This is the third of a three-part series by our resident Moto-Foodie Ken Aiken. You can find part one here and part two here.
Milwaukee is nicknamed “Cream City” but, sorry to say, this has nothing to do with dairy. The distinctive clay once found on the western shore of Lake Michigan produced a creamy yellow brick when fired. First used around 1830, these bricks became the primary building material used from the 1850s to 1880s and thus a cream-colored cityscape, rather than a ubiquitous brick red, arose.
Carrie Woods from Visit Milwaukee picked me up at the Iron Horse Hotel and we headed along the lakeshore on N. Lincoln Memorial Drive to the old Milwaukee River Flushing Station.
Built in 1880, the flushing station was designed to pump 500-million gallons of water per day from the lake into the Milwaukee River to “flush” stagnant pollutants and sewage down the river. The electric motor, installed in 1912, continues to push water through the 12-foot diameter, 2,534-foot-long tunnel to increase the flow of the river during summer months. However, we were here for breakfast.
Alterra Coffee Roasters was founded in 1993 by two brothers and a friend simply because they wanted a good cup of coffee. They become an early promoter of the Fair Trade Movement and become noted for their green building initiatives— their local stand-alone shops are 100% alternative energy powered. They’ve since grown to become a global brand (Mars Inc./Flavia).
The various names of different districts gives the impression that Wisconsin’s largest city is spread over vast distances, but this simply isn’t so; everything is surprisingly close together. Furthermore, its population has actually decreased from a peak of 750,000 in the 1960’s to 600,000 today and at times its wide city streets seemed almost devoid of traffic. Milwaukee felt more like a large town than a city.
Old World 3rd Street runs between W. Juneau- and W. Wisconsin Avenue. These five blocks are a historic district that feature the Wisconsin Cheese Mart –world’s largest selection of Wisconsin cheese; Usinger’s Famous Sausage —fourth generation of this German family in their original store; Mader’s Restaurant – perhaps the most famous German restaurant in the United States; The Spice House; and Buck Bradley’s— featuring the longest bar in Wisconsin at 75-feet.
From Old World 3rd St. in Westown we headed to a special treat in East Town—a journey of four blocks—we should have walked. The Grohmann Museum (c. 2007) is part of the Milwaukee School of Engineering and houses one of the most notable art collection in the world.
The theme is Man At Work with over 900 European and American paintings from the early 17th to late 20th century forming the core of the exhibit. Yes, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Brueghel, Monet, Remington, Sargent, and other famous artists are represented, but it is the content, the documentation of the transition from agrarian society to the modern industrial world that was so captivating.
I had the rare opportunity to view the sculpture and stained glass in Dr. Eckhart Grohmann’s private office and museum director James Kieselburg explained their relationship to the exhibited artworks. I would have been content spending the entire afternoon in this museum.
A quick stroll was taken through the Pfister Hotel at 424 E. Wisconsin Ave. This is a four-diamond property that contains the largest collection of Victorian paintings of any hotel in the world, and around the block past Dick’s Pizza & Pleasure. There were a number of tantalizing places where we could have had lunch, but the best burgers in the city were to be found on the north side of the Memomonee River.
Sobelman’s Pub & Grill is located in one of the city’s original Schlitz taverns. Despite being sandwiched between Interstate 794 and the industries along the Memomonee River, the joint was doing a brisk lunch-hour business.
It was difficult making a choice from the burger selection, but I finally ordered The Bomb: Black Angus patty—fresh, not frozen—with bacon, fried onions, mushrooms and blue cheese in a bun that is baked locally exclusively for Sobelman’s. I’m usually not a fan of burgers, but if lived in Milwaukee I’d come here at least once a week.
Lakefront Brewery offers one of the best beer tours you’ll find in a city that’s renown for them, so we headed back up the Milwaukee River. It was a home brewing competition between two brothers that resulted in the founding of the company in 1987.
Success required more space and in 1998 they purchased the former power plant of the Milwaukee Electric Railway and Light Company for a dollar. They produced the first certified organic beer in the nation and the first gluten-free beer to receive USDA labeling. Their list of top awards in competitions around the world, even head-to-head against European and Australian brews, is impressive.
Eight bucks buys five 6-oz cups of brew to savor in the beer hall and during the entertaining tour. They must have run out of small cups because what I ended up with seemed more like a half-pint.
The best foodie experience was saved for last. Chef David Swanson creates some of the most creative dishes in the city at Braise. Located on Walker’s Point in the shadow of the Allen-Bradley clock tower this restaurant is part of Braise Culinary School that evolved from Braise RSA (restaurant supported agriculture).
David Swanson has been at the forefront of farm-to-table initiatives and his restaurant and culinary school exemplifies the “locavore” movement. The menu depends upon the season and changes almost weekly. My goal was to sample as many small plates as possible while watching the activity in the open kitchen.
An Internet search shows there are 1400 restaurants listed for Milwaukee, but I experienced merely 15, plus checked out another five, during my stay. There are famous restaurants and neighborhood spots only locals know of.
Some are historic properties, others situated in non-descript storefronts, and many local bars often have amazing menus. Ethnic German, Polish, and Mexican cuisine flourishes along with traditional American and fusion, yet the most striking aspect is the widespread commitment to high quality, locally sourced food.
Motorcycles, beer, and great food: three good reasons to visit Milwaukee.