Moto-Foodie in Milwaukee

17 Sep


I could dimly see through the blacked-out windows of the van as our driver rolled slowly down the narrow alley past a line of overflowing trash bins.  I could smell the river when we stopped at a non-descript doorway. This late in the evening the dim glow of the lamp mounted on the yellow brick wall barely illuminated the small bronze plaque that read, International Exports, Ltd. / 779 Front St. / Estab. 1968. Clad in a London Fog trench coat, our driver merely indicated the heavy door and we quickly stepped through into a small room. Two women barred our way and demanded the password. We had arrived at the Safe House.

This wasn’t London, nor was it a James Bond film, but it might as well have been. This was my first night in Milwaukee and while I could find people who admitted knowing about this long-established watering hole, not a soul would tell me more or divulge the password. Even our driver claimed that he wasn’t privy to it.

Safe House-72

However, it’s no secret that Milwaukee is a motorcycle-friendly town or that was once known as the “beer capital of the world.”  Most of us are on a first-name basis with Miller, Schlitz, Pabst, and Blatz, but the renaissance of craft beer and the amazing foodie scene in Wisconsin’s largest city were excuse enough to linger a couple of extra days before heading home.

The next morning I was dropped off on a corner in the Third Ward.  It was Sunday and the founder of Milwaukee Food Tours, Theresa Nemetz, had invited me on their Bloody Mary Brunch tour.  For the next 2 ½ hours I tagged along as our guide maneuvered a fairly large group through a succession of very busy restaurants, each which featured their own unique spin on the classic Bloody Mary and signature brunch specialties.  It was my understanding that this particular cocktail was a cure for a hangover.  After my fourth Bloody Mary I couldn’t take anymore and switched to Mimosas, yet this was one of the most professional and entertaining guided food tours I’d ever joined.

Bloody Mary-72     absinthe poster-72

For a man who doesn’t that much it was ironic that mid-afternoon found me at the bar of Great Lakes Distillery.  I knew they were producing genuine absinthe, but somehow a couple bottles of experimental hooch were pulled from somewhere and I became a fan.  Vodka, gin, whiskey, and bourbon: I received an education while sampling their products on the working floor by the micro-still.  Their blended whiskey was far too “young” for my taste, but the gin was the best I’ve ever drunk.  Fortunately my temporary abode, the Iron Horse Hotel, was located almost directly opposite the distillery.

iron horse hotel room-72     cafe at the plaza-72

My driver picked me up at 8:15 the next morning and 15 minutes later we arrived at The Plaza.  I’m passionate about Art Deco and so my mood was set as soon as we walked through the doors and found our way to the Café At The Plaza (107 N. Cass St).  This is a farm-to-table establishment presided over by executive chef Christopher Stoye.  Think open kitchen, diner service, and Art Deco décor to get some idea of both the ambiance and attitude of this place.  I managed to put away an astonishing breakfast that featured baked, sherried, black truffled eggs with gruyere.

couquette cafe-72     Milwaukee River Flushing Station-72

The Coquette Café (316 N. Milwaukee St.) is a French bistro, so naturally I immediately tested the kitchen by ordering escargo as an appetizer—and they absolutely nailed it.  I rarely eat burgers, but a visit to Sobeleman’s Pub N Grill (1900 W. St. Paul Ave.) had me convinced they could be a regular part of my diet if I lived in this city.  Braise Restaurant & Culinary School (1101 S. 2nd St.), chef Dave Swanson’s acclaimed farm-to-table restaurant, is situated in the shadow of the Polish Moon, the second-largest four-faced tower clock in the world at the old Allen-Bradley factory. Every single dish sampled was an astonishing culinary delight.  The list of Milwaukee’s great foodie places even includes unexpected places such as Spin, a bar/restaurant in the Third Ward that features a dozen ping-pong tables and Alterra on the Lake, a coffee shop located in the Milwaukee River Flushing Station on the shore of Lake Michigan.

Grohmann Museum mosaic entrance-72

However, despite some fabulous diversions such as watching the opening of the roof wings on the Milwaukee Art Museum, time spent in the archives of the Harley-Davidson Motorcycle Museum, and the astounding Men At Work art collection that is the Grohmann Museum (1001 N. Broadway St.), the purpose of my visit was to gather material for a story about beer.

old beer cases-72     Miller Brewing-72

Pabst Blue Ribbon, “the beer that made Milwaukee famous,” is now brewed at Miller under contract to InBev brands.  The same is true for Schlitz, Colt 45, St. Ides, Lone Star, Olympia, Pearl, Piels, Stroh’s, and Heilmans.  The old Pasbt brewery has just been converted into an exquisite boutique hotel called Brewhouse Inn & Suites, while the original corporate offices for Best, which became Pabst, are located on West Juneau Avenue diagonally across from the old brewery.  Best Place—with its original Blue Ribbon Hall styled after a 17th century German gasthaus—is owned by local beer historians Jim and Karen Haertel.  This is where I learned how Empire Brewing evolved into the Best Brewing Company and finally was renamed Pabst in 1889.

Pabst statue-72     Brewhouse Inn-72

Lakefront Brewery is located along the Milwaukee River and almost beneath the Holton Street Bridge. It offers one of the best beer tours in a city that’s renown for them.  I must admit that the tour is pretty basic, but the guide was a wealth of information and the beer inexpensive and plentiful.  Besides, the best way to tour a microbrewery is with a glass—or plastic cup—filled with beer.

Lakefront Brewery sign-72

A short three-block section of North Old World 3rd Street proved to be an interesting stop.  Here can be found the Wisconsin Cheese Mart –world’s largest selection of Wisconsin cheese; Usinger’s Famous Sausage—4th generation of this German family in their original store; Mader’s Restaurant – perhaps the most famous German restaurant in the United States; and Buck Bradley’s—longest bar in Wisconsin at 75-feet.  All were worth popping in for a few minutes, but it was the Milwaukee Historical Society’s building on Pere Marquette Park that captivated my interest. Built in 1915 as the Second Ward Bank, it was recently restored to its original glory to become one of the settings for “Public Enemies,” starring Johnny Depp.  I went in and introduced myself so I could get a close look at its spectacular 22-ton circular bank vault doors.

N Old World 3rd St sign-72     bank vault door-72

The city’s streets are divided into north and south, east, and west depending upon their position in relation to the Milwaukee and Menomonee rivers and locals will refer to districts Westown, East Town, East Side, the historic Third Ward, and Walker’s Point when giving directions. This city has just under 600,00 residents, is surprisingly compact, and it takes no time at all to get from point A to point B in the historic center.

Milwaukee Brew board-72

The Milwaukee Brewing Co. (613 S. 2nd St.) crafts Polish Moon black stout, Pull Chain pale ale, Booyah ale, and “Admiral” Stache porter among others. The beers crafted by Bert Morton are distinctive and I understand why their brew is in demand far beyond the city limits.  Diagonally across the street is Clock Shadow Creamery (538 S. 2nd St.) the first cheese producer in Milwaukee, and Purple Door Ice Cream (138 W. Bruce St.) where amazing custom flavors are made in small batches.  Obviously things are happening in Walker’s Point.

Schlitz Brewing Co-72   Sobleman's-72

This famous American industrial city fell into a rapid economic decline, but is now enjoying a renaissance of art and culture.  Great architecture and inexpensive property has allowed creative enterprises to take root and this is reflected in the city’s hip, yet laid back, atmosphere.  Three days in Milwaukee was barely enough to get a taste of its vibrant foodie scene.

Google map for locations:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA     Milwaukee morning-72


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