Sultry music plays while striking multicolored gourd lanterns sparkle overhead. A beautiful woman curves her way around your table, arms outstretched, coins around her waist jingling as she dances. In front of you is a plate full of hot Turkish kebabs: lightly spiced chicken with fresh cucumber and tomato. Each satisfying bite takes you straight to Istanbul.
Only it's Milwaukee, and you're on a "foodventure" dedicated to showing off the city's finest cuisine. Tulip (360 E. Erie St.), voted locally as the city's best Turkish restaurant, is a stop on the Milwaukee Food Tours excursion to the Third Ward, the city's oldest -- and still thriving -- commercial district.
Theresa Nemetz dreamed up the idea with her husband while on a restaurant tour in New York City a few years ago. "Two minutes into it," says Nemetz, "Wade was jabbing me in the ribs, saying 'We have to do this in Milwaukee.'"
So they did, starting Milwaukee Food Tours as a hobby in 2008.
Interest soared. "In each of the three years," says Nemetz, "we've had a 100 percent increase in business." In 2010, a few thousand people sampled everything from pizza to pierogies.
Typically, excursions are walking tours, with the $45-$50 fee covering all food and drinks. Groups meet at the first destination for introductions, then stroll to various locations along the route, sitting down and sampling at each culinary hot spot. In addition to the Third Ward, signature tours include Brady Street, Wauwatosa and a Bloody Mary Brunch.
Nemetz's passion for the city runs deep, stemming from her grandparents, who emigrated from Sicily to Milwaukee. Their history, and Milwaukee history in general, is a source of fascination for her. "Wade loves food," she says, "and I love Milwaukee."
Turns out a lot of other folks do, too, including the guides. Haley Landsman, a slim, twentysomething tour guide, parades her group through the historic Third Ward, starting at the Milwaukee Public Market at 400 N. Water St. for a glass of crispy-dry rosé from Thief Wine.
"My mom has a theory," she says, "that there's a 400-pound person inside of me!"
Between sips, Landsman points out highlights of the market, including C. Adam's Bakery. "Their red velvet cake bites are just $1.25 apiece," she says, "and they'll change your life."
She gives a "two-sip warning," before shepherding the group to the next stop, revealing details about the American Indian residents and the German, Irish, Polish and Italian settlers who infused the city with ethnic diversity.
Pointing out the huge clock -- aka the Polish Moon -- on what is now the Rockwell Automation factory, Landsman says that Harry Bradley wanted his employees to get to work on time, so he designed the clock to tower over Milwaukee's South Side.
Strolling through Catalano Square, Landsman mentions the Italian families that came here to earn their livelihood in the thriving produce markets. She describes mysterious Lake Emily, hidden deep beneath the formidable Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance headquarters.
The stories are good, the food even better. Third Ward culinary highlights include vegetarian spicy Mexican cheese soup at Soup Brothers (also at the Milwaukee Public Market); simple margherita pizza at Rustico (223 N. Water St.); and chipotle-brown-sugar-crusted sweet potato chips with a Sprecher Naked beer at Susan Sarandon's Spin (233 E. Chicago St.). Spin, by the way, is a destination in itself -- think glammed-up ping-pong tables (rented for $16 an hour), sleek contemporary décor and a tempting array of drinks and appetizers.
Nemetz selects her destinations carefully. "We pick the restaurant because we want the restaurant," she says.
Milwaukee Food Tours pays full price for the food and drink, so there are no strings attached; if a restaurant offers outstanding Milwaukee cuisine and culture, it will be considered. And it doesn't hurt if it's a hot new spot, either -- that tends to attract the locals.
Landsman ends the evening with sparkling glasses of bubbly at Cuvee, a warehouse-turned-champagne lounge at 181 N. Broadway. "They can chill a bottle down in 10 minutes," she says, passing around light and lovely truffles from local chocolatier Kehr's. Tour participants sit back and sigh, satisfyingly spent -- they know the food's all good in this neighborhood.
Manya Kaczkowski is a freelance writer from Wisconsin.