Saturday, July 14
Visit Milwaukee: City on the Rise
Since I moved to New York, I’ve visited Milwaukee fifty, sixty times or more. Though I’ve been away longer than I lived here, Milwaukee is still my adopted hometown.
Each time I visit Milwaukee, I notice restaurants and bars changing hands and new buildings going up. Something hipper always springs up in place of old favorites. Exception: a bland Digicopy standing in place of the torn-down icon, Giovanni’s.
Lately, the city has accelerated the pace of construction. First, I see downtown riverfront condos emerging. Then I read Chicagoans are buying Milwaukee condos for summer weekend getaways. Makes sense. Why go all the way Up North when there are multiple festivals and happenings to pick from in Milwaukee? Milwaukee is more accessible, more navigable than Chicago. Drive downtown and park in Milwaukee; don’t endure the bumper-to-bumper, its-always-rush-hour aura of Chicagoland.
Midwest Corridor: Chicago to Milwaukee
Gene and I spend a week this July in downtown Milwaukee. We fly into Chicago and make the 90-mile drive north to Milwaukee. I see all my familiar landmarks on the very familiar drive: Bong Recreation Center, Mars Cheese Castle, Lawsonomy University, Great America and the outlet malls in Kenosha and Gurnee.
Once in town, I see condo construction not only on the riverfront, but everywhere. I hope that the housing market can sustain all this construction. Already, the restaurants to feed the new condo owners are open for business. I think these restaurants and bars are just as good as New York City restaurants, and less pretentious.
Trocadero, Sequel to Sequel’s
We eat lunch on the deck of Trocadero, a restaurant that used to be Sequels, then Under the Bridge. Or is it the other way around?
As Trocadero, the place looks real, not like someone slapped a coat of paint on buckling walls and hammered in a dance floor the size of a shipping pallet. Trocadero built a two-tiered back deck that shows off its cream-city brick.
We check into The Intercontinental on Water and Kilbourn and take a long nap on a high, cushy soft bed with many pillows. There are so many pillows of different lengths and firmnesses, we toss a few on the floor.
Pizza Man, a Touch of Class, Man
We meet L. and M. at Pizza Man on the east side. The restaurant sits on the corner of Oakland and North, its home for thirty plus years. Pizza Man upgraded its menu, but still retains its dark, carved up booths, the cartoon superhero logo and the silly name. We order glasses of Cakebread Chardonnay at the bar. Pizza Man is the first place I ever see Cakebread available by the glass.
We sit in the back booth, the same booth I’ve sat in a million times. I remember the first time I was here: the night after the Brady Street Festival, summer after my freshman year at Marquette. I remember a million other nights picking up a Pizza Man pie after bar time.
Brady Street Festival has been resurrected in 2007 for the first time in a couple of decades. Brady Street Fest was halted for being too debauched. The city has lightened up.
Beers at Von Trier’s
We talk about S., the former Sequels bartender who would forget to charge for drinks when she had a few behind bar. I haven’t seen her in at least fifteen years.
After a Pizza Man seafood pizza and garlic bread dipped in tomato sauce, we go to Von Trier’s, the German tavern of Milwaukee legend.
A fat singer in a button-down bowling shirt croons Sinatra tunes into a microphone that makes his voice sound like fuzz. M. elbows me because S., the former bartender from Sequels, is sitting halfway down the bar. S. seems vacant and far away so I don’t approach her. She probably wouldn’t remember me.
Diving into Vitucci’s
We cross the street to Vitucci’s, a place I used to avoid when I lived in Milwaukee. But the east side dive bar now features an impressive juke box and serves PBRs ironically. We drink a couple of beers at Vitucci’s and then hit North Avenue.
Now the streets are filling up with Saturday night foot traffic.
Cans, the bar L. and M. want to show us, looks packed. We pass a couple of other bars with twenty-somethings spilling out the doors. We go to the quieter Vox. But it is not really our scene either.
Sunday, July 15
Suds at Barnacle Bud’s
Sunday noon we meet L. and M. at Barnacle Bud’s, a Key West-inspired bar/restaurant with a large outdoor wood deck. We sit at a picnic bench under a green umbrella. The bar is at the end of a long gravel road, outside Skipper Bud’s marina. We watch boats exit the warehouse next door, lifted high on a forklift and eased down into the water.
|A Little Bit of the Keys||Keeping it Cold: Ingenious!|
My french toast comes in a basket with eggs, sausage, toast and fried potatoes for $5.95. L. and M. warn us that we landed the most indifferent waiter on the planet and they are right. He is over-tan with tattoos and flip-flops and looks like he had a rough night last night. I ask for iced coffee. He says,“we have ice and we have coffee”, implying he could be persuaded to mix them together. He claims he has no milk, so I settle for Wisconsin cream, turning my iced coffee into a chocolate shake.
We listen to the singer-guitarist perform Jimmy Buffet and Eagles songs. Jimmy is a smiley guy with a bushy white mustache and skinny legs.
|Jimmy Sings Buffet||Gene Plays “Ship, Captain, Crew “|
The four of us play “Ship, Captain, Crew” for quarters for several hours, drinking pitchers of beer kept cold by an ice compartment built into the pitcher. We tip Jimmy with the money in play at the end of our game.
Join the Calderone Club
Gene and I return to the hotel, take a nap, re-establishing a common vacation pattern. We wake up groggy and consider staying in.
But we muster the energy to walk to Calderone Club. (Why do I think it used to be called El Calderone?) It is only two blocks away, but the bridge next to the hotel is closed. So we must walk down the River Walk and around a couple big blocks to get to Calderone. This detour will be a handicap the entire trip.
The restaurant is so empty, Gene thinks they are closed. But this is just Milwaukee on a Sunday night. During the course of our pasta and wine, another table or two wanders in and they make the restaurant feel open.
Monday, July 16
Good for What Ales you
We go to Café Hollander for lunch. The new cafe offers a beer selection deep in Belgian ales. We order a baked pretzel appetizer with Dijon mustard. Gene turns purple when he takes a big scoop of the horseradishy stuff. It clears my sinuses for sure, but I decide I like it and continue on. I order Wisconsin Cheddar Ale soup and Gene has a tuna steak sandwich on a round, glistening bun.
My hair is crying to be cut and I am itching to cut my bangs myself. No matter how good I think I am at bang-cutting, hairdressers are never fooled. And they always scold, so I won’t chop them. I look for a hair salon, but nothing is open.
A Four-Legged Bouncer
We go to Downtown Books, a used bookstore that is run by an adorable dog and his owners. The little guy runs out of the store to check us out rather than to greet us. We pass inspection.
Gene finds a Spaulding Gray novel and I buy a book on gemstones.
Three Floors of Terror
We go to Rennaissance books, another downtown used bookstore. Rennaisaance is three floors of terror if you’re one to worry about how sturdy and fireproof building are.
|Gene Rummaging Among the Stacks||Renaissance Baskets|
Gene and I meet MG and BH for dinner. They are in Milwaukee on a weeklong business trip. MG takes us to Bacchus, a restaurant in the old Fleur dis Lis and later the Boulevard Inn site.
Gene and BH used to work together, but never met in person. They share a passion for the Beatles. BH and Gene discuss the new Paul McCartney CD. BH loves it, but she loves everything Beatles and admits she is biased. Reviewers have given the CD a thumbs-up, but point out that it starts with a couple of stinkers.
MG selects a bottle of red wine and picks a half-bottle of white for me. I can’t decide between a beet salad and the crab cakes for my appetizer. Though she likes both, the waitress steers me toward the crab cakes. MG orders a beet salad for the table so we can all taste it. I have halibut and it rocks. We share something oozing chocolate for dessert, but the wine is working and so I don’t remember the details of dessert, just chocolate haze.
Tuesday, July 17
Up and Down the I-94 Corridor
I have to work today in Itasca, Illinois and it seems like the job might go quickly. We stop at Starbucks for a big iced coffee for the drive. We pick up Paul McCartney’s Starbuck’s CD. We make it through the first seven tracks, including the purported stinkers before we flip on the radio to find some familiar driving tunes.
At the plant, the two presses I am working are timed together for once in my career. We finish both forms in less than two hours. We stop for lunch at Maggiano’s, an Italian restaurant outside the Woodfield Mall.
Back in Milwaukee, we stay close to the hotel, selecting Butch’s Clock Steak House for dinner. A skinny boy who can’t be more than fourteen seats us. Butch’s is an old supper club with classic steaks and seafood standards on the menu. Soup or salad comes with the meal. Our waitress treats us very motherly. Gene has two Sidecars.
Pssst, the Password is . . .
We cross the street to The Safe House, the notorious spy-theme bar. Gene and I know the password so we don’t have to perform any silliness in front of the closed circuit video camera.
Patrons who don’t know the password must perform a Rockettes’ high-kick dance, hula hoop while linking arms with their partner, or whatever the malicious doorman thinks up. We sit at the bar where we can watch people comply with the doorman on the closed-circut TV. We applaud when those who did stunts cross the threshold.
Gene sits at the barstool that sinks down at the bartender’s whim.
We order drinks that come with logo glassware. Gene has a “Double Agent” and a “Top Secret” and a couple of “Code Beers”. Ingredients are not disclosed. I play it safe and pay extra for my bar glasses. We have stocked our kitchen with Safehouse glassware for years and replacing them is our clear spy mission.
Wednesday, July 18
Not a Vacation Unless We Record Shop
Flipville is open today and I drop Gene off before I go shoe shopping. Flipville is an overstuffed tiny store with tall, scattered piles of comics, toys and vinyl records. I can barely see the proprietor behind the stacks.
Gene finds the new location of Farwell Music only a block from Flipville on Irving. Farwell Music is renamed Bullseye Records.
|Flipville Records||Bullseye Records|
Would you Like Tatts with That?
I meet Gene at Comet Café, between the two record stores. Gene scores at Bullseye and I wait for him to finish shopping rather than the other way around.
Comet Café’s décor is Fifties style with hand lettered signs and a lunch counter. The entire staff and most of the customers have large, multiple tattoos. Our cups of veggie chili come with cheese, onions and sour cream. Afterward, I drop Gene at the hotel; my double agent not feeling so hot.
I drive to Lake Michigan on the east side of town and cruise up Lake Drive and look at the estate that line the street. I make this drive every time I am in Milwaukee.
The Jazz Estate, Still Swinging
We eat a late dinner at Elliot’s Bistro, a French restaurant close to The Jazz Estate, where we will go after dinner. Elliots’ orange walls are filled with hanging hats and berets and Toulouse Latrec-style paintings. The place is almost empty and the waiter has time to give us extra attention. He brings samples of the wines offered by the glass so we can taste before selecting.
We walk to the Estate and I am surprised the bar doesn’t charge a cover. The bar looks almost the same as it did when I hung out here nightly, despite that it closed and reopened several times since I moved away. We enjoy the music, sit in front and clap loudly.
|Elliot’s Bistro||The Jazz Estate|
|Bathroom Stall Art at Sake Tumi|
Thursday, July 19
Lunch at Sake Tumi
I meet F. for lunch at Sake Tumi. She looks fantastic and I think it’s because she is wearing work clothes. The real reason she looks like a million bucks: she’s lost 22 pounds. Now I see it in her face and in her shoulders.
We talk a lot, mostly about changes in her job and in mine. Lunch is over before we get to talk about anything else. We don’t feel caught up when she has to get back to work.
I go next door to the Planet Bead shop. The selection of beads and yarns is huge and the dim lighting is refreshing compared to the fluorescent lights in the bead stores in Midtown. I can’t get a sense of whether the prices are good or bad, but I am feeling bad about spending money on a haircut and shoes, so I leave without buying anything.
Yes Pizza, No Jazz
Gene and I need a quiet night, so we take a walk to Cathedral Square to see Jazz in the Park. The lawn is full of people who have come prepared with picnics and low lawn chairs. Without the perks, this park is not our scene, and the music is not really jazz, so we circle around quickly then head to Calderone Club for take-out pizza.
Once we’re there, we decide to eat in. The hostess tries to steer us away from ordering a large pizza. We tell her we have big pizza appetites and she says yes, she understands, she does too, but a Large is still too large for us. We ignore her advice and order the Large anyway. The pizza is on a big rectangle the size of a baking sheet.
We kill two thirds of it at the table and take the rest back to the hotel room. We watch Fargo on the hotel’s HD screen TV in our room. Within the hour, Gene has polished off the pizza.
The Finer Points of Pizza
Most people know the difference between New York slices and Chicago deep dish. But the difference between midwestern thin-crust and New York style is less obvious.
A Wisconsin regular pie (besides not being sold by the slice and being cut in squares) is cheesier, with loads more toppings than New York pizza. A New Yorker would never put that many toppings on a slice. But the difference really is the thin-crust. The Wisconsin crust is crackery and bubbly, not flat and smooth and toasty like in New York.
When I worked at Villa Rosa, the pizza joint that is now the Comedy Cafe, we called the most popular variation a Chizmo. That is Cheese, Sausage, Mushroom, Onion, written on a dinner check as C-S-M-O and shouted out as “Chizmo!” back in the kitchen.
Friday, July 20
Fishing For a Good Time
We drive to the town of Port Washington to go on a fishing charter with L. and M. We are meeting J. there. L. offers us Dramamine. We don’t know if we get seasick, but we figure taking a dose can’t hurt. The boat is medium-sized with a captain and a first mate and a dozen or so fishing poles attached to the back and sides.
The sun is hot on us as we motor a few miles out. The ride feels rough and I get a little nervous. But I feel okay once the captain shuts off the motor. Gene is not so lucky and he is sick for the entire trip. He acts like a trooper and manages to keep it together, though I know the hot sun and the choppy water are making him miserable.
The captain and first mate do all the work and we passengers get all the credit. Within minutes, we have three bites, and we take turns reeling the fish in. The fish are big and it takes a while to land them in the boat.
|Gene||J.’s Fish Tales||J. with the Net|
Then the trail gets cold. The captain is under pressure to produce fish and he stays on his cell phone comparing notes with other charter captains in the area. We move around a bit in the water, but nothing happens for a long time.
We hit another hot streak and before we pull up anchor at five, we have eight fish in the boat: Coho salmon, a rainbow, and a lake trout. M. and J. seem to especially prize the lake trout and I am pleased I reeled that one in. Gene and I give our fish to J. The captain filets the fish at the dock, but L. and M. save one of their salmon to be smoked.
We meet L. and M. at Café Hollander and this time, we indulge in the beers. We are all tired from the sun and water and call it an early night.
Saturday, July 21
On The Planet of Cheese
We pack, filling the extra suitcase I bought this week and making sure Gene’s new albums are cushioned. We take a risk with the Safehouse glassware because we have no practical way of carrying the three glasses and two beer jars on the plane. I spread them out in the suitcase and wrap them in soft t-shirts and cross my fingers.
|A Landmark: Mars Cheese Castle||Found Among The Cheese|
On the drive to Chicago’s O’Hare, we stop in Kenosha at the Mars Cheese Castle. I pass this landmark with its huge highway sign on every drive to Chicago, yet I never stopped before. Gene and I saw it featured on the Food Network. This time we stop at the store and bar/restaurant. The store is full of cheeses and sausages and Wisconsin memorabilia, mustards and German cookies, Kringles and bread. I wish I could take a whole bunch of stuff back.