The California Bucket List: Your daily guide to the best adventures and experiences in the Golden State

Escape to Milwaukee

Chicago Tribune Reporter

When it comes to winter getaways, many of us think warm: Cabo,Jamaica, Miami. These are the literal hot spots, wherebone-chilling winter blahs melt like so many snowflakes into sandybeaches, tropical drinks and balmy sunsets. But a quick jaunt toCabo, Jamaica or even Miami isn't always an option, for obviousreasons: money, timing and availability.

Consider, then, the rogue winter excursion: Consider heading intothe cold instead of warmth. Consider trekking north instead ofsouth. Consider the urban retreat instead of the beach getaway.

In other words, consider Milwaukee.

(It should be noted that as I'm writing this a few days beforeyou're reading this, Miami had a high of 81 F. Milwaukee's was 5 F.But Milwaukee has butter burgers.)

Sure, it's cold there. Big deal. You can handle it. Plan a weekendfull of fireside relaxing and comfort-food dining. And shopping.And indoor sightseeing. And Old World culture. Milwaukee, afterall, is a metropolis, which means we will feel right at home.

So what's the advantage of heading to a freezing city?

For starters, the traffic -- or lack thereof. There's hardly anycongestion in Milwaukee, even during Friday rush hour. Plus,there's parking everywhere -- much of it free, or shockingly cheap.A quarter will buy you an hour.

And then there's the food. Beyond the bevy of brats and cheesecurds, Milwaukee's dining scene is surprisingly satisfying. Yes, Idid have a butter burger -- correction: I had a veggie butterburger. (Note to vegetarians: You'll do fine here.) But I alsoindulged in a leisurely Saturday night dinner for two at arestaurant whose executive chef was nominated last year for a James Beard award. Everything right down to the dessert was perfect, andthe bill was less than $175 for the two of us, including drinks,tax and tip.

Consider, too, the fact that Milwaukee knows the cold well, and hasplanned accordingly. Should you visit the Milwaukee Art Museum (andyou should), take your time in the parking garage -- it's heated.The museum itself, of course, is fabulous. Beyond the new wingdesigned by starchitect Santiago Calatrava, there's an enormouspermanent collection that rivals most major cities'. It houses oneof the largest collections of Georgia O'Keeffe paintings in thestates, a cool gift shop and stunning views of Lake Michigan. Notto mention, its exhibitions are top notch. Don't tell the Art Institute of Chicago, but I kind of like Milwaukee's art museumbetter.

I also like its coffee better. Milwaukee's Intelligentsia, so tospeak, is Alterra Coffee Roasters, and there are a half-dozenoutposts (my favorite is the Fifth Ward Foundry) at which one cansip the strong stuff; eat a melt-in-your-mouth provolone, cheddarand pepperjack grilled Wisconsin cheese sandwich; and lingerawhile.

Friday night fish frys are virtually everywhere in this town --winter and summer -- and some are better than others. I took mychances on a new place in the suburbs, namely for the fact that I'dread it boasted a fireplace. Still dusted with snow from a bigstorm the week prior, the Pleasant Valley Inn was a cozy wintryoasis, right down to the snowman stationed at the entryway. Thelighting is dim, the soundtrack is Frank Sinatra, and wood panelingis everywhere. Oh, and the fish fry wasn't half bad. Besides,everything tastes better fireside.

Actually, everything is better fireside. Even sleeping. Such wasthe rationale for booking a semi-pricey (for Milwaukee) room at theEuro-style boutique Hotel Metro. It's housed in a historic art decobuilding in the East Town neighborhood, and it's all suites, anumber of which have gas fireplaces. Further winter relaxing comescourtesy of a rooftop spa with a saltwater hot tub, a sauna… and a mini-workout room in which to burn offsome of that guilt stomached with all the good food here.

Speaking of food … That delectable Saturdaynight dinner for two took place at Bacchus, the newest restaurantin Milwaukee's renowned chain of Bartolotta Restaurants, founded bybrothers Paul and Joe Bartolotta. It's named for the Roman god ofwine, and how: Bacchus has hundreds of wines on offer, fromreasonably priced glasses of Australian shiraz to a $1,200 bottleof Bordeaux. As for dinner? Flawless. The brothers are alsoresponsible for Bartolotta's Lake Park Bistro, poised north ofdowntown in a stunning location overlooking Lake Michigan. It'sexcellent for dinner but famous for its Sunday brunch, a prix fixewith three perfect courses of casual French bistro fare. The cremebrulee, by the way, is rich enough to earn Milwaukee its Cream Citynickname all over again.

Beyond its restaurants, Milwaukee is a brew town, and there's noshortage of pubs at which to drink the sudsy stuff -- or learn howit's made. A tour of the Miller Brewing Co. is free, as are twocomplimentary samples at its conclusion. Microbreweries tend to bea bit more generous. The Sprecher Brewing Co., for instance, a tinyoperation headquartered just down the street from Solly's Grille(home of the aforementioned veggie butter burger), offers a brieftour and four samples for $3, plus unlimited quaffing of its tastyroot beer and sodas, and the beer-sampling glass is yours to keepwhen you leave.

Milwaukee's brew town legacy extends to architectural tours -- goodnews for gloomy days. The Pabst Mansion, on the edge of theMarquette University campus, is the massive graystone residencebuilt for beer baron Capt. Frederick Pabst in 1892, and it's a truemansion, by every definition of the word: It's grand, it's old,it's hand-crafted, and you're not allowed to touch anything. Butit's warm inside.

Also exceptionally warm: the Milwaukee Public Museum's butterflyconservatory, where it's a balmy 80 F year-round. The rest of thepermanent exhibits are rather dated. "The Streets of OldMilwaukee," which showcases European immigrants' 1880s abodes,opened in 1965 -- and doesn't appear to have changed much since.But big-time visiting exhibits, like the current "Body Worlds," area regular feature, and when coupled with admission to the Daniel M.Soref Planetarium, the $15 twofer ticket is a fine way to whileaway a winter afternoon.

If you venture into the cold at night, parking is a godsend, evenin hip 'hoods like the East Side. On my Friday night visit, Iscored a spot right in front of Hooligan's Super Bar, a 70-year-oldneighborhood favorite that draws a diverse local crowd. There are arotating 32 brews on tap, including local microbrews like Lakefrontand Sprecher, and hundreds more taps decorate the walls. Acrosstown at the Old German Beer Hall on Old World Third Street, parkingwas a little tougher, but worth it: Pints of Munich-brewedHofbrauhaus flowed here like, well, beer, occasionally intooversized glasses shaped like boots -- the accessory of choice. Therunner-up? An antiquated cross-country ski to which five shotglasses were affixed so that brethren can happily drink (or spill)in unison.

I challenge Miami to show me that kind of camaraderie.

Getting around:

Cabs can be scarce in some neighborhoods, so having your own car isa must -- especially in winter weather -- but inexpensive parkingis abundant.


Any of the Bartolotta Restaurants are safe bets for an excellentdining experience. Bacchus (925 E. Wells St., 414-765-1166; ) has a mouthwatering menu with anemphasis on seafood, and the space is stylishly modern -- andincredibly comfortable. Uptown is Bartolotta's Lake Park Bistro (3133 E Newberry Blvd.; 414-962-6300; ), home of the aforementionedglorious French bistro-style, prix-fixe Sunday brunch, with anincomparable view of Lake Michigan.

If you're going all out, there's Sanford (1547 N. JacksonSt.; 414-276-9608; ), which has toppedMilwaukee's fine dining elite for years. But just as good is chefSanford D'Amato's newer, more affordable Coquette Cafe (316N. Milwaukee St., 414-291-2655; the Historic Third Ward. Coquette does the French brasserieclassics -- salade nicoise, soupe a l'oignon, coq au vin --expertly, and it's priced within reason for a night out. Decidedlyunpretentious is the cozy Pleasant Valley Inn in the nearbysuburb of West Allis (9801 W. Dakota St., 414-321-4321), featuringclassic Italian steak and seafood entrees and a Friday night fishfry.

For a quick bite -- and a taste of Milwaukee's downtown resurgence-- pop into the Milwaukee Public Market (400 N. Water St.;414-289-3107;, opened two yearsago and home to dozens of vendors peddling meats, baked goods and,of course, Wisconsin cheese.

Street food isn't out of the question either, even in wintertime.During prime bar time, vendors up and down Old Third World Street(between State Street and Juneau Avenue) sell brats, polishsausages and dogs with all the fixins' for an average of $3.50.

Another quick, easy meal: Grab a sandwich and a cup of joe at anyof the unique Alterra Coffee Roasters locations ( in Brew City. Speaking of brews,The Wicked Hop (345 N. Broadway; 414-223-0345; pub food with an emphasis on pub, not to mention the largestcheese sticks this fromage-phile has ever seen.

Don't forget the butter burger -- and Culver's doesn't count:Solly's Grille in Glendale (4629 N. Port Washington Rd.,Glendale; 414-332-8808) claims to be the birthplace of the butterburger, which it's been serving since 1936. Save your frozencustard cruisin' for the summertime: Leon's Frozen Custard(3131 S. 27th St.; 414-383-1784) is open all year but doesn't haveany indoor seating.


Milwaukee isn't big on the independent and boutique hotels, butthere are a few worth mentioning: Hotel Metro (from $199;411 E. Mason St.; 414-272-1937; ) is a suites-only art deco gemon the east side of downtown. The beds are comfortable, and theservice is excellent, but it pales in comparison to the renownedPfister Hotel down the block (from $179; 424 E. WisconsinAve.; 414-273-8222;, which has been a Milwaukeeinstitution since it opened in 1893.

What to do

Winter, schminter. The Milwaukee Art Museum (700 N. ArtMuseum Dr.; 404-224-3200;< a href=""target="_blank"> is open year-round -- with a heatedparking garage, to boot. Also open year-round: the Milwaukee Public Museum (with its balmy butterfly conservatory) andDaniel M. Soref Planetarium (800 W. Wells St.; 414-278-2702;; theCaptain Frederick Pabst Mansion (2000 W. Wisconsin Ave.;414-931-0808;; and the Sprecher Brewing Co.(701 W. Glendale Ave., Glendale; 414-964-2739; ), where you warm up with samplebrews before heading back out into the cold.


Greater Milwaukee Convention & Visitors Bureau,800-231-0903;

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