Realistic sense of identity
The best part about Milwaukee, to me, is its honest sense of itself. Unlike cities that seem to have exploded overnight from pieced together trends that developed elsewhere, Milwaukee’s identity is pure and hard won. It was a long slog growing up in the shadow of Chicago, but slowly – painfully slowly – Milwaukee inched awkwardly out of its post-industrial cocoon with all of its former realism and sincerity intact, but with a new sense of do-it-yourself purpose. This has given rise to a natural, inwardly sourced, civic redefinition. The once ugly duckling is now turning heads and making people wonder why they didn’t see it all along. After all, it’s the heart of this town that makes it so enduring – the rest are just accouterments. Hip, but without frill. Sophisticated, but without pretense. Whimsical, but implacably real. This place is about so much more than geography and material. It’s about the roots that stretch deep into historical bedrock and feed a forward-looking vibrancy that cannot be faked or borrowed. This city, no matter how it expands, knows itself and that purity of character is a seedbed for great things. But the weather still mostly sucks!
Lake Park Bistro
Picking a favorite restaurant in this city is nearly impossible, so I’ll go with the one we frequent most, Lake Park Bistro. We love to dine at the bar and have developed relationships with much of the staff. They seem to always do something a little extra for us and that alone keeps us coming back. But the food! The baguette would be worth the trip alone. I love the featured prix fixe menus, but can’t go wrong ordering a la carte. The salade de Roquefort is a must. I mean really, that Roquefort with that bread. Best frites in town by far, too! Their wine list is robust, but approachable and the staff is incredibly well trained and competent. We love the many special events they run throughout the year as well, especially their truffle dinner! During the nicer parts of the year we often ride bikes and appreciate the casual pedal through the park. In the winter the ease of parking makes it a no-brainer before a movie or show. We have seen some flux in quality over the years, but for the most part Lake Park has it all: location, quality, ambiance and consistency!
Oak Leaf Trail
I absolutely love the Oak Leaf Trail, especially at night. I dream of summer evenings where I’m out late, the only one, barreling through the humid darkness. I love the endless streams of little creatures that scurry through the beam of my headlight. I’m an intruder in a secret world. I have a favorite spot where I often stop and check out the stars. No matter the time of day, though, the Oak Leaf is my flyway to most destinations. I take it to the city, the Lakefront, Bayshore and beyond. Sometimes I’ll stop at the Hubbard Park beer garden. Sometimes I’ll take a dirt path into the woods and follow it as far as I can. When it comes to being in the city outdoors I’m definitely happiest when it involves the Oak Leaf Trail.
Milwaukee Public Museum
I recently took my son the Milwaukee Public Museum for its amazing exhibit on weapons. We both loved it. But what really made that day special was wandering the permanent collections. I remember seeing the same displays when I was his age while killing inclement afternoons with my father. It felt like I could see through his eyes and that connection is priceless. Of course there’s also much that wasn’t there when I was young and that provides opportunity for continued exploration. For now I have to say the Milwaukee Public Museum is my favorite place in the city to spend a day indoors.
By far my favorite views of the city come from the water. I love looking back at the skyline from deep inside the breakwater, especially if it is being painted in the reflected colors of fireworks. I love the feeling of being below the city that comes with cruising down the Milwaukee River. And I find the industrial wasteland seen from the Kinnickinnic River to be so disquietingly beautiful. There’s just something about those once purposeful structures and machines redefined by time…
Mario Quadracci is a contributor to our November 2017 issue, writing “Exposing Scientology.”