Cities, like people, get tagged with nicknames. Milwaukee has her share: Brew Town, Brew City, Cream City, City of Festivals, and more.
By no authority vested in me, I bestow one more nickname on Milwaukee: Moon Fun City.
Moon Fun City is not completely logical—that’s part of the point. Milwaukee isn’t completely logical either. One major contradiction: The city’s population is shrinking while its sophistication is growing. A renaissance is happening here. Twenty years ago, Milwaukee had (maybe) two theater companies. Today, the city boasts more than a dozen. Foodies now flock (why must foodies always flock?) to Milwaukee’s trendy restaurants.
I’m on my second time around in Moon Fun City. On my first lunar landing, the city ranked 15th or 16th most populous with 660,000 city dwellers. As of the 2010 census, Milwaukee dropped to 28th. Check out this Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel’s 2009 analysis of the city and county’s population.
Despite the published population stats, I can at least vouch for a “plus-2” in the population since October 2012. (The Big Apple: minus two. Yeah, I called you “The Big Apple,” New York City. Whatcha gonna do about it?)
The Moon Fun Shop
Long Live Art Smart’s
The name “Moon Fun” doesn’t come from outer space; it comes from a long-gone, ramshackle shop on (pre-Grand Avenue Mall) Wisconsin Avenue. As a Marquette freshman, I found Wisconsin Avenue desolate, with few places I could walk to, except that stuffy, might-as-well-be-Sears, Boston Store, and the funky Potato Brothers on Water Street. Moon Fun Shop, a small beacon of light—funky, in a Spencer Gifts (now just Spencer’s) kind of way—sold stacks of black light posters and smelled of incense.
Why is Spencer Gifts (excuse me, Spencer’s) still around and the Moon Fun Shop not? Hardly seems right. But I have proven over and over again that I am lousy at predicting which stores will last and which ones will go under. Back in 1985, I predicted that a store with a name like “Art Smart’s Dart Mart” would last five minutes. [Spoiler alert: It's still there!]
Sorry to be gone so long, Mil-WAH-kay. You’re a moon fun city if I ever saw one.
The classic New Orleans Po-Boy sandwich comes down to two choices.
I know Johnny’s Po-Boy (511 St Louis St) is nearby and now is a good time to scratch the Po-Boy itch. Johnny’s advertises self-deprecatingly that “Even My Failures Are Edible.”
Johnny’s exudes homespun shabby. Red-checked oil cloths—with tiny red crabs silhouetted on intersecting lines—cover the tables. Bottles of ketchup and hot sauce stand on each table. Ordering at the counter, Gene picks the catfish Po-Boy and I choose shrimp, both “dressed” with lettuce, tomato, mayo and pickle.
Customers pour their own drinks from the soda fountain or from the sweetened or unsweetened Nestea ice tea dispensers. A man in a white apron calls out our order number within a minute or two.
Only a few tables are occupied: a dirty young man gorges at one table; a business man approaches his sandwich more methodically at another. An older couple sits facing the red-paned window at a table that blocks one of the doors. An Abita neon beer sign in the window advertises the local brew.
Customers start flowing in more rapidly; a line forms in front of the deli counter. I expect this pace is more typical and we were lucky to beat the rush.
Our sandwiches are crusty-white-bread good. Pieces of fried shrimp and shredded lettuce fall onto my plate but that seems like nature’s course. I can only eat half, but I eat the top slice of bread from the second half.
Tracey’s: The Local Po-Boy Fave
Center Stage: Fried Okra
We taxi with B. from the hotel to Tracey’s (2604 Magazine St) in the Irish Channel Neighborhood for a real Po-Boy. A car in front of us stops at a yellow light. Our cab driver swerves, then pulls up alongside the car and berates the driver. “You made me almost hit you!” Our cabbie repeats this over and over, expecting something from the errant driver, but I am not sure what.
B.says we landed the only angry cabbie in New Orleans.
Tracey’s is a musty barn with long wood picnic tables. T-shirts for sale hang around the big bar and metal signs are posted on every inch of wall space. Fancy umbrellas are suspended upside down from the ceiling.
Located smack in the center of Royal Street in the French Quarter, the 1886 Hotel Monteleone (214 Royal St) is part of the heart and history of New Orleans. The hotel’s roster of famous guests and the rotating Carousel Bar make Hotel Monteleone a destination, not just a place to stay. This affordable hotel makes my Top Ten Most Intriguing Hotels list.
The doormen give Gene and I fast, attentive service when our taxi pulls up to the hotel entrance. We feel like we are emerging from an elegant horse-drawn carriage. The bellmen dress like royal footmen and attend incoming guests with supreme southern hospitality.
Though still sumptuous, the Hotel Monteleone looks more faded in the flesh than in their online photos. The lobby seems less polished; the grandfather clock in the center, much smaller.
Many small love seats and chairs are scattered around the comfortable lobby, so it was easy to use as a meeting place. The 1909 grandfather clock makes an elegant old-style centerpiece.
I glimpse the Carousel Piano Bar to my right as I enter. The bar room is dark— it is only eleven in the morning. I hope the fabled rotating bar will be as majestic now as it was in the days of its legendary guests: Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Truman Capote and Eudora Welty. The Hunt Grill is closed too, but through its window-paned door, I see white-clothed covered tables set with austere elegance.
Perhaps I over-romanticize the lives of the Literati and their hotel connections. The New York writers had the Algonquin Hotel and the writers of the South had the Hotel Monteleone.
The writer who adopted more locales than any other, Ernest Hemingway, was also a frequent guest at the Hotel Monteleone. Truman Capote claimed to have been born in the grand hotel, but perhaps he meant in his heart rather than in body. Or perhaps, Capote was a teller of tales.
The Carousel Bar
The Carousel Bar
Gene, B. and I have a drink at our home base, The Carousel Bar in the lobby of the Hotel Monteleone. We sit at a corner table since customers fill all seats at the rotating carousel. The bar seats, with wild animal pictures on the chairbacks, rotate slowly enough for easy people-watching. B. has a Hemingway Daiquiri and Gene orders a Sidecar before switching to the local beer, Abita.
One patron looks like Rod Stewart, with Stewart’s classic sloping nose and dark-rooted blond spiky hair. We entertain the notion for a second (only a second!) that he might indeed be Rod Stewart. But we chalk the man up as a reasonably good Stewart impersonator. Until we hear him sing.
After B. says good night, “Rod” belts out a few lines of Maggie May and we wish B. had stayed to witness the hilarity. Then Rod sings the lines again. And again. Now he has the attention of the folks around the bar. Cameras come out and “Rod” basks in the attention.
Milwaukee has a surprising number of casual, but chic places to eat in the Historic Third Ward and the East Side of town. Cafe Hollander and Comet Cafe are among my favorites.
Looking for a casual dinner on our first night in Milwaukee, Gene and I head to familiar territory, Café Hollander (2608 N Downer Ave). We share a pound of Wittekerke Ale Mussels with whole grain mustard and onions and cream. Gene has Ahi tuna with a wasabi sauce and sweet potato hash. I order a portabello mushroom sandwich with roasted red peppers and chipotle mayo.
Cafe Hollander is know for its beers; we must come back when we have no morning obligations. I agree with this recent review of Café Hollander, the perfect place for summer dining.
Beer Menu at Comet Cafe
I meet Gene outside Comet Café (1947 N Farwell Ave). He is holding his Bulls Eye Records (1627 E Irving Pl) haul in a cardboard box. Uh-oh, I guess Gene bought a few albums. He takes the box back to get his goods shipped to New York (only five bucks!). Comet Cafe is a regular Milwaukee haunt for more than its proximity to Bulls Eye. Comet manages to be old-school and new-school, vegan-friendly and comfort-calorie-friendly all at once.
Flash storms crackle through the heat with lightning and buckets of rain. No rain in months I’m told, and the dry yellow grass confirms it. Comet has a short wait–odd for a weekday afternoon, but people are looking for dry comfort this afternoon.
We sit at the fifties-style counter. I love the draught beers listed on individual cards in sleeves mixed in with classic baseball cards. I order a grilled Buffalo chicken sandwich (hold the Buffalo!). Gene goes for Ahi Tuna again, this time in sandwich form. Food is slow, and not especially great, the first time Comet has let us down.
Benelux Grand Cafe
Tara, Tammy, Kate and Eden
We plan to meet Tammy who has flown in from Virginia; Eden who has driven in from Iron Mountain, Michigan; and Tara who has traveled here from New Zealand via Green Bay. We are meeting up at the Wicked Hop (345 N Broadway).
We wait for the elevator in the Milwaukee Athletic Club. The elevator door opens and Tammy pops out in a long black-and-white striped jersey dress. She is with a guy she introduces as her old friend Joe. The Wicked Hop rendezvous has moved to the Milwaukee Athletic Club rooftop, just a dozen steps above our room, the “Lakeview Suite.” (I keep looking out the window, but I don’t see the lake.)
Eden and Tara arrive within minutes of each other and Tammy screams greetings across the roof deck. We drink a glass of wine or two, then we leave to get dinner at Benelux Grand Café (346 N Broadway) a few blocks away, across from the Wicked Hop. We wait for a table on the patio rooftop.
Gene and I share a crab and lobster salad appetizer that is too salty and spicy for me. Gene and Eden swear by the long flat fries called pannenkoeken chips, which I suspect is another word for doughnuts, so I don’t touch them. My rocket salad with apples, almonds, honey-lavender vinaigrette and salmon rocks and I eat every scrap of greenery on my plate.
Benelux and Cafe Hollander are both Lowlands Group restaurants and the similarities are clear. However, I prefer Cafe Hollander; they don’t seem to be trying so hard to be cool and the food, even with multiple common menu items, is just better.
Wicked Hop Brunch
Our Room at the MAC
Today we will make it to Wicked Hop finally. Brunch at 11:00– no, 11:30. We sit on the second level, looking down on the main room across the iron rail. Tara and Tammy order Bloody Marys. Wicked Hop’s standard Bloody comes with a Slim-Jim stick and Silly String bouquet of string cheese. The concoction is served with the de rigueur beer chasers.
I order the waffles because I am just a waffle girl. But this waffle is thin and sad, not even close to the fluffy Belgian served at the Milwaukee Athletic Club. Gene has corned beef hash with Hollandaise Sauce. Double whammy. Add a side of brat patties and you may have the most decadent brunch meal in Milwaukee.
Tammy asks for a glass of ice, then slides me a bottle of her own vodka: a basil, grapefruit concoction she made in her hotel room.
Not bad, though I didn’t plan on any alcohol this morning. I will have to ask her to send me the recipe. I put the rest in my purse. The Wicked Hop is okay, but came so oversold to us it was destined to disappoint.
Some restauranteurs open additional locations; it’s much more difficult to open different, successful restaurants. Gene and I hit two of the Bartolotta’s places, Bacchus (925 E Wells St) and The Rumpus Room (1030 N Water St) during our recent visit to Milwaukee.
We tried to go to Bartolotta’s newest fine dining restaurant. Gene makes reservations at Harbor House (550 N Harbor Dr), the former Pieces of Eight, for 6pm. Pieces of Eight used to be one of the most talked about restaurants in Milwaukee. However, everyone said the same thing: go for the drinks, go for the view, but skip the food. I managed to skip the entire experience. But now the Bartolotta’s have added good food to the mix, according to my local Bartolotta expert.
Bad news—the restaurant calls us almost immediately and asks us to move the reservation later because they had a power outage. Not a good sign for tonight, Gene suggests.
We cancel and rebook at another Bartolotta restaurant, Bacchus, where we’ve eaten at least twice before and were never disappointed.
We go directly to the restaurant in the Cudahy Tower, the former Fleur di Lis and the former Boulevard Inn. The wood walls and Victorian furniture in the building entrance feels like stepping back to a more elegant time. Old phone booths are now designated “cell phone talking booths.”
The waiter brings me a non-alcoholic pineapply drink in a martini glass, a good pretend drink. Gene orders a Manhattan and discovers there is a reason the drink is called a “Manhattan” because many bars outside Manhattan can’t make a good Manhattan. Hint: no olives.
We share appetizers: scallops with porcini gnocchi and escargot baked in phyllo. We split a Maine Lobster dish in a corn succotash (good, but a little salty). We finish with a five cheese plate. Forgot to mention the amazing fruit-and-nut bread. The serving-partner system works well; our guys are spot-on. We have $100 in Bartolotta Rewards, so our bill is only $35, but we leave an extra generous tip.
The Rumpus Room
On Saturday, Tammy suggests we go to “Omar’s Place.” Omar, she says, managed The Safe House for 20 years. Omar’s Place is really called The Rumpus Room in the old Eagan’s.
The Rumpus Room has atmosphere in spades. I want my home to feel like The Rumpus Room. Dark purple walls, brushed silver tin ceilings, old-time black clocks, muted chandeliers and sconces. Gene orders a Manhattan and this one is perfect, strained into one of the classic short, round glasses. I order a Hemingway Daiquiri and it comes in the same glass.
The bar keeps its fruit in jelly jars and their syrups are in small coke bottles sitting in a wooden box. The bartender has frizzy hair pulled back in a small tight knot. He has khaki pants that are tight everywhere but the butt. Not attractive, but somehow he pulls it off.
Gene and I are done, even though it is early. The food and drink I’ve consumed has expanded and I feel like Violet Beauregard. I will feel like a helium filled blueberry until Sunday morning.
The Bartolotta’s are taking over the city. But that seems to be a pattern in cites lately, just like celebrity chefs Danny Meyer and Tom Colicchio have created New York empires. Other Bartolotta properties are: Lake Front Bistro, Ristorante Bartolotta, and Mr B’s Steakhouse.
What will airlines charge passengers for next? The oxygen masks?
Delta, United, I get it; you’re strapped. You have slapped an extra price tag on every fundamental of air travel. But please, find a more palatable way to increase revenue. Sit in your conference rooms and drum up ways to make passengers want to open their wallets.
Charge us for something we haven’t had before, like vibrating seats or in-air pedicures.
First, it was the meals.
Once I got past feeling angry that I had to pay for the food that I once was entitled to, I remembered that your food sucked anyway. It occurred to me to buy my own food, stuff I like. Now I always keep a Clif Bar tucked in my purse in case I get a free wait on the tarmac.
That’s what you predicted would happen: customers will complain for a while, but eventually the extra fees will feel normal.
Then, you started to charge for checked bags.
That took some getting used to also. I stopped “leaving room in my suitcase” as my mother always advised. But after I thought about it, I agree—someone traveling with two tons of luggage should pay more than me with my roll-on.
Caveat: checked bag fees increase your responsibility to not lose the luggage, AirTran. Be warned—the anger of the man who paid to get his luggage lost will escalate beyond your expectations.
Then, you made customers pay to sit in Exit Rows.
Now your policies are starting to hurt. Yes, Exit Rows are preferred seats and yes, passengers try hard to land them. But what if I have to perform the duties that come with being in the Exit Row? Will you pay ME?
Now we have to pay to NOT be in a middle seat.
Calling window and aisle seats “premium seats” and charging for them, creates intolerable situations. Delta, United, you better think hard about this.
You only release window and aisle seats once you have extorted as much seat money as you can. Passengers are afraid if they don’t buy a window or aisle up front, they will be squeezed in the middle seat.
The fallout: people traveling together cannot sit together without paying a premium. Unlike other incremental fees, this upcharge does not hit consumers who are using more of your services. It’s a seat. This pricing “strategy” feels more like blackmail.
According to the Associated Press, “The airlines say they try to keep parents and young children together. Gate agents will often ask passengers to voluntarily swap seats but airlines say they cannot guarantee adjacent seats unless families book early or pay extra for the preferred seats.”
Cannot guarantee adjacent seats unless families pay extra? That means you CAN guarantee adjacent seats, you just won’t.
Daddy, Make Them Stop
New York Senator Chuck Schumer is coming to the rescue. He is asking the Department of Transportation to force airlines to allow families to sit together for no extra charge. Government shouldn’t have to get involved, but they really they do, because airlines, like many businesses, will take all they can and them some.
The day after St Patrick’s Day may be a little foggy to some, but I remember March 18, 1989 vividly. Every year on that date, I think about that Saturday morning in Milwaukee when Max Adonnis was shot and killed at Giovanni’s, the restaurant where I worked.
Flipville was a crowded dusty memorabilia store in a crooked little building on Farwell Avenue in Milwaukee. The proprietor wasn’t very talkative (at least with us) and his inventory was a little worse for the wear. Visiting Flipville was like an absorbing afternoon in Grandpa’s attic.
Why is a calorie-counting girl like me fascinated with pizza?
For one, the pizza pie potentially contains all four food groups. Plus, I spent a few years slinging pizza on silver cake platters at tiny Italian restaurant called Villa Rosa.
I became a connoisseur.
Villa used to have a pizza called the Rianata. The Rianata’s crust was basted with olive oil, had no mozzarella, just parmesan, tomato slices and anchovies. I don’t typically like anchovies, but on the Rianata, the hairy guys just worked. I would order a parbaked Rianata after work and finish it off in my oven at home on one of Villa’s pizza screens.
Don’t look for Villa Rosa when you’re in Milwaukee, it hasn’t been there for years. But Milwaukee has plenty of pizza alternatives: Lisa’s on Oakland, Balestreri’s, Calderone Club, Zaffiro’s and DiMarini’s.
We are in Milwaukee and I hint that I want to eat at Zaffiro’s (1724 N. Farwell Ave), home of Milwaukee’s favorite thin-crust pizza, but no one takes the bait. I want to show Gene Milwaukee’s many great pizza joints beyond the Calderone Club (842 N. 3rd St) where we have eaten during our last three visits.
Lynne, Mark, Gene and I, walking by Calderone Club after we leave The Safe House, agree to stop here for the cookie-sheet masterpieces. Zaffiro’s will have to wait. Gene says he was mixing up Calderone with my tales of Zaffiro’s anyway.
He is ecstatic to have Calderone Club pizza again. Midwest-style pizza cannot be had in New York. New York can’t do the cracker-thin crust, nor can they prepare the deep-dish variety. And what does New York have against cheese and toppings? Milwaukee, on the other hand, doesn’t do slices.
We sit outside at a round metal table on a slightly sloping sidewalk. Inside, Calderone is packed. Eleven thousand American Legionnaires are in the city and they all are eating at Calderone Club. The black olive-and-mushroom covered rectangle is as good as the one from our last visit. We have leftovers to wrap, but not much.
If I could only eat one food for the rest of my life, it would be pizza—calories be damned!
The entrance to the The Safe House (779 N. Front St.) is crowded with people who will not know the password. We circle the block to give the folks a chance to perform the antics that will be required of them to get in. (The password: swordfish)
Ten minutes later, we’re back and the lobby is empty. I punch the time clock that opens the secret panel to a narrow dark hallway. I get disoriented momentarily and I walk into a mirror straight ahead of me. So much for being a Safe House veteran.
A man sitting alone at the bar moves left so Gene and I can sit together. Which of these is the trick barstool, I ask him. He replies huh? We shrug.
The man asks the bartender for a plastic cup for his “dirty habit.” The bartender gives him mixed signals by giving him a cup and simultaneously discouraging him from chewing tobacco, citing Milwaukee’s recent smoking ban. After the ban, The Safe House informally banned all tobacco products, said the bartender. The man could chew, but it grosses out the customers. The man disregards the bartender’s suggestion and puts a plug in his cheek.
The man’s barstool starts sinking down lower and lower until he looks like a midget sitting at the bar. He got the trick barstool after all–along with a dose of passive-aggressive retaliation.
Lynne and Mark arrive and we move to a table. We watch the lobby on the closed-circuit television. We watch people hula-hoop, dance and perform other harmless embarrassments to gain entrance to the spy-theme bar.
We notice the number of children coming in. The Safe House is not meant to be Chuck E. Cheese. The atmosphere and gimmicks encourage the kids to run around the crowded bar. I worry The Safe House may be ruined.
So we’re dorks who collect The Safe House glassware. I order a Code Beer and Gene orders a Spy’s Demise, Milwaukee’s most famous cocktail. The Spy’s Demise glass has had a makeover, no longer the standard pint glass, but sleeker, more like a Coca-cola glass. Mark gives us a twenty-year-old Code Beer mug, pewter-like but probably tin, since it is a bit rusted. We will add it, rusted as it is, to our collection.