Milwaukee Magazine's guide to some of the most outstanding retailers, restaurants, services and you-name-it in town.
Hear ye, hear ye! The Best of Milwaukee is back, after a brief detour last year into a love-letter iteration called “Reasons to Love Milwaukee.” Make no mistake – this feature is still packed with amorous feelings for our city. But this year, in addition to a bit of heart-felt gushing, we aim to offer a useable guide to some of the most outstanding retailers, restaurants, services and you-name-it in town. So whether you have a hankering for above-par chicken tenders, or are wondering what’s the best local band right now, our list of over 60 “awards” will help. In fact, we’ve packed this story with enough suggestions (and just a little nostalgia) to last you until, well, this time next year.
By Ann christenson, Matt hrodey, Jenna Kashou, Kevin Mueller, Carole Nicksin, Adam Rogan, Dan Simmons and Tom Tolan. Edited by Claire Hanan.
Bay View’s Avalon Atmospheric Theater, remodeled and reopened in 2014, features Moorish arches and a starry ceiling (1,300 LED lights) that evoke a night in Barcelona. There are even computer-programmed shooting stars. “The first time I saw one I thought I’d had a slight stroke,” says assistant manager Jeff Schmidt. (TT)
New Date Night Venue
Before you gaze seductively into his or her eyes, consider this romantic scenario happening amid twinkling stars, high-rise rooftops and fresh air. Holy time-for-a-kiss! But first, you must take the elevator inside the Kimpton Journeyman Hotel up to the ninth floor. When the doors slide open, you’re in The Outsider (310 E. Chicago St.), the part-plein-air destination where time stops only for day-bed lounging, cocktail-sipping, snacking and languidly watching the sun go down. (AC)
The November Project is as much a community of support as a fun, free outdoor workout for all fitness levels. Just show up at 6:26 a.m. any Wednesday, no matter the weather, at di Suvero’s The Calling. And prepare to sweat. (JK)
Shorewood and China may not seem much alike. But here’s one thing they share: a yen for outdoor ping-pong. At Shorewood High School and at nearby River Park, “park pong” tables invite you to play this addicting game under the sky. Just be sure to account for the wind. (DS)
Pay a visit to Tonic Tavern (2335 S. Kinnickinnic Ave.) on a Tuesday night, and you’ll soon recognize that you have walked into something special. That’s when the Picker’s Circle, a congregation of musicians started by Mark Meaney, meets. “The concept of music sessions in pubs where anyone can join in is very common in Ireland [Meaney’s native land] but uncommon here. I wanted to create an informal gathering open to anyone,” says Meaney. It’s a simple premise: players sit in a circle and take turns choosing a song, then everyone in the circle joins in. Each evening takes on its own identity, depending on who drops by. (CN)
Playing everywhere from the NBA Finals to the Kentucky Derby, The Chicago Bucket Boys (thechicagobucketboys.weebly.com) make their annual stop in MKE at Summerfest for a little off-stage, impromptu music that always draws a crowd. No cymbals or snares necessary, this drum crew makes do with fast hands, drumsticks and 5-gallon buckets. (AR)
Look no further than the compilation album from music and arts fest Arte Para Todos, 2016 Festival Compilation. It’s an all-local affair that includes 23 songs and 6 interviews with performers and organizers from the festival. Plus, proceeds go toward arts programs at Milwaukee Public Schools. (KM)
In 2014, writers Matt Wild and Tyler Maas launched their humorous A&E website Milwaukee Record (milwaukeerecord.com). It has since emerged as the only outlet to cover Milwaukee’s comedy scene with any sort of depth, and their opinionated coverage has become the center of the conversation on more than one occasion. No joke. (CH)
New Age Narcissism, the eight-person, multi-disciplinary hip hop collective, boasts a deep reserve of complementary rap, R&B, jazz and producing talents, allowing artists to slide into each other’s projects while also establishing singular voices on solo records. They’re even quite fashionable! The group’s essence, however, lies in the unyielding spirit of its live performances. (KM)
A once barren East Side alleyway now features pavement-to-roof street art murals by Wisconsin students and professional artists. Far more enticing than brick facades, Black Cat Alley’s painting of “Glitch Frog” by European artist MTO is quickly becoming a tourist destination. (AR)
Food and Drink
A soft hoagie roll, melted provolone, three delicate meatballs in marinara and thou. Is this love? It’s $4.99 worth of love at Scardina Specialties (822 E. Chambers St.). (AC)
Friday cannot come soon enough. That’s the one day each week when Treat Bake Shop (207 E. Buffalo St., Suite 212) opens its commercial kitchen to the public for Cookie Friday (10 a.m.-3 p.m.). Owner Sarah Marx Feldner bakes up three to four kinds each week, including the incredible chocolate chunk with sea salt. Limited delivery is even available via FlavorCycle. (AC)
Novi and Mousse, a mutt and a chocolate cocker spaniel, belong to Elizabeth Mix and Nick Garstecki, and for nine years have been regulars at Regano’s Roman Coin (1004 E. Brady St.). They’ve been coming so long that all Mix has to say is “Coin,” and they’re jumping around. If you go, ask bar owner Teri Regano about the time they got into the dog treat supply. (TT)
Picky eaters, texture eaters and the unadventurous will recognize the reliable, if boring, safety in ordering chicken fingers. But after 28 years of research, I can safely say that Swingin’ Door Exchange’s (219 E. Michigan St.) tenders, in all their crunchy bronze glory, are an occasion to celebrate even if you’re the type who typically orders the head cheese. (CH)
New Food Truck
Gypsy Taco doesn’t plan to hibernate in winter. Living out its “unapologetically unauthentic” mantra year-round on the patio at Bay View’s Boone & Crockett (2151 S. Kinnickinnic Ave.), the stand offsets its regular menu of Dr. Pepper-braised pork shoulder and roasted root veg/goat cheese with seasonal tacos like crispy fried mushroom or brisket from Iron Grate BBQ. Come winter, the patio will be heated and enclosed, and Gypsy chili will help keep you warm. (AC)
Is there anything more unifying than our love for old fashioneds? (If you can think of something, call your local representative.) It’s a beverage that bonds hipsters and nonagenarians, Republicans and Democrats. And you can’t throw a sausage without hitting an establishment that serves ‘em up. So we put The Packing House, Camp Bar, Supper, Joey Gerard’s, Drink Wisconsinbly, and Dock18 to the test, asking them to create their traditional old fashioned. After much deliberation, the judges emerged with a surprising consensus: The crown would be shared.
Sour Winner: Supper
Full of delicious twists, turns and ingredients created in house, Supper’s old fashioned sour is made with Copper & Kings American Brandy, house cherry Demerara syrup, Angostura-based house bitters blend, house sour mix, raw sugar, house marinated maraschino cherries and an orange slice.
Sweet Winner: The Packing House
Exactly what a good old fashioned sweet should taste like, The Packing House’s version is made of sugar, Angostura bitters, maraschino cherries, Korbel brandy, Sprite, and, of course, an orange slice.
- Drink Wisconsinbly
- Joey Gerard’s
- Camp Bar
The Year for Beer: 2016
- Katie Rose, co-owner of Goodkind
- Ron Faiola, Author of books about supper clubs and filmmaker. Most recently, Wisconsin Supper Clubs: Another Round.
- John Dye, owner of Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge
‘Tis the year of the new brewery in Milwaukee. Several opened and immediately began drastically altering – and improving – our beer scene. And this boom doesn’t show signs of slowing; there are more new breweries planned for 2017. Three 2016 standouts include:
Good City Brewing (2108 N. Farwell Ave.) managed to do more than get the beer right. Ample Cream City brick, wood and metalwork make the large, airy taproom both comfortable and contemporary. The food menu is, get this, a real menu. Chef Guy Davies makes everything from snacks (try the curry fries) to entrees like beer braised pork shoulder and chicken pot pie. The location on the East Side is pretty much ideal, too. Good City is batting a thousand.
The relocation of Black Husky Brewing, whose pale ales will make any beer geek’s mouth water, from tiny Pembine to Riverwest (909 E. Locust St.)had craft beer lovers abuzz, and the snazzy new spot didn’t disappoint when it opened in August. It’s part northwoods lodge and part sleek, modern-day taproom — a great addition to the neighborhood.
In the ’Burbs
Brewer Kris Volkman created a destination when he opened The Fermentorium in the spring of 2016 (7481 Hwy 60, Cedarburg). Volkman not only brews plenty of varied styles, but he brews them well. And he does a nice job of rotating seasonal brews on the tap lines, which means you’ll have to visit all year long to fully appreciate the place. (DM)
We asked three pros in the food-and-wine industry about their favorite local places to shop. (AC)
Jaclyn Stuart, certified sommelier and owner of specialty wine and foods shop Vintage Elkhart Lake, visits Thief Wine at Milwaukee Public Market (400 N. Water St.) because she likes its selection of bottles from small wine regions – wines she might not carry at her own store. Stuart also likes to sit at the Thief bar, with a wine flight, and “experience it from the customer’s perspective.”
Paul Funk of Like Minds MKE: Fein Brothers (2007 N. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr.), for things he uses “every day that are built to last, not to look great in a catalog,” like whisks, tongs, spatulas, Cambro storage containers and the Vollrath polyethylene cutting boards “you can’t get anywhere else.”
Molly Sullivan (head pastry chef, Black Shoe Hospitality) heads to The Spice House (1031 N. Old World Third St.) for vanilla extracts “that have distinct flavor profiles. They also have many different kinds of salt. Buying really high-quality salt helps strike the perfect balance of sweet and salty in desserts.”
Torching of a Political Figure
Like a distracted owl into a wood chipper, Donald Trump wandered onto a live phone line with #nevertrump radio host Charlie Sykes in March, while Trump was campaigning for the Republican nomination. Early in the segment, Sykes said, “I know you realize that here in Wisconsin we value things like civility, decency and actual conservative principles.” You can imagine how the rest of the interview went. (MH)
The owners of Milwaukee-based Hoppe Tree Service also run a retail shop of sorts called The Urban Wood Lab (6117 W. Bluemound Rd.) that is a candy store for anyone who decorates with the grain. Craftsmen have turned the trees cut down by Hoppe’s workmen into furniture, jewelry and other decorative items. (MH)
It was a colorful, spring-like affair, the design and selection of a new (unofficial) city of Milwaukee flag. The People’s Flag initiative started in February and climaxed in June with the unveiling of a banner showing a sun rising over blue water. The city may not have adopted it, but it will hang right here in our hearts. (MH)
While the infinitely popular social media app may offer tinted filters for your photos, some of the city’s most interesting accounts don’t avoid showing less-than-rosy events. At the same time, they also capture the city’s characteristic buildings, personalities and happenings that make it rich, and serve as reminders that there is beauty all around us, even when it seems hard to find. (CH)
- Tank the Hedgehog, @tank.the.hedgehog
- Rishi Raghunathan, @mke_rishi
- Cate Ferrer, @radi.cate
- Drew Westphal, @everydaydrew
- Weston Rich, @_westonrich
Best of the Blotters
While they make for entertaining reading, we would not endorse any of these routes for getting your name in the paper. (MH)
July 2016 A Waukesha man rushing home to use the john was reportedly stopped by police for reckless driving, causing the man to defecate in his pants. The officer, “figuring that was a greater penalty” than any traffic ticket, let the man go with only a warning.
June 2016 Cudahy police responded to the house of a distressed woman who said she had received suicidal text messages from her husband and returned home to find a gun, a bloody paper towel and a small amount of blood. The man was later found at a tavern and said he staged the scene “to provoke a response by his wife.”
November 2015 Police in Waukesha received numerous reports of a creepy-looking clown man walking around in the area of Carroll University. Officers located the teenage boy’s mother, who said her son only dressed up for fun. “I’d rather him do this than run the street, get girls pregnant, do drugs,” she told FOX6.
July 2015 Milwaukee cop Gustavo Rojas posted a sweary video to Facebook showing a half-dozen lights zig-zagging across the sky. “Proof that their [sic] is UFO!” he wrote. The lights turned out to be members of a U.S. Army parachuting team performing at the lakefront.
March 2015 Shortly before making a return at a Racine Kmart, Melissa Jacobson, 49, allegedly made a dookie in a box of security tags behind a cash register. Jacobson denied the act, but was spotted in security footage bending down and then wiping herself with paper towels.
Sources: WaukeshaNOW, CudahyNOW, FOX6, Facebook, Racine Journal-Times
Want the use of a boat, but not the expense of owning, maintaining and docking it? For a roughly $4,000 initial fee, plus $300-$400 a month, you can use boats owned by the Carefree Boat Club in Milwaukee, Delavan and Lake Geneva (carefreeboats.com). Club co-owner Paul Standring says that’s about a third of the cost of having your own. (TT)
For everyone who watches a Milwaukee Bucks game on TV and thinks, “I could do that,” purchase courtside seats sometime. The players are taller than your tallest relative, and they move only slightly slower than actual bucks. You might notice something else: Millionaire benchwarmers are the same as high school benchwarmers, pranking each other and eye-rolling when the coach isn’t looking. The Bucks won’t share the exact price of such a perch, but reliable sources say they cost around $250 apiece. nba.com/bucks (DS)
Not all massages are created equal, but when all the elements align, it can be like a mini-vacation. At the Pfister’s Well Spa + Salon (424 E. Wisconsin Ave.), the 60- or 90-minute Relax Me message ($90-$140) features champagne, your own private shower, the hands of a skilled professional, and an intoxicating mix of essential oils. The result is nothing short of transporting. (CH)
It’s one thing to take a tour, but nothing compares to spending a night in a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home, where you will have the Mission-style furniture all to yourself. Joanie Martinie and husband Steve rent out their FLW West Burnham Street duplex, which has three bedrooms and two-and-a-half baths and sleeps nine. Prices run from $179 – $228 for two people, higher during Summerfest and other high-traffic times of year. vrbo.com. (CN)
Perhaps the best extravagant gift to oneself is the unexpected. Sanford Restaurant (1547 N. Jackson St.) offers that with its seven-course Surprise Tasting Menu ($85 per person; $125 with wine pairings). Diners can choose the menu when they arrive, and the kitchen modifies for allergies and preferences. Chef/co-owner Justin Aprahamian uses the opportunity to pull from the Sanford pantry of local pickled products. Example: a late-winter olive oil-poached beef garnished with pickled morels, nuts and cheese. (AC)
Mary Raddatz used to own a wardrobe consulting business until she was hired by Nordstorm when they opened up shop at Mayfair Mall in October 2015. Her taste and skills have since become so in demand that she works with three to four clients each day, sometimes styling entire families. Her styling service is free, but of course a new wardrobe doesn’t come cheap. (CH)
Coffee While You Shop
Yes, it seems like all mega-retailers are trying to replicate the Target-Starbucks marriage, but Nordstrom’s Mayfair Mall location (2500 N. Mayfair Rd.) out-sophisticates the rest. Try their pumpkin spice latte (no eye rolls, people!) if you don’t believe us. (CH)
Filled with handmade clothing, toys and accessories for tots of all ages, The Waxwing (1800 E. North Ave.) features 150 local makers. Drawstring Studio, Wild Purple, Lalo, Little Gypsy Finery and Rosymade Designs keep your kiddos outfitted in clever onesies, shoes, bibs, headbands and pants. We’re told Orchard Street Press’ camp-themed tops and Milwaukee Home tees don’t stay on the shelves long. (JK)
Since 2006, Bay View-based online retailer Bona Drag has hawked clothing from brands not found anywhere else in Milwaukee. And the clothes, often of the bohemian variety, are unbelievably cool. bonadrag.com. (CH)
Solid beauty products (think perfume, balms, etc.) are great in theory but rarely great in execution. We’ve found the exception in Beehive Alchemy’s solid lotion tubes and tins, which are made with emollient oils, essential oils (heck yes to cardamom), honey and beeswax. beehivealchemy.com. (CH)
New Men’s Boutique
Milworks (143 N. Broadway) has that trendy aesthetic that melds woodsy adventure with urban minimalism. The look is so consistent throughout the store that you will want in on the lifestyle regardless of whether you’re in the market for beard oil. (CH)
New Women’s Boutique
If you’re a shopper who worships at the cheerful and colorful altars of Lilly Pulitzer and Vineyard Vines, you’ll want to make a pilgrimage to The Navy Knot (308 E. Silver Spring Dr., Whitefish Bay). But even if prep is not your thing, there’s plenty to love about this boutique, including its selection of trendy Mudpie clothing, cheeky patterned loafers, and some of the friendliest salespeople we’ve encountered. (CH)
Home Furnishings Store
With charming window displays of textiles, furniture and art, Olson House (4326 N. Oakland Ave.) offers Norse inspiration for people who favor the minimalism and functionality of Scandinavian design. Beyond that, owner Teresa Olson really thinks about how her shop fits into Milwaukee and in doing so offers decorative and/or practical pieces by local artists. (AC)
Clicks (1916 E. Capitol Dr.) may have a famous co-owner in Run D.M.C.’s Darryl McDaniels, but their Adidas sneaker offerings have become legendary on their own. The buzzy styles draw lines out the door, so you should try your luck at their arcade game where you can manipulate a mechanical claw in an old-school attempt to grab one of the coveted kicks. (CH)
My cat is like the Mikey of Life Cereal fame, only the “he won’t eat it; he hates everything” line would be substituted with, “he won’t play with it; he hates everything.” But the Cat Dancer (made in Neenah, Wis.) managed to catch his fancy. Attached to the end of the long curved wire wand are rolled pieces of cardboard. When I swing the wand, my cat’s head follows the rhythmic movements. And his paws fly, batting at it over and over again. Silly and simple (and starting at $3.50 at catdancer.com) and utterly loved by this normally unimpressed feline. (AC)
Well, sort of. Oak Creek pet food maker Stella & Chewy’s makes a dehydrated meal “patty” (available in a variety of meats) that dogs go coconuts for. You can rehydrate the patty or not, but they’re especially useful for pups who don’t drink much water with their food. stellaandchewys.com. (CH)
Euthanizing a pet isn’t something anyone looks forward to. But Pet Lawn Inc.’s Kristen Rowe’s grace and ultra-gentle demeanor makes the process as peaceful as it can possibly be – a final gift for you and your fur baby. (CH)
There’s Merida, Cheddar, Howie and Peach. Without Milwaukee Pets Alive, we’d likely not know the names, see the faces or hear the urgent needs of pets like these, abandoned by their owners and essentially on death row at a shelter. Since 2012, Lisa Grabowski’s all-volunteer team has taken extraordinary care to find homes for the city’s most vulnerable furballs. milwaukeepetsalive.org. (DS)
From yippy Chihuahuas to a biting German shepherd, Green Bay-based Jeremy Majors of Majors Academy Dog Training knows how to school the wildest of K-9s. Majors’ training, also offered in MKE, ranges from video tutorials to a month-long stay-and-learn program that can reset Fido’s aggressive behaviors. “It’s not just about the dogs for me, it’s also about families,” he says. “I want to bridge the gap between providing the humans the tools they need in order to better communicate with their dogs, which results in a good relationship.” majorsacademy.com. (AR)
Think twice about mailing your college kid a loaf of homemade banana bread. No offense to the bread, but Honeypie’s PieGram – six-inch, scratch-made pies available in seasonal flavors – may put Mom’s baked goods to shame. Set up a single, double or quadruple order ($14-$45) to be shipped via USPS. They’ll ship anywhere in the continental U.S. pie-gram.com. (AC)
8 Branches Chinese Medicine (3401 S Kinnickinnic Ave.) takes a holistic approach to women’s health and family care. Owner Sheri Lee uses needle and non-needle techniques for birth preparation, labor support and post-partum recovery. Plus, 8 Branches offers a student clinic for reduced-cost treatments. (JK)
Starting when he was in college at UWM, Craig Graybar has for three decades operated a kind of reform school for Milwaukee’s at-risk furniture. Send him your moldy old desk, your scuffed-up armoire, your broken-limbed headboard. He will return them better than new, polished and gleaming, sturdy and oh-so-ready to start conversations. craiggraybarfurniture.com. (DS)
Take it from my father-in-law: You most likely don’t want to refinish your floors yourself. So if you’d like to leave the onerous process to someone else, try My Affordable Floors, which gets the job done, can be flexible with your schedule and, as their name suggests, offers prices that won’t make you spit out your coffee.
Yes, it’s a chain, but the Valvoline on 68th Street (112 S. 68th St.), is full of Milwaukeeans who work their tails off to service your car in an extremely efficient manner. It’s like watching an exceedingly amiable, well-oiled machine. (CH)
Owner Peter Gerasopoulos, of Cobbler Shoe Service, learned the trade in his father’s cobbler shop in Greece. It’s part of what makes him the ultimate sole man, a title he has claimed since 1956 (827 W. Oklahoma Ave.). (TT)
Hall of Fame
Steve “The Homer” True
You know this voice of Marquette hoops and veteran sports talker. But are you aware he once sold a puppy at auction for $5,000? It was part of a fundraiser for Brookfield Academy, where bidders are always generous, he notes. (TT)
A Milwaukee Magazine staffer regularly packs baked goods from Simma’s (817 N. 68th St., Tosa) in her carryon luggage to give to out-of-state friends. We also crave the flaky, cinnamon-sugary morning buns, chocolate-cream cheese muffins, mini fruit tarts and ganache-topped cheesecake. In early 2016, Simma’s completed an expansion into an adjacent storefront that gave them much-needed space, including additional seating so customers can stay and enjoy a coffee and pastry. This charming bakery’s cute factor doubled, too. (AC)
In the quest to experience the new and trendy, we sometimes forget the classic, unchanging and wonderful. That describes The Kiltie (36154 Wisconsin Ave., Oconomowoc), where carhops deliver frozen custard, burgers, onion rings and a little nostalgia for 1946 (the year The Kiltie opened). (AC)
When they say Half-Price Books, they mean it. What you don’t bargain for at the three area locations is more sections and subsections than the Dewey decimal system. At the Greenfield location (5032 S. 74th St.), there’s even a small locked cabinet with nudie books and cartoons. (MH)
St. Josaphat Basilica
The South Side landmark (2333 S. 6th St.) is undergoing a major renovation, funded by a $7.5 million campaign. Masonry work is well under way, and the next step is lighting the building’s massive dome, which will create a glowing feature for MKE’s night skyline. (TT)
Picardy Shoe Parlour
With locations in Brookfield and Mequon, this shoes, accessories and clothing outpost has been serving those with a taste for the finer things since 1985. Their luxury shoe brands are well known, but what’s not common knowledge is that the shop was the first retailer in the U.S. to offer the now hugely popular lucite and gemstone jewelry designs from Alexis Bittar. (CH)
Plaza Hotel’s Coffee Shop
The Plaza Hotel’s Coffee Shop (1007 N. Cass St.) is definitely a Milwaukee institution, but it’s the kind of institution that makes you want to be institutionalized. Although this place is a gem, it’s not a hidden one, as three line cooks serve up 250-290 meals each day on the weekends. So yes, you may have to wait to be seated. But oh, is it worth it. (CN)