Visiting Milwaukee is like vacationing in a miniature version of Chicago circa 1979–when Chicagofest was still the rage, and the Loop after 5:00 looked like a neutron bomb had hit it, and a strip steak at the Stockyards Inn was a classy meal, and Comiskey Park was crawling with tough guys scanning the bleachers for people to pick fights with. A city of approximately one million, the bratwurst capital of the Great Lakes region has a decidedly unpretentious, shot-and-a-Pabst feel, along with enough cultural and culinary diversity to keep you entertained for about 36 hours.
Getting to Milwaukee, a distance of 80 miles or so from downtown Chicago, is either a harrowing experience or a geriatric one. Route 41 and I-94 merge at the Illinois-Wisconsin border and zoom into the center of downtown. It only takes about an hour and a half to get there, but if the swerving and twisting trigger heart palpitations, you can meander along the Lake Michigan shoreline on Green Bay or Sheridan Road. Then you can check out the Johnson Wax factory in Racine (1525 Howe, 414-631-2000), the Mars Cheese Castle in Kenosha (2800 120th Ave., 414-859-2244), or the roadside stop they call, for unclear reasons, the Bong Recreation Area. Amtrak will drop you off at Union Station in the center of the city, but having a car in the downtown area, which resembles a ghost town at night if there isn’t a Bucks game, is strongly recommended.
Lodging in Milwaukee is no trouble whatsoever, nor is finding a vacancy. The city’s most prestigious hotel, the Pfister (424 E. Wisconsin, 414-273-8222) is an example of what one might call rude elegance–the place is elegant, but the staff is rude. Erected in 1893, the hotel has a polished-marble-and-brass opulence, but I overheard a bellhop telling someone, “That asshole said, ‘Thanks for carrying my bags, my friend.’ I said, ‘Hey, buddy, I’m not your friend.’ The guy tips me anyway. [Laughter].” Rooms are about $90 a weekend night for a double, $129 for a suite. Antiseptic and charmless lodging may be had at the Hyatt Regency (333 W. Kilbourn, 414-276-1234), the usual 70s high-tech, glass-elevator establishment (a double is $99-$199). The best thing it offers is a rooftop bar with a spectacular view of such downtown highlights as the Milwaukee River and the Usinger sausage factory. Cheaper ($59-$69 for a double), basic, but somewhat skankier lodging may be had at the Hotel Wisconsin (720 N. Third St., 414-271-4900).
Germans are more frequently cited for their funky taste in eyeglasses and their ability to make kick-ass cars and stereo equipment than for their cuisine, but Milwaukee’s German heritage still dictates what’s served in its most storied restaurants. The best known is Karl Ratzsch’s (320 E. Mason, 414-276-2720), located just a hop, skip, and belch away from the Pfister. Here dirndl-sporting waitrons deliver tasty, if somewhat dense, portions of wurst, spaetzle, and schnitzel, as well as an excellent selection of beers–all for about $25 a head. A big thumbs-up for the apple strudel and the steins of Sprecher root beer. Similar fare at comparable prices may be had at Mader’s (1037 N. Third St., 414-271-3378), which also has an extensive collection of figurines and other tchotchkes. A cheaper, more Bohemian option is Brewed Awakenings (1208 E. Brady, 414-276-2739), where local artistes chow down on decent $5 tuna melts or hummus platters and, at least when I was there, discuss which professors they’ve slept with at the nearby University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Many locals compare Brady Street, with its collection of small galleries, hippie cafes, and bars–to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury area, though in size and demeanor it more closely resembles Glenwood Street in East Rogers Park.
Also recommended is the cramped but cozy Abu’s Jerusalem of the Gold Restaurant (1978 N. Farwell, 414-277-0485), which serves delicious $3 falafel sandwiches. A pretty hip friend from Milwaukee also swears by the burritos at La Fuente (625 S. Fifth St., 414-271-8595) and the crab cakes at Scotty’s Crab House (1533 E. Belleview, 414-964-5400). And of course there’s always Ed Debevic’s (780 N. Jefferson, 414-226-2200).
Milwaukee is also known for its frozen custard, a tasty item that’s somehow difficult to come by here in Chicago. Rather than suggest a specific location where you can snarf the cold, creamy stuff down, I recommend that you check out the web page (custard.execpc.com), that’s dedicated to the city’s dozens upon dozens of frozen-custard establishments.
During the daytime you can choose from a fair number of cultural things, many of which resemble their counterparts in Chicago–though they aren’t as crowded. Take the famed Milwaukee County Zoo (10001 W. Bluemound Rd., 414-771-3040), which has probably as much if not more acreage than Brookfield and about a third the number of visitors. Looking at animals in cages is always depressing, but at least the critters here–reportedly about 3,000 of them–have room to roam. The reptile and nocturnal-mammal exhibits are particularly cool, despite the stench. A gold star also goes to the lemurs. Another cool spot is the Mitchell Park Conservatory (524 S. Layton, 414-649-9830), which kicks the asses of the Lincoln Park and Garfield Park conservatories. It houses desert, tropical, and other plants–1,200 species–under 60s geodesic domes.
The Milwaukee Public Museum (800 W. Wells, 414-278-2700) has its version of yesterday’s Main Street, with cobblestone replicas of old Milwaukee streets; it also has an Imax theater. Located in the War Memorial Building with a cool view of the lake, the deceptively large Milwaukee Art Museum (750 N. Lincoln Memorial Drive, 414-224-3200) has a little bit of everything, including a surprisingly abundant collection of modern artists such as Picasso, O’Keeffe, Bramson, Paschke, Giacometti, Holzer, and Roger Brown. And of course the Monets. The Charles Allis Art Museum (1801 N. Prospect, 414-278-8295) is a bit stuffy, but it has quite a few artifacts from ancient and not-so-ancient cultures. The Milwaukee Public Library (814 W. Wisconsin, 414-286-3021) has an exhibit of Mad magazines in its rare-books area. Also worth checking out: the Bradley Family Foundation Sculpture Gardens (2145 W. Brown Deer Road, 414-276-6840); you’ll need to make an appointment though.
Nightlife options generally consist of theater, music, and beer–and you’re better off mixing the three. Milwaukee Repertory Theater (108 E. Wells, 414-224-1761), generally recognized as the city’s most respected theater company, features a good roundup of contemporary and classic works by writers such as Tom Stoppard, Brian Friel, and Ann-Marie MacDonald. It has a couple of stages and a cabaret in its state-of-the-art building. Located in an up-and-coming area, Theatre X (158 N. Broadway, 414-278-0555) is thought to be more cutting edge and adventurous, but judging from its recent stiffly acted production of Tennessee Williams’s Vieux Carre, you’d probably be better off at the Rep. Milwaukee Chamber Theatre (also at 158 N. Broadway, 414-276-8842) presents an annual festival of works by George Bernard Shaw. Even more exciting is the rumor that a theater devoted to nothing but rock operas is starting up. The best movie house in town is the Times Cinema (5906 W. Vliet, 414-453-2436), which shows a different classic film each week.
Any city that can give birth to both the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra (414-291-6010) and the Violent Femmes has to have something going for it. On the more stodgy and respectable side of things, the MSO, the Florentine Opera House, and the Milwaukee Ballet Company perform in somewhat irregular fashion at Uihlein Hall in the city’s Marcus Center for the Performing Arts (corner of State and Water streets, 414-273-7121). The 1895 landmark Victorian theater, the Pabst Theater (144 E. Wells, 414-286-3665) is a picturesque setting for touring theater productions, jazz concerts, and recitals.
Major rock acts frequently come to the pink-neon-rimmed Rave, also known as the Eagles Auditorium (2401 W. Wisconsin Ave., 414-342-7283), a strange but atmospheric place to see, if not hear particularly well, a concert. The place where Buddy Holly once played, the Rave resembles a roller rink with folding chairs; the washroom is a good place to get into tiffs with bearded guys in Harley jackets (Him: I’m ahead of you, buddy. Me: Yeah, I think so. Him: I know so, pal.) More seedy loud-music and cheap-brew joints include the Globe (2028 E. North, 414-276-2233) and Shank Hall (1434 N. Farwell, 414-276-7288). Christopher’s (1101 N. Third St., 414-271-6368) hosts evenings of decent blues and jazz. For a more comprehensive listing of hundreds of bands you probably haven’t heard of, pick up a copy of the free weekly the Shepherd Express, at most cafes.
Beer without music is of course also readily available–it’s tough to go a block without seeing a Miller or Old Milwaukee sign in a window. (Weekend tours of the Miller brewery, 3939 W. Highland, 414-963-2000, and the Sprecher microbrewery, 701 W. Glendale, 414-964-2739, are always popular.) One of the stranger establishments is the Safe House (779 N. Front St., 414-271-2007), which features a 60s James Bond motif. Von Trier (2235 N. Farwell, 414-272-1775) is a cool hangout with cheap bottled beer and an outdoor beer garden. Lots of folks like boozing it up at Luke’s Sports Spectacular (1225 N. Water St., 414-223-3210) or Hooligan’s (2017 E. North Ave., 414-273-5230), but both have a decidedly frat-boy aura.
In the summer Milwaukee belongs to the Brewers and Milwaukee County Stadium (201 S. 46th St., 414-933-4114), which, if not the most hospitable baseball stadium in the country, certainly has loads of atmosphere. The Bucks play in the faceless 18,717-seat Bradley Center (1001 N. Fourth St., 414-227-0500), and so does the minor-league hockey club the Milwaukee Admirals, who bear mentioning only because they’re owned by former Blackhawks announcer Lloyd Pettit, the best sports announcer in the history of Chicago.