You know that feeling of clarity that hits you on vacation, that moment when you decide you should just move to wherever you're visiting -- sell the house, lose the job, relocate to where you're comfortable and happy right now, before you can reconsider? I had that feeling in Milwaukee. If that doesn't sound unlikely enough, let's up the ante: I had that feeling during a weekend in Milwaukee in which the goal was to eat smartly, surprisingly.
The goal of our trip was to go beyond brats and beer -- or at the least goose them, with a clever twist. Eating our way across Milwaukee had this pace: casual, random, the city throwing off that insular feel of a second-tier place that gave up long ago trying to impress outsiders and now exists for its own contentment.
WHERE TO EAT
I had that finally-at-home sensation at Roots Restaurant and Cellar, on Brewers Hill, overlooking a thin, winding river and the vast, flat lots that border downtown to the east (1-414-374-8480; www. rootsmilwaukee.com). Chef/farmer/owner John Raymond's elegant seven-year-old haunt pioneered farm-to-table aesthetics in Milwaukee, putting emphasis on his eponymous root vegetables from nearby farms. Our waiter put a skillet in front of me ringed with what was purportedly baked ricotta gnocchi, though more realistically, engorged cheese dumplings -- albeit nestled on top of fried, crisp greens, trumpet mushrooms and a light tomato sauce. It was food-magazine gorgeous, a compromise between the girth I expected of Milwaukee and the soulfulness I found.
We had been told by friends to seek out the James Beard-certified joints -- Sanford, Hinterland -- but opted for browsing the Milwaukee Public Market (1-414-336-1111; www.milwaukeepublicmarket.org), which resembles a bus terminal. At the counter for Kehr's, a longtime Milwaukee candymaker, we bought a "meltaway" chocolate bar, a rare instance in this life when you can find a candy bar outside a wrapper. Pushing my way through the crowd, I held the candy bar in one hand, an apple-pear-ginger-chai smoothie in the other, and admired the local jelly. Bea's Ho-Made jelly. Though someone should tell them about the name.
Same for Best Place (1-414-630-1609; www.bestplace milwaukee.com), which suggests a local dive. Best Place is basically a small tavern in a beautiful spot -- Blue Ribbon Hall, in the former headquarters of Pabst, the room circled with 70-year-old frescoes from Chicago artist Edgar Miller that lay out the history of Pabst and the brewing process. Jim Haertel, a big, boisterous local guy, bought the place a decade ago. He'll give you a tour. His wife, Karen, pulls the tap, and they really don't want you to leave.
The next morning, we swung by Alterra at the Lake, part of a chain of coffeehouses, found in the old Milwaukee River Flushing Station (1-414-223-4551). Out front is a patio, with Lincoln Memorial Drive rushing past and the white, sail-like architecture of the Milwaukee Art Museum just to the south. We had finished the night at Distil, an overly stylized bar downtown with great drinks (1-414-220-9411; www.distilmilwaukee.com). The memory of the warm auburn color alone of its Made in Milwaukee -- Sprecher's ginger beer, Rishi plum tea, vodka, beneath a thin sudsy layer of Schlitz foam -- reminded me how cozy this place was.
Breakfast was south in Bay View. We ate at Honeypie Cafe (1-414-489-7437; www.honeypiecafe.com), Southern, hip, familiar, with tattooed waitresses. We read the paper, let the morning pass, lingered over hash browns, asked for more coffee. We were in Milwaukee for 36 hours. As I left Honeypie, I spotted a car with a telling bumper sticker: "I'd Rather Be Here, Now."