You know that feeling of clarity that hits you on vacation, that moment when you decide you should just move to wherever you're visiting — sell the house, lose the job, relocate to where you're comfortable and happy right now, before you can reconsider? That feeling that washes over when you're someplace warm and unrealistic? I had that feeling the other day in Milwaukee. If that doesn't sound unlikely enough, let's up the ante: I had that feeling during a weekend in Milwaukee in which the goal was to eat smartly, surprisingly.
To go beyond brats and beer — or at the least goose them, with a clever twist.
Specifically, I had that finally-at-home sensation at Roots Restaurant and Cellar, on Brewers Hill, overlooking a thin, winding river and the vast, flat lots that border downtown to the east. It's nothing radical — chef-farmer-owner John Raymond's elegant 7-year-old haunt pioneered farm-to-table aesthetics here, putting emphasis on his eponymous root vegetables, gathered from nearby farms and served with solemnity.
Roots (414-374-8480, rootsmilwaukee.com) tells a familiar story. Less obvious are honey-glazed parsnips that aren't a vegetarian afterthought.
Our waiter, a slightly goofy close-talker, put a skillet in front of me ringed with what was purportedly baked ricotta gnocchi, though more realistically, engorged cheese dumplings — albeit nestled on top of fried, crisp greens, trumpet mushrooms and a light tomato sauce. It was glossy-food-magazine gorgeous, and inviting, a compromise between the girth I expected of Milwaukee and the soulfulness I found. It was like that a lot. I would cringe at melted Wisconsin cheddar on frisee — then delight at how comforting frisee is in Wisconsin.
The large man seated across from me at Cafe Hollander (414-963-6366, cafehollander.com) on Downer Avenue, on a bright Saturday morning in May, wore a Green Bay Packers sweat shirt and Brewers cap, and his napkin was tucked into his shirt collar then stretched across his stomach like a Snuggie. If I had assumptions about Milwaukee — snobbish, obvious stereotypes, based on nothing more than decades of "Laverne & Shirley," Vince Lombardi, sculpted-cheese headgear and the bronze Henry Winkler statue in Milwaukee's downtown (no joke) — he embodied them.
He also didn't fit in.
Outside was a triangular area scattered with tables — the kind that begs to be in Europe, away from traffic and full of languid readers. Couples in workout suits and flushed faces pushed strollers and browsed the art-house marquee across the street, a portrait of upper-middle-class prosperity. Cafe Hollander itself felt calculated, and did fit in, with the recovered brick walls and rusty hues that read as authenticity in gentrifying neighborhoods. And yet, if I lived here, its familiarity would feel like home. That it's all delivered without a laziness but the right amount of unfussy sincerity, means the world. The bananas on my French toast, sliced lengthwise, had dark, charred grill marks; a waffle was topped with kielbasa and Belgian beer-cheese sauce — it felt like the kind of meal you might assemble during a 3 a.m. refrigerator run.
We drove toward downtown, past Comet Cafe, which has a good bar with bad lighting and where I ate meatloaf and drank too much a couple of years ago. Then we stopped at Brady Street, the fun street, we were told, though it felt more calculated than the mature street (Downer Street), and less charming, a bohemian neighborhood given over to upscale bars and restaurants of little distinction, the reality of most midsize cities with a good-size college. So we followed the smell of bread to Peter Sciortino's Bakery and listened to elderly women attempt to order a cake from a teenager who had lost patience.
Eating our way across Milwaukee had this pace: casual, random, the city throwing off that insular feel of a second-tier place that gave up long ago trying to impress outsiders and now exists for its own contentment.
We had been told by friends in Chicago to seek out the James Beard-certified joints — Sanford, Hinterland — but opted for browsing the Milwaukee Public Market (414-336-1111, milwaukeepublicmarket.org), which is low slung and resembles a bus terminal. At the counter for Kehr's, a longtime Milwaukee candymaker, we bought a "meltaway" chocolate bar, made of chocolate begetting more chocolate, and a rare instance in this life when you can find a candy bar outside a wrapper. Pushing my way through crowds of people in matching T-shirts, newly arrived from a charity walk, I held the candy bar in one hand, an apple-pear-ginger-chai smoothie in the other, and admired the local jelly.
Bea's Ho-Made jelly, in particular. Though someone should tell them about the name.
Same for Best Place (414-630-1609, bestplacemilwaukee.com), which suggests a local dive, though what you find is a castle, a towering brick construction gone gray and black with weathering, ringed with turrets. Best Place is basically a small tavern in a beautiful spot — Blue Ribbon Hall, in the former headquarters of Pabst (which closed in 1996), the room circled with 70-year-old frescoes from Chicago artist Edgar Miller that lay out the history of Pabst and the brewing process. Jim Haertel, a big, boisterous local guy, bought the place a decade ago. He'll give you a personal tour. He doesn't serve food, but his wife, Karen, pulls the tap, and they really don't want you to leave.
The next morning, we swung by Alterra on the Lake, part of a chain of coffeehouses, found in the old Milwaukee River Flushing Station, a water wheel at the center of the room. Out front is a patio, with Lincoln Memorial Drive rushing past and the white, sail-like architecture of the Milwaukee Art Museum just to the south. We had finished the night at Distil, an overly stylized bar downtown with great drinks. The memory of the warm auburn color alone of its Made in Milwaukee — Sprecher's ginger beer, Rishi plum tea, vodka, beneath a thin sudsy layer of Schlitz foam, clever and generous — reminded me how cozy this place was.
Breakfast was south, on the way home, in Bay View, a neighborhood far enough from the supposedly fun neighborhoods to lack any signs of calculation. We ate at Honeypie Cafe (414-489-7437, honeypiecafe.com), Southern, hip, familiar, with tattooed waitresses. The slice of ham on my excellent biscuit was so big it was folded over, tucked inside.
We read the paper, let the morning pass, and when the front room seemed overburdened with people waiting for tables, we turned greedy, lingered over hash browns, asked for more coffee. We were in Milwaukee for 36 hours, an hour from home. As I left Honeypie, I spotted a car against the curb with a telling bumper sticker: "I'd Rather Be Here, Now."