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.
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.
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.
"Work has been kinda slow since cartoons went to color. Boop-boop-be-doop"
Hungry for a greasy breakfast, we take the concierge’s recommendation and taxi to the Michigan Diner (220 E Michigan St). The menu is ordinary: eggs; eggs and toast; eggs, toast and a side of bacon, sausage, hash browns or American fries.
What’s the difference between American fries and hash browns? Is there any difference between American fries and home fries? I order French Toast with two eggs, a menu combo that lends itself to more breakfast-food pondering.
The Michigan Diner gets points for authenticity–an un-ironic, grungy diner. A giant ceramic Elvis poses in the right front window and an oversize Marilyn Monroe vamps in the left window. A plastic Betty Boop baits customers from the countertop.
A “Stop Diabetes” pamphlet is stacked on the counter next to a green metal bucket of Dum-dum lollipops. Three on-duty cops relax over coffee in the center of the room.
After breakfast, we walk from the downtown end of the Riverwalk to the north end near our hotel.
Completing a lazy morning, I relax and digest in a giant wicker cave of a chair in the Aloft hotel’s courtyard, an open-air, sparsely-furnished patio. Check out some photos of Milwaukee’s Riverwalk.
Back at the hotel, we sit at the sunken Wxyz bar. Clever name, right? Just wait, The Aloft has more cleverness in store.
The bar’s surface is embedded with confetti-shaped lights that change from orange to pink to green and back. The large-breasted bartender struggles to cut a whole watermelon with a dull knife and we watch all three heaving melons a little uncomfortably.
We almost call it a night, but it is early and it’s our first night in town. I suggest we jump in a cab and go to The Jazz Estate (2423 N. Murray Ave). I call first to see if the bar is open since The Estate has shuttered and been resuscitated more times than a CPR practice dummy.
The Estate is open and we’re on our way. A call to Yellow Cab yields a car within five minutes. This no-car thing is going to work. And it does, thanks in part to the speed of Yellow Cab.
Two Harleys are parked in front of the propped-open bar door. Two guys with long beards are playing a Van Morrison tune as we walk in. We take our $4 (yes, $4) vodka-and-grapefruits to one of the four cocktail tables in front of the band. The Cactus Brothers play Marshall Tucker, Lynyrd Skynrd, Waylon Jennings and David Allen Coe. The banter between the brothers and the bartender seems part of their act and I realize all three are musician-pals who play together in other iterations of the band.
Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner
The Estate, despite its troubles, remains The Estate. Much younger bartenders, a wider range of music, and not a familiar face, yet the place is still so much the same. My eyes linger on the photo of Frank and Ava by the waitress station and then to the Frank Sinatra mug shot. Those photos have hung there, still crooked, since I first walked in there in 1991.
Once we drink the bar out of grapefruit juice, it is time to go. Or should we have one last drink?
Milwaukee is both my former home and my adopted hometown. Every return visit feels like a homecoming. But this visit to Milwaukee will be a little bit tourist trip.
I want to see and do the things I always meant to see and do. One, I have never eaten at Karl Ratzsch’s or Mader’s, the two remaining stalwarts of the German restaurant triumvirate that once reigned in this town. (The third triumvir, John Ernst, where I dined many times, closed in 2001.)
Since Mader’s (1041 N. 3rd St) is only two blocks from the hotel, tonight’s choice is easy. At Mader’s, the Germanness is everywhere you look: the wall plaques, the steins, the ostentatious glass-encased suit of armor and the inexplicable enormous upholstered chair in the foyer. The dining room chairs look medieval, hard and short, made of dark wood with wine-glass shapes cut out of the back.
Mader's Beer Sampler
Gene orders a beer sampler, six juice-size glasses with beers arranged from light to dark. I drink a Chardonnay La Crema. Gene selects a wiener schnitzel and sauerbraten platter for his main course. I order the only fish dish on the menu, grilled salmon with wasabi cream sauce. As the only fish dish, I worry it will be perfunctory and boring. So wrong! I also order a side of spatzle, fried gnocchi-like German dumplings. I talk Gene into sharing a Schaum Torte, the classic strawberry-and-meringue mountain of a dessert.
We stop in the German Beer Hall (1009 N. 3rd St) for a draft. I want Gene to see this bar, but I don’t know if is just too early in the evening or if we are too full to enjoy it. The narrow barroom is nearly empty and we leave half our beers on the bar.