3 Must-Try Milwaukee Restaurants for the Frugal Foodie

These bar-restaurants pair quality with value.

When I was growing up, my father was relentlessly frugal. I compensated by spending my babysitting money whenever and wherever possible, thinking, “Why not? It’s just money.” But over time, my father’s, well, cheapness – and this is frugal Milwaukee, so he was by no means an anomaly – left a mark on me. I’ve never cut corners with food, but I appreciate a good deal. These three establishments offer quality and value, proving you don’t have to drop a bundle to get a good dining experience.

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Nessun Dorma

Warm panino and Ciccio at Nessun Dorma; Photo by Marty Peters

I’VE BEEN TALKING ABOUT the Ciccio for years. That’s the great-deal appetizer platter of Italian meats, cheeses, olives and pepperoncini, and seedy Tuscan bread served at Nessun Dorma. It’s been my go-to for, well, a long time, but before I get into the food at this friendly Riverwest haunt, here’s a little history on the 1909 structure it occupies. From Prohibition on, it’s been a saloon of one kind or another. In the ’30s, it was a “soft drink parlor,” code for a tavern serving low-alcohol beer. In the 1980s, it was Gordon Park Pub, the first bar to serve Riverwest Stein beer.

In 2002, Dean Cannestra and Mary Howard, who also operated the old Palermo Villa on East Murray Avenue, bought the building and refurbished the mahogany bar and two small adjoining dining rooms. They named it Nessun Dorma after the Puccini aria (which translates to “Let no one sleep”). It’s now owned by Emily Park-Sutrick, a longtime Nessun server.

This joint is probably as popular a spot to grab a craft beer or glass of wine as it is to dine on the cheap. You can share the generous $14 Ciccio with a friend, or go solo with a warm $12 panino or one of the nightly specials. Wednesday is always pasta night, and although the specials can be great or middling, the panini are a fail-safe. Start your meal with the warm, ultra-rich and creamy artichoke dip topped with gooey Fontinella cheese and served with grilled Tuscan bread ($10.50). Or start with the Ciccio but keep in mind that it’s filling.

 

 

I’ve eaten many of Nessun’s pressed panini over the years and they rarely disappoint. When I’m not craving meat, the artichoke melt ($11.50) – marinated artichoke hearts with green and kalamata olives, pepperoncini and provolone on asiago ciabatta – is the warm, melty sandwich I crave. When I want protein, the Puccini ($13.50) hits all the marks – meaty (combo of beef tenderloin and capicola dry-cured pork), melty (smooth provolone), briny and fruity (kalamata tapenade) and crusty (Tuscan bread). And finally, dessert is worth the calories when it’s the rich, heavenly limoncello mascarpone cake.

DETAILS

Address: 2778 N. Weil St., 414-264-8466

Hours: Dinner Mon-Sat; brunch Sat-Sun

Prices: $7.50-$14

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Swingin’ Door Exchange

Pork sandwich and ribs at Swingin’ Door Exchange; Photo by Marty Peters

THIS IS ANOTHER saloon-dining establishment with a storied past. It’s located inside the historic Mackie Building, which was a Western Union Telegraph station in the 1800s and first became a tavern in the early 1930s. It opened as the Swingin’ Door in ’73.  It’s hard to pinpoint which decade you’re in when you step inside, the walls covered with old photos and memorabilia, the place perpetually dark from paneled walls, stained glass and wood furnishings.

It didn’t become a place you’d think about for more than a sandwich until 2010, when owners Shelly Sincere and K.C. Swan bought the business and spiffed up the menu with seared ahi tuna, New York strip steak, roasted brussels sprouts, grilled beets and spicy vermouth carrots. One of my favorite salads around, the Marinated Beet, combines the Swingin’ Door’s beets with crumbled goat cheese, Granny Smith apples and candied pecans over mixed greens with a mustard vinaigrette ($11). Add grilled chicken ($5), and you’re set. 

Now you can spend more on a meal if you get a full rack of baby back ribs ($28 for a full rack, $18 for a half), but there’s a lot you can order for much less. (Incidentally, those ribs are super tender and meaty – a winner with a side of crisp, creamy homemade coleslaw.) Always check the specials board when you come in, though they often sell out of those one-offs in a flash. Thursdays feature a spicy barbecued pulled pork sandwich with coleslaw and choice of side (love those chewy-tender, lightly charred vermouth carrots) for $8. You might also see a half-rack of ribs paired with a half-dozen panko-crusted jumbo fried shrimp, slaw, a side and bread for

$24. Snag it when you can. On Fridays, they do a traditional fish fry (cod and lake perch offered) along with some fish specials like last spring’s delightful blackened pike with pineapple salsa and two sides ($17).

The Swingin’ Door also puts effort into its sandwiches, and I have a few old standbys from the regular menu – the seared ahi tuna steak ($15 with a side) and boneless pork chop with maple-mustard glaze, caramelized brussels sprouts, bacon and Swiss on a Sciortino’s roll ($15 with a side). Both are substantial, with a lusciously colliding mix of flavors and textures. Walking through the Swingin’ Door is a consistently good decision.

Details

Address: 219 E. Michigan St., 414-276-8150

Hours: Lunch and dinner Tues-Sat

Prices: $5-$28

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Honeypie Cafe

Photo courtesy of Honeypie

IT’S NATURAL TO THINK of Honeypie for, well, exactly what its name implies: pie. But there’s so much more culinary terrain here to traverse. The 12-year-old also has new digs (still in Bay View), where it has spent the summer feeding people selections from its Midwestern menu on a sweet back patio. The indoor dining room hasn’t opened yet, but the owners are shooting for an early-fall debut.

That term Midwestern might seem a bit perplexing when it comes to the menu. I’d call it homey “Mom” cooking with nostalgia for a time in your life when “waistline” was merely a term, not a relevant concept. And there is also that ever-important emphasis on seasonal, local-when-possible ingredients. It’s worth it to deep-dive into the rib-sticking dishes. Honeypie excels at them. When I say that, I mean starters like crab dip served with toasted everything sourdough ($15) and the fries smothered in pulled pork, house BBQ and mornay sauces, pickled jalapenos, bacon and a sunny egg ($17), aa dish that could function as your main course. Delicious as all-get out, plus it doesn’t break the bank. I also can’t resist the buttermilk biscuits with house-made jam ($6) and the (also homemade) soft pretzels served with beer cheese ($10 for two) to kick off a meal.

You could save that biscuit fix by ordering, as your main, the chicken + biscuit pie, which is Honeypie’s rendition of pot pie with chicken, potatoes, roasted corn and bell peppers in a thick cream sauce under a flaky buttermilk biscuit topping ($18). It’s a honey of a dish. The mac and cheese with white cheddar mornay sauce, green onion and bacon is creamy and smoky and, best of all, topped with crispy breadcrumbs ($16). And the Honeypie burger ($17, with fries) is the kind that will drip ground beef brisket juice, secret sauce and a runny sunny egg over the sides of the bun, but you won’t care. It’s messy-good. Specials also pop up from week to week – things like a French dip sandwich with melted Carr Valley fontina – so be on the alert. And it would be truly unwise to leave without having pie – or at least taking some home for later consumption. I’ll just end with four words: Black bottom banana cream.

Details

Address: 2569 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., 414-489-7437

Hours: breakfast, lunch, dinner, brunch Wed-Sun

Prices: $6-$34


 

This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s September issue.

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Ann Christenson has covered dining for Milwaukee Magazine since 1997. She was raised on a diet of casseroles that started with a pound of ground beef and a can of Campbell's soup. Feel free to share any casserole recipes with her.