Your Top 5 Restaurants
In each of the last three years, the top-five category has included at least one Bartolotta restaurant. This year it’s three, with Lake Park Bistro (3133 E. Newberry Blvd.) securing the No. 1 spot. Harbor House (550 N. Harbor Dr.) and Bacchus (925 E. Wells St.) snagged the Nos. 3 and 4 positions, respectively. At No. 2, Sanford (1547 N. Jackson St.) continues to build on its platform of seasonal, rulebook-breaking cuisine with James Beard Award winner Justin Aprahamian at the helm. (He’s also part of the new brewery-restaurant Like Minds.) Coming in at No. 5 is the high-end steakhouse Carnevor (718 N. Milwaukee St.), which exudes decadence serving Mangalitsa pork from its parent company’s own farm, along with wet- and dry-aged steaks, foie gras and South African lobster tail.
The top vote-getter proves that great patio ambiance need not be fancy. Tucked in a secluded spot along the Kinnickinnic River, Barnacle Bud’s (1955 S. Hilbert St.) is truly a destination best found by using Google maps. The wooden patio, outfitted with simple picnic tables, adjacent to the no-frills fish shack, has the impression of being out in the sticks when it’s just blocks from busy Kinnickinnic Avenue in Bay View. Second and third, respectively: the rooftop patio of the Third Ward’s Cafe Benelux (346 N. Broadway), and Harbor House, whose expansive patio, set with white Adirondack-style chairs, faces Lake Michigan and, of course, the Calatrava wing of the Milwaukee Art Museum.
Tried-and-true, the people said, when they named Beans & Barley (1901 E. North Ave.) the tops. Burritos, stir-fries, vegetarian chili and tempeh Reubens are things Beans lovers grab for. A strong second, Café Manna (3815 N. Brookfield Rd., Brookfield) puts a creative spin on vegetarian, vegan and raw foods (raw dessert, too). In third place is the newbie Urban Beets Café & Juicery (1401 N. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr.), revving up the near-Bronzeville neighborhood with raw tacos, avocado Reubens and cashew-kale shakes.
Hardly the Nantucket fish “shack” it was slated to resemble when it opened in 2010, Harbor House seized the No. 1 spot with its crisp white elegance and menu of catches, from Lake Superior whitefish and lobster rolls to surf and turf and an oyster bar. Its polar opposite, St. Paul Fish Company (400 N. Water St.) and its boisterous Milwaukee Public Market counter and sit-down area made the No. 2 cut, followed by Maxie’s (6732 W. Fairview Ave.) melting pot of NOLA favorites and other Southern creations like chicken-fried chicken.
According to our readers, the local beef scene is still dominated by Five O’Clock Steakhouse (2416 W. State St.), where the meat comes in ladies’ and kings’ cuts and the timepieces seem to have stopped sometime in the 1970s. Racking up second- and third-place honors are Carnevor (718 N. Milwaukee St.), which took over its late sister Umami Moto’s digs earlier in 2016, and Eddie Martini’s (8612 W. Watertown Plank Rd., Wauwatosa), which fuses white tablecloth-fancy with top-grade steaks, chops and seasonal seafood preps.
Honeypie’s (2643 S. Kinnickinnic Ave.) appeal is Wisconsin comfort food – brioche French toast with local maple syrup; breakfast burger made from grass-fed Wisconsin beef ground in-house. Honeypie’s sister, Comet Café, garnered the No. 2 spot, with a diner-y emphasis that also targets vegetarians (1947 N. Farwell Ave.). And pulling out all the stops with its expansive, feedbag-warranting seafood buffet, Harbor House (550 N. Harbor Dr.) secured the No. 3 position.
With a line to get a table on the weekend, Blue’s Egg (317 N. 76th St.) nailed this category, owing to its sweet and savory something-for-everyone slant. Next in votes Mad Rooster Cafe (4401 W. Greenfield Ave.) sways with its breakfast tacos, Belgian waffles and home-made yogurt. Coming in, coincidentally, at No. 3, Engine Company No. 3 (217 W. National Ave.) takes a global approach to the morning meal (similar to the path its sibling La Merenda takes for lunch and dinner).
Restaurant Worth a Drive
Readers are most often willing to turn their car wheels north to Port Washington for the Twisted Willow (308 N. Franklin St.), which serves Wisconsin comfort food (ingredients culled from an owner’s Grafton farm) inside a converted 1855 building. Runners-up are treks to Sheboygan for Trattoria Stefano’s (522 S. Eighth St.) rustic Italian food and wine, and to Caledonia for Sebastian’s (6025 Douglas Ave.) old-school fine dining (filet mignon to rack of lamb).
By-the-Glass Wine List
In its original North Avenue location (destroyed by fire), Pizza Man became known for, besides cream cheese-topped pies, its list of 300-plus wines by the glass. Readers have given the resuscitated pizzeria (2597 N. Downer Ave.; 11500 W. Burleigh St., Wauwatosa; Oak Creek location to come) the nod again, though the list has been amended to 30 by-the-glass options. Marching behind PM in votes are Balzac Wine Bar (1716 N. Arlington Pl.), with close to 20 reds and whites primarily from California, Italy and France; and c.1880 (1100 S. First St.), with 18 choices heavily weighted on French.
Readers think Elsa’s (833 N. Jefferson St.) is synonymous with “Cosmopolitan.” The long-running Cathedral Square Park bar led this category for its mixed drinks (martinis to Moscow mules). Odd Duck (2352 S. Kinnickinnic Ave.) came in second for its featured and seasonal selections (infusions and syrups made in-house), and in third, Goodkind (2457 S. Wentworth Ave.), whose team – led by well-known bartender Katie Rose – created a craft drink menu that’s perfect for intrepid palates.
Belgian beers are No. 1-voted Café Hollander’s claim to fame, but the restaurant’s brew menu is 15 pages long, and is organized by beer style (2608 N. Downer Ave.; 7677 W. State St., Wauwatosa; 5900 W. Mequon Rd., Mequon). No. 2 Stubby’s Gastrogrub & Beer Bar (2060 N. Humboldt Ave.) keeps its tap list rotating, and has a small list of cellar reserve beers for true beer geeks. Under new owners, No. 3 Karl Ratzsch’s (320 E. Mason St.) is building its tap and bottle list with German and American labels (pale, wheat and dark beers, plus a few radlers and ciders).
Could be the quality and variety of year-round, seasonal and limited-release beers that made Lakefront Brewery (1872 N. Commerce St.) the master of this category, or it could be the brewery tour offering generous samples. But either way, Sprecher (701 W. Glendale Ave., Glendale), known for its root beer and other sodas perhaps as much as beer, gets the silver, and Milwaukee Brewing Co. (613 S. Second St.) the bronze for liquid selections like Louie’s Demise and O-gii and of course brewery tours, because they’re essential in Milwaukee.
Lake Park Bistro is the second fine dining restaurant that restaurateur Joe Bartolotta opened (in 1995) and the one upon which the company stakes its rep. The appeal is a combo of ambiance (historic Lake Park Pavilion, country French decor) and cuisine (a modern twist that balances the Dover sole/foie gras traditional). Trailing LPB in votes is Tosa’s Le Rêve Patisserie & Café (7610 Harwood Ave.), which adds more casual bistro food like croque monsieur and a case of pastries and desserts. Third-place Pastiche Bistro & Wine Bar spent the last year-plus in transition – opening a new location in Brown Deer (4313 W. River Lane) and taking over dining operations at Downtown’s Hotel Metro (411 E. Mason St.).
Already hailed for its beer, Lakefront Brewery (1872 N. Commerce St.) earned another honor for its Friday night beer hall fry (perch, walleye, smelt), complete with live polka. The Packing House (900 E. Layton Ave.), in second place, offers its cod fry in the dining room and by drive-up window. In third, American Serb Memorial Hall (5101 W. Oklahoma Ave.) has been serving fries since 1967. The cod, pollack and perch are also offered at the drive-up window, on Wednesdays and Fridays.
The grilled cheese sandwich (in many forms) is the centerpiece of The Gouda Girls’ (facebook.com/thegoudagirlstruck) menu, and since this is the Dairy State, it’s fitting that the girls would take the top number of votes. Second, though, is Red Light Ramen Truck (redlightramen.com), a seasonal operation that serves noodles outside Central Standard Craft Distillery in Walker’s Point. Plus Red Light’s new brick-and-mortar space is next door to its sister restaurant, Ardent. As Red Light is to ramen, Burgermeister (truckmeister.com) is to burgers. The third-place finisher offers seven burgers (meat and not) during lunchtime (weather dependent) at locations like the U.S. Bank Center.
Glorioso’s Italian Market (1011 E. Brady St.) is paradise for people who don’t cook, and the deli can assemble a hot or cold sandwich (many with an Italian bent), including chicken Parmesan, pepperoni melt and the muffuletta sandwich (previously featured in these pages). The city’s two Jewish delis followed Glorioso’s in votes – Jake’s (1634 W. North Ave.), known for corned beef and pastrami and the news that it has a new co-owner (the company that operates Movida in Walker’s Point), and Benji’s (4156 N. Oakland Ave.; 8683 N. Port Washington Rd., Fox Point), whose hand-carved corned beef Reuben has almost inspired sonnets.
The local coffee wars are fierce, and the survey response break-down of preferences looks like this: Colectivo (with 13 area locations); Anodyne (224 W. Bruce St.; 2920 S. Kinnickinnic Ave.; Milwaukee Public Market, 400 N. Water St.) and Stone Creek Coffee (10 locations and more to come).
Readers ranked their three favorite deals beginning with Maxie’s, whose weekday (4-6 p.m.) offers are $1 oysters, $6 select appetizers and discounted drinks; then Bosley on Brady (815 E. Brady St.), which has a new owner but continues to offer its great-value Mon-Fri deals of $4-$6 apps and slashed drink prices between 4 and 6 p.m.; and finally Swingin’ Door Exchange (219 E. Michigan St.), which offers HH drink specials along with nightly menu deals like panko-fried shrimp.
Milwaukeeans love a value, which makes category winner Conejito’s Place (539 W. Virginia St.) no surprise here. You can get three beef or chicken enchiladas with rice and beans for under $5; No. 2 Swingin’ Door Exchange specializes in value like Saturday night Angus NY strip for $14.95, as does No. 3 Nessun Dorma (2778 N. Weil St.), which keeps a frugal Riverwestian vibe of about $10 or less for most of its menu of panini specials and a pasta night deal.
Lesson learned: You can’t compete with a pancake. Original Pancake House (2625 N. Downer Ave.; 16460 W. Bluemound Rd., Brookfield) – which offers piles of carbs in more forms than you can shake a spatula at – wears the number-one hat proudly. Biting at the pancake house’s coattails are No. 2 and No. 3, the burger joint AJ Bombers (1247 N. Water St.) and Organ Piper Pizza (4353 S. 108th St.), which serves pies and entertainment in the form of a massive theater pipe organ.
In our pie parts, the battle is over who has the best thin, crisp but still chewy crust. No deep dish debates here. Readers bestowed the most accolades on the cracker-thin crust at Tosa’s Balistreri’s Italian American Ristorante (812 N. 68th St.), whose pizzas are old-school and don’t get any fancier than bacon to meld in with the river of cheese. No. 2’s Pizza Man has brought glory to cream cheese, meatballs, giardiniera and Brussels sprouts, one of its best thin-crust creations. East Side legend Zaffiro’s (1724 N. Farwell Ave.) – which has spawned theater-pizzerias in partnership with Marcus Corp. – took its saltine-crust to third place.
Two levels of hummus and hookahs hurled Casablanca (728 E. Brady St.) into first place. But even just a few months into life, Hello Falafel (2301 S. Howell Ave.) – which whips up meatless sandwiches like homemade falafel with charred eggplant spread, lemon tahini and egg – trailed closely behind. Milwaukee Public Market gives Aladdin (400 N. Water St.) the lunchtime visibility it needs for its deli and made-to-order pita sandwiches.
Also spotlighted in Milwaukee Magazine’s “Global Dining” feature in April 2016, Rice N Roll Bistro (1952 N. Farwell Ave.) rolled its nori (seaweed) to victory for our readers with a menu aligning sushi and sashimi with nifty sushi bar creations. For second and third place, respectively, the tide turned to Fujiyama, which keeps its raw fare fresh and affordable (2916 S. 108th St., West Allis; 17395 W. Bluemound Rd., Brookfield), and Izumi’s (2150 N. Prospect Ave.), whose followers are loyal to Fujiko Matsu, the female chef who has run the restaurant since the 1990s.
Opening a suburban outpost – and this year, taking it to franchising level (first stop: West Bend) – has kept No. 1 Sobelman’s (1900 W. St. Paul Ave.; 10352 N. Port Washington Rd., Mequon; 1601 W. Wells St.) on diners’ radar. Finishing this race behind Sobelman’s, Kopp’s has been making its head-sized fast food burgers since 1950 (7631 W. Layton Ave., Greenfield; 5373 N. Port Washington Rd., Glendale; 18880 W. Bluemound Rd., Brookfield), while third-ranked Oscar’s Pub & Grill (1712 W. Pierce St.) keeps jaws stretched to accommodate their thick, juicy burgers, which can come piled with cheese, bacon, avocado, pineapple and even chorizo
The Soup Market may be able to chalk up its success in this category to reach (it has five area locations, plus its summer farmers market visits), but offering a diverse menu (chicken and dumpling to African peanut) helps. Despite lacking a public phone number, Soup Bros. (209 W. Florida St.) keeps its cult status reputation going at No. 2 (you gotta love that thick wedge of warm bread that comes with soups like red pepper bisque); and No. 3 Benji’s (4156 N. Oakland Ave.; 8683 N. Port Washington Rd., Fox Point) just kills it with soups you won’t easily find in this city, like cabbage borscht and chicken matzo ball.
Cajun/New Orleans Style
Maxie’s NOLA-style menu dominated here (it also nabbed the top trophy for Happy Hour), but Crawdaddy’s (9427 W. Greenfield Ave.) took second after just reopening (it had been closed close to three years) in a new West Allis location, where it’s serving up classics like jambalaya, seafood étouffée and shrimp Creole. Part of an entertainment center that includes Evolution ping-pong emporium, The Brass Alley (1023 N. Old World Third St.) ups its third-place momentum with Hurricanes, live DJs and a menu featuring fried gator and shrimp ’n grits.
The loudest cheers go to long-timer Emperor of China (1010 E. Brady St.), whose menu of Chinese-American specialties (crab Rangoon, fried rice, sweet and sour chicken) pulled in the most votes. Trailing behind are Peking House (782 N. Jefferson St.), which balances the expected, popular items (beef and broccoli) with Szechuan fare like hot pot, hong sue eggplant and ma po tofu, and Fortune (2945 S. 108th St., West Allis), which satisfies die-hards for authenticity with crispy duck, prawns with garlic, et al.
Northern Indian dishes like chicken makhani and affordable lunch and brunch buffets swayed voters in Maharaja’s direction (1550 N. Farwell Ave.), while Wauwatosa’s India Garden (2930 N. 117th St.) made second-place strides with its huge selection of tandoori breads and meats, Southern Indian dosas and vegetarian plates. Downtown’s Bollywood Grill (1038 N. Jackson St.) fried its samosas and simmered its tikka masala to third place.
Readers gave Mader’s (1041 N. Old World Third St.) a full beer boot of honors. Is it the Wiener Schnitzel or the $3 million medieval art/antiques collection? Karl Ratzsch’s (320 E. Mason St.), holding second, has been gaining steam since reopening earlier this year, the interior spit-shined and its menu restored, too, by new owner/chef Thomas Hauck. In third place, Kegel’s Inn (5901 W. National Ave., West Allis) draws patrons for its muraled, wooden beamed bierstube flair and popular fish fry, to boot.
Joe Bartolotta opened his first place, Ristorante Bartolotta (7616 W. State St., Wauwatosa), in 1993, and his first still earns top position here. Why? Consistency is one reason. Ristorante has had the same executive chef for 14 years and keeps the menu tailored to diners who have their favorites (there’s also a seasonal menu). Voters chose small and cozy in the two runner-up positions: Bay View’s Tenuta’s (2995 S. Clement Ave.) – known for pizzas (diavola!), scampi and hearty pastas – and Riverwest’s Centro Cafe (808 E. Center St.), which started as a pasta place and, while the menu has expanded to pizzas, still excels with noodles and sauce.
Like Pizza Man’s owners, the group behind BelAir Cantina (2625 N. Downer Ave.; 1935 N. Water St.; 6817 W. North Ave., Wauwatosa; 410 W. Town Square Way, Oak Creek) has increased its visibility and fan base with suburban expansion. Weekly promotions like Burrito Monday Madness and discounted drinks also make a dent. Reader runner-up kudos to Café Corazón (3129 N. Bremen St., 2394 S. Kinnickinnic Ave.), which satisfies meat lovers (beef from the owning family’s farm) and vegans alike; and Cempazuchi (1205 E. Brady St.), whose regional specialties (specifically, moles) set it apart.
The fried catfish, black-eyed peas and banana pudding have spoken: Mr. Perkins’ Family Restaurant (2001 W. Atkinson Ave.) sets the bar for soul food in the city. Bennie Smith opened Daddy’s Soul Food & Grille (754 N. 27th St.) in late 2014 to honor his father. His soul food buffet (offering meatloaf and the popular fried chicken and waffles) is building fans, evidenced by its No. 2 status here. It’s followed in third place by Stella J’s (7434 W. Capitol Dr.), known for smothered pork chops, greens, yams and cornbread.
With its 28-year history in business Downtown, readers still remember The King & I (830 N. Old World Third St.) for its volcano chicken, mango curry and pad thai. Runners-up are more recent additions to the local landscape – Thai-namite (932 E. Brady St.; Milwaukee Public Market, 400 N. Water St.) and EE-Sane (1806 N. Farwell Ave.), both of which offer the traditional/expected soups, curries and noodle dishes.
Readers trumpeted the “modern,” fusion take offered at Hue (2691 S. Kinnickinnic Ave.; 6519 W. North Ave., Tosa), which serves up curries, noodles, fried rice plus Vietnamese fish fry, tiki and beer nights. Next door to Asian market Pacific Produce, Pho Viet (5475 S. 27th St.) brought in the Vietnamese soup- and banh mi-loving contingent; and with a menu that offers something from several parts of Southeast Asia, Mekong Café (5930 W. North Ave.) came in a resounding third.
Not the restaurant you happen upon. Visits to Jackson Grill (3736 W. Mitchell St.) are very intentional and readers weren’t shy in endorsing the Grill’s generous portions of ribs and steaks. Silver and bronze go to Bartolotta-owned Joey Gerard’s (5601 Broad St., Greendale; 11120 N. Cedarburg Rd., Mequon) – which keeps relish tray and raw beef and onions in commission – and the newbie Supper (Shorecrest Hotel, 1962 N. Prospect Ave.), which has the lazy Susan base covered, as well as cocktails (see our “Best Of Milwaukee” old fashioned taste test).
Ann Christenson is senior editor and dining critic.