THIS STORY IS PART OF DINING EDITOR ANN CHRISTENSON’S 2023 BEST RESTAURANTS PACKAGE. CLICK HERE TO READ MORE FROM THE FEATURE.
Note: Restaurants are listed in alphabetical order (sorry, Union House!)
It’s been four years since the Bartolottas set out to change the perception of this 19-year-old fine dining establishment as just for special occasions. They brightened up the interior, making it more modern, less stodgy. It feels more inclusive now – a win in my book.
Vibe: On the formal side, which seems fitting for Cudahy Tower, with a big city masculinity that attracts local movers and shakers – and lovers of imaginative fine dining
What to order: Executive chef Nick Wirth’s foie gras preparation, the fish dishes and always a dessert, whether it’s a pear tarte tatin or chocolate hazelnut pave
Of note: Known for offering impeccable wines, including the sommelier’s designated favorite bottles
Where: 925 E. Wells St., 414-765-1166
The largest restaurant on our Top 25 list is Bacchus, which seats 154 in its main dining room and conservatory. Contrast that with EsterEv, the restaurant inside DanDan, which seats just 30.
After moving into new digs last spring – open, airy and modern, with a more visible footprint on Broadway – I realized how cramped the original location was, though I loved its intimacy. But the new one is stylish, warmly lit and roomier and still has a working kitchen on display. Diners feel connected.
Vibe: One of the “in” spots – a fashionable foodie destination
What to order: Hamachi crudo, burger with beef tallow fries, roasted carrot salad, butcher’s cut steak
Of note: Just inside the entrance, you can shop for frozen prepared meals, cheeses and charcuterie, pretty tableware and more.
Where: 217 N. Broadway, 414-273-3375
The merging of a farm-to-fork ethos with simple, unobtrusive plates is a trademark of owner/chef Kyle Knall’s cooking. Though Wisconsin winters seem like a stumbling block, they’re not here. Knall, culinary director of Stone Bank Farm Market, stays committed to local sourcing, keeping the menu fresh and always changing. And he understands seasoning – herbs are used plentifully and flavors are bright.
Vibe: Busy and buzzing – great for people-watching, not for a quiet meal. But I say embrace it and snag some seats at the wine bar or the kitchen counter, where you’ve got a food reality TV show playing out in front of you.
What to order: The rich hearth-baked focaccia, charred beef tartare, chicken under a brick
Of note: A great Tues-Fri happy hour with drink deals and delicious $8-$9 snacks
Where: 459 E. Pleasant St., 414-323-7372
The farm-to-table retreat operates as not just a restaurant, but a cooking school, special event space and source to buy fresh eggs, frozen meats and pantry items. The menu is less hefty than in years past and focuses on small plates, with a couple of large-format dinner specials on the weekend. The multi-prong approach could create a scattered, unfocused quality, but this one manages to feel centered.
Vibe: A warm, handsome historic space with a tin ceiling, lots of old wood (from its days as a bowling alley) and strong foodie appeal
What to order: Seasonal items might feature white bean salad with chicken confit, merguez meatballs, and Korean pork tenderloin
Of note: The cooking classes include one-night offerings (on cassoulet or dim sum favorites, etc.) and a whole semester on the fundamentals of cooking and baking.
Where: 1101 S. Second St., 414-212-8843
Not only does this spot give pasta its much-deserved due, it’s run by two of the most passionate people in the local food industry, Zak and Sarah Baker. Between his inspired cooking and her front-of-house wizardry, you walk out of here going, “Wow.”
Vibe: Modern and minimalist; the one bit of fancy being the dishes – vintage in pretty, feminine patterns. Sit at the pasta counter for maximum drool-worthy viewing.
What to order: Changes happen often, but you can fall back on any of the handmade pastas, seasonal risotto and addictive house focaccia
Of note: Really interesting (and tasty) cocktails, like the Vecchio Amico, made with house-made brown butter-infused bourbon, sage, citrus and bitters
Where: 6030 W. North Ave., Wauwatosa, 414-312-8968
Tony is the word I want here. Over 17 years, the SURG Restaurant Group has buffed and glossed this meat monument where diners splurge on high-end Japanese Wagyu. Executive chef Mario Giuliani is really good at building flavors, and while many will balk at the prices, it’s hard to think of a local place where steaks – and their accoutrements – are as beautifully done.
Vibe: An exclusive, flashy, cave-like scene where patrons want to be taken care of
What to order: Wagyu brisket, the seafood “fix” (includes king crab legs and colossal shrimp), bone-in filet, 60-day dry-aged bone-in ribeye, lobster mac and cheese
Of note: The wine program, which features over 800 selections by the bottle and 42 wines by the glass
Where: 718 N. Milwaukee St., 414-223-2200
In 2022, the city of Milwaukee issued 262 New food dealer/restaurant licenses.
When chef Peggy Magister closed Crazy Water, known for its behind-the-bar “kitchen,” and replaced it with an elevated take on Latin cuisine, I remember wondering if this was a misstep. But Magister has since sold the business to Emmanuel Corona – her longtime chef at Crazy Water – and the menu, with bows to his native Mexico, is a delight.
Vibe: Long ago the home of a German tavern, the historic bar character remains (complete with an old tin ceiling), combined with deeper colors and Mexico-inspired murals.
What to order: Chilitos rellenos (fried jalapeno stuffed with duck confit), salmon encrustado, lamb shank birria
Of note: The drink menu’s tequila and mezcal flight, and the tart, delicious margaritas
Where: 839 S. Second St., 414-645-2606
8. The Diplomat
Yes, this handsome bar-and-dining room is busier since chef/co-owner Dane Baldwin won a James Beard Award in 2022. But it’s as grounded as it ever was. There’s a depth to this food – a mix of small and shareable plates – that might not be obvious because it isn’t flashy. Just well executed.
Vibe: Visualize a warm living area-like dining room, lit by vintage lamps, where many little dinner parties are going on. The foodie crowd is mellow.
What to order: Chicken leg confit, The Diplomac burger, and the Knife and Fork Chicken (a full meal for two)
Of note: The servers – sometimes co-owner Anna Baldwin – are gracious, attentive and as unassuming as the chef.
Where: 815 E. Brady St., 414-800-5816
The city’s only restaurant-within-a-restaurant – open Friday and Saturday nights inside DanDan – allows owner-chefs Dan Jacobs and Dan Van Rite to explore in imaginative, elevated ways, without the confines of a standard daily menu. The menu is prix fixe multi-course and while more esoteric than familiar, it’s still very approachable. This “social experiment” (as Jacobs has called it) shows the disarming, delectable things that happen when chefs have the ability to just create.
Vibe: A small dining room (set apart from DanDan’s) that’s relaxed and uncluttered
What to order: The eight-course tasting menu might feature caviar tater tots, ricotta dumpling with pickled apples, dry-aged duck with braised cabbage and baked Alaska
Of note: EsterEv is named after the chefs’ grandmothers, Ester and Evelyn.
Where: 360 E. Erie St., 414-488-8036
This cozy Bay View hideaway is a happy union of remarkable food and drinks. That’s owing to the supergroup ownership of chefs Paul Zerkel and Lisa Kirkpatrick, B.J. and Jessica Seidel of Burnhearts bar, and Katie Rose, who completes the circle with a bangin’ cocktail menu. It’s just the ideal place to land any night with your most fierce of appetites because you know this seasonal American menu will slay.
Vibe: Laid-back and a little quirky, which could define the crowd, too
What to order: Champagne-battered oyster mushrooms, spicy crab pasta, anything from the rotisserie, one of Kirkpatrick’s magical desserts
Of note: Open Monday nights – hard to find these days – but closed on Wednesdays and Thursdays
Where: 2457 S. Wentworth Ave., 414-763-4706
11. Harbor House
In recent years, Bartolotta Restaurants’ New England-style seafood exemplar has approached its experience as a journey – one set along the shore of Lake Michigan, with the majestic Calatrava wing of MAM visible just outside the windows. The classy, streamlined decor (lots of white) keeps the attention focused on what matters: the food.
Vibe: Lots of awed first-timers, gregarious groups and couples on romantic dates
What to order: With seafood flown in fresh daily, you can’t go wrong with oysters, crab cakes, cioppino or specialties like whole grilled branzino and pan-seared rainbow trout.
Of note: A table next to the windows is the most intimate option, but there’s a fabulously fun table across from the kitchen where you can watch the chefs work.
Where: 550 N. Harbor Dr., 414-395-4900
Four James Beard Award-winning chefs are featured in this story. Adam Siegel (2008), Justin Aprahamian (2014) and Dane Baldwin (2022). The Bartolotta Restaurants owner Paul Bartolotta has two JBF awards (1994 and 2009).
There’s a mystique to this 28-year-old French bistro, the Bartolotta brothers’ second-born, and in many ways, their golden child. Paul Bartolotta classifies it as memory-making, and even a simple weeknight meal at the bar feels like a special occasion.
Vibe: Elevated but unpretentious, a tasteful mix of white cloth-topped tables, French poster art and those defining fabric-and-tassel lampshades that make the space feel like it belongs in a Toulouse-Lautrec painting
What to order: French country pâté, steamed mussels, classic steak frites, sole meunière (filleted at your table)
Of note: Special dinners celebrate regional French wines and the arrival of seasonal ingredients like black truffles (an occasion LPB has fêted for 20 years).
Where: 3133 E. Newberry Blvd., 414-962-6300
The Pfister Hotel has had a few failed fine dining restaurants – old-timers will remember the subterranean English Room – but Mason Street Grill pretty much has all the right stuff – a classic modern steakhouse look, a menu that covers all the necessary hotel restaurant bases (burger, steak, fish) and personalized service that makes you feel like you’re the only table in the room.
Vibe: Bustling upscale steakhouse made for a slow, civilized meal
What to order: Crab cakes, fried surf clams, scallops, bone-in ribeye
Of note: The lively bar/lounge hosts nightly music by local artists.
Where: 425 E. Mason St., 414-298-3131
Prices: $$$ -$$$$
14. La Merenda
Just when you think maybe the globally driven small plates craze has run its course, you come here and remember how hearty and satisfying tapas-style dining can be. This Walker’s Point reliable – which chef Peter Sandroni opened in 2007 – offers a rich trip that I frankly don’t take often enough.
Vibe: A draw for foodies who like to explore myriad cuisines (Indian to Argentinian), this rustic, renovated former woodworking shop feels like a party – casual, with lots of chattering and plate sharing going on.
What to order: Empanadas, house-made gnocchi, Argentinian-style beef, Spanish patatas bravas with chorizo
Of note: The charming seasonal patio acts as a peaceful break from the cacophony of city life.
Where: 125 E. National Ave., 414-389-0125
Fans of this almost-9-year-old named after the prized fungus love its under-the-radar appeal. Owner Jonathan Manyo has never courted attention, at least not from the media, and its greatness is based on consistency and overall quality. You can order most anything here – emphasis on local sourcing and rich, seasonal dishes – and not leave wondering if you made any menu missteps.
Vibe: An informal, airy, rustic-industrial space where you can focus on the food, not who’s in the room
What to order: Mushroom fricassee, smoked ham biscuit, lamb carpaccio, pheasant breast, lamb shank
Of note: The hidden backyard patio is lovely for quiet summer night dining. Plan ahead for three nights of dinners focusing on its namesake mushroom May 23-25.
Where: 430 S. Second St., 414-897-0747
16. Odd Duck
Leaving behind its original location in Bay View a year ago, this transplant has never wanted for imagination when it comes to its small plates menu. If anything, I sometimes wonder if they take things a wee bit too far. But the execution is usually spot on – closely overseen by executive chef Sam Ek – and the front of house staff is simply grand – earnest, enthusiastic and committed.
Vibe: Fast-paced and seemingly always busy, one of the hotter spots in Walker’s Point. Clientele leans young and hip.
What to order: Don’t get sentimental, as the menu changes often. Look for globally inspired dishes such as Vietnamese beef short ribs, Siberian pelmeni dumplings and Brazilian seafood stew.
Of note: The spacious bar with windows facing Second Street is an excellent spot to grab a drink and a snack.
Where: 939 S. Second St., 414-763-5881
In the 15 years this dynamo has been conjuring up French culinary magic, it’s made even the most recognizable, traditional dishes seem fresh. Owner-chefs Andy Schneider and Therese Hittman have created a well-oiled machine that serves everyone from the casual crepes-for-lunch lovers to the fussy seekers of sophisticated dinner fare. Always well done.
Vibe: A handsomely restored bank building with seating on two floors, it’s often packed with Tosa Francophiles and can be on the noisy side.
What to order: Croque-monsieur (lunch menu), coq au vin, bouillabaisse, steak au poivre
Of note: Le Rêve’s sister business, Troquet, offers demo-style cooking classes with visiting chefs.
Where: 7610 Harwood Ave., Wauwatosa, 414-778-3333
The eldest of The Bartolotta Restaurants – now 30 years old! – pays tribute to la famiglia. Longtime executive chef Juan Urbieta is like a culinary travel writer, weaving stories into his changing regional Italian menu series. Recently those roads have led us through the white truffles of Piedmont to the risotto and osso buco of Lombardy.
Vibe: The cozy, modest dining room decorated with old family photos and homey curtains feels like being invited into a great cook’s home.
What to order: Anything Urbieta puts on this prix fixe, multi-course menu, which through March 23 celebrates Umbria (known for its truffles)
Of note: La Terrazza, the outdoor courtyard open seasonally, is the area’s most comfortable dining room under the stars.
Where: 7616 W. State St., Wauwatosa, 414-771-7910
The respect for history and tradition established by founders Sandy and Angie D’Amato flows through everything here – the food (chef Justin Aprahamian has carried over a few dishes from the D’Amato era); the perceptive, personal service; and the quiet, refined setting.
Vibe: Polished and tranquil, the room reflects its sophisticated clientele.
What to order: From the changing $95 four-course prix fixe menu, I gravitate to dishes featuring game birds like quail and also beef tenderloin (which I so rarely find interesting), plus those made-to-order desserts – luscious.
Of note: The seven-course surprise tasting menu ($120), available Tues-Fri, is a worthwhile splurge.
Where: 1547 N. Jackson St., 414-276-9608
Owners Kyle Toner and Paul Damora come from Jersey and offer simple Italian comfort food like chicken parm and rigatoni alla vodka, paying homage to their Italian-American heritage. That gives them exclusive admission to the Milwaukee modesty club, restaurant edition. But
far from lowbrow, Toner gives these homespun dishes grace.
Vibe: A high-energy space – busy! – with historic, rustic Cream City flair
What to order: Arancini, cavatelli with Monday sauce, Duroc pork ribeye, any of the pizzas
Of note: The kitchen team shows flair and fun in their nightly menu specials such as wood-roasted steak ciambotta in a veal demi.
Where: Kinn Guesthouse., 2535 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., 414-301-6255
Eight of our Top 25 restaurants use a foreign term in their monikers. For example, Le Rêve (French for The Dream), La Dama (Spanish, The Lady) and Sorella (Italian, Sister).
21. Story Hill BKC
There’s always been something, for me, about almost 13-year-old Story Hill. Executive chef/co-owner Joe Muench built the premise on unencumbered Upper Midwest flavors. And even if I’ve arrived here sort of half-hungry, I’m suddenly ravenous when the plates hit the table. And the larger plates are shareable, so it’s a great spot to come with friends.
Vibe: Elbows-on-the-table, Packers sweatshirt casual and as down-to-earth as its neighborhood home in west Milwaukee
What to order: Milwaukee beef tartare, crayfish Rangoons, pork chop schnitzel, Story Hill steak
Of note: Free Friday wine tastings offered in the adjacent bottle shop
Where: 5100 W. Bluemound Rd., 414-539-4424
22. Sze Chuan
A diamond for devotees of authentic Chinese cuisine, with emphasis on Sichuan Province, this strip mall sanctuary stimulates the palate with intricate explosions of flavor. It’s a gathering spot for folks who look beyond the pedestrian, mainstream lens for specialties that also feel like home – even if it’s a home far, far away.
Vibe: No frills and casual, the air scented by spices and hospitality
What to order: Szechwan spicy pork dumplings, brothy fei teng fish, cumin lamb, dry chili chicken, hot pot
Of note: Lucky Chinese Bakery (for steamed buns and roast pork, among other greats) is in the same strip mall.
Where: 11102 W. National Ave., West Allis, 414-885-0856
A dining establishment that opened during that rough pandemic year of 2020, Tavolino (Italian for “Little Table”) builds on the history of its East Side location – decades of serving pizza and pasta with red sauce. The pizzas, based on recipes from predecessor Palermo Villa/Divino, are good, but they’re not the main reason I come here. It’s for the modern side of the menu that offers the unexpected. There are dreamy, meal-making apps, to start. Savory donuts with garlic confit sauce? Yes, please.
Vibe: A chameleon – nice for a casual ’za with friends; romantic for a couple’s night out
What to order: Ragù alla Bolognese, eggplant Milanese, cacio e pepe pasta, sirloin Marsala
Of note: Many types of Italian amaros (the bitter Italian digestif), enjoyed neat or on the rocks
Where: 2315 N. Murray Ave., 414-797-1400
When this heavy hitter opened in 2016, it quickly showed there was room in the market for more fresh fish and seafood. Over time, the menu has added more turf to the surf, broadening its appeal. If you want to impress someone special, bring them here.
Vibe: A glitzy-glam spot – with glowing light, brass and gold-like accents and a gorgeous white marble bar – that feels elegant and special
What to order: Lobster potholes, tuna tartare, wild striped bass, “dinosaur” short ribs
Of note: TCP has a new brick-and-mortar sibling and Milwaukee Street neighbor – Flourchild, specializing in pizzas with unusual but tasty toppings (i.e., crab Rangoon).
Where: 724 N. Milwaukee St., 414-323-7434
25. Union House
Starting as a hotel in the 1860s, this charming inn-like space houses a restaurant that has a long reputation for serving memorable meals. Under new ownership since 2020, when the previous owners of some 30 years retired, the Union House continues to impress. Not just the cuisine, which combines classic fine dining and fusion twists, but the service, too – professional and gracious yet not offputtingly formal.
Vibe: A modern-traditional hybrid – country gourmet, they like to call it – that feels like an evening getaway
What to order: Beef carpaccio, lamb meatballs, duck, scallops, bone-in ribeye, schaum torte
Of note: Known for an extensive selection of bourbons and Scotch, and I mean the good stuff
Where: S42 W31320 Highway 83, Genesee Depot, 262-968-4281
$ Entrées Under $15
$$ Enrées $15-$24
$$$ Entrées $25-$34
$$$$ Entrées $35+