There's good eating in Milwaukee, the city that doesn't care if you think it's cool. After all, it gave up long ago trying to impress outsiders and now exists for its own contentment.
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.
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."