukee is famously a German city, of course, but the Irish were among its first settlers, holding sway in city government, working on the docks, building the railroads. Cary James (“Rip”) O’Dwanny does honor to his Gaelic background with the County Clare ( www.countyclare-inn.com / 888-942-5273), an inviting lodging and restaurant on the East Side. The Clare is a mile or so north of the lakefront festival grounds that host Milwaukee Irish Fest each August and is in heavy demand then.

The magnificently refurbished Art Deco Ambassador Hotel ( www.ambasshotel.com / 414-342-8400) lies immediately to the west of downtown and the impressive sprawl of Marquette University, near the Pabst Mansion and the Irish cultural and Heritage Center. The Ambassador’s much-needed rejuvenation was a multiyear project for its owner, Rick Wiegand, who eventually put about $12 million into it. The building, which went up in 1928, is credited with being a decisive force in the neighborhood’s revitalization.

Two of the city’s downtown hotels, close to Lake Michigan and the audacious Santiago Calatrava–designed Milwaukee Art Museum wing, are listed with the Historic Hotels of America. Both have lobby bars that are at once lively and soothing.

The Pfister Hotel ( www.thepfisterhotel.com / 414-273-8222), which opened in 1893, has a threestory-tall lobby as extravagant as a late-nineteenth-century ocean liner. Its fame is well deserved.

The Hotel Metro ( www.hotelmetro.com / 414-272-1937), just around the corner, was constructed in 1937 as an office building and was converted, with imagination and great expense, to a luxury hotel less than a decade ago.

Both hotels are near the vigorous new nightclub and restaurant district along North Milwaukee Street. If you are out for a stroll there, check Cubanitas ( www.cubanitas.us / 414-225-1760) for mojitos and Havana-style pork sandwiches—and a sense of just how well this old German town can accommodate the invigorating presence of newer arrivals.