In 1996, Sandy D'Amato was the first Milwaukee chef to win a James Beard award. His restaurant, Sanford, is still around, and still hard to get into on a weekend night. Since then, restaurants such as Ardent and Braise have also received accolades.
If you want a quick taste of Milwaukee's food scene, check out the Milwaukee Public Market, where independent restaurants, growers and artisans share space for convenient shopping and dining. Buy spices or handmade jewelry, shop a local wine seller or buy cheeses, sausages and fresh produce or grab a bite at one of the many restaurants featuring a wide range of food, from tacos to Thai to a fresh fish market and restaurant. There are plenty of tables on the second level or take your food to go to eat along the river, just yards away.
On our first night in Milwaukee, we showed up during a Thursday night Green Bay Packers game. The bars and restaurants up and down Old World Third Street had their doors and windows open, TVs blaring and beers flowing. We tried the Uber Tap Room, listed on several must-go lists for Milwaukee for its extensive Milwaukee beer selection. But its kitchen was inexplicably closed at 7:30. They recommended a sister restaurant down the street called the Valhalla Nordic Tap House. It was so new, it didn't even have a sign. But the Nordic food (Swedish meatballs) was full of flavor, and they had beer and cheese curds, a Milwaukee staple; for good reason, they are delicious.
For my son, the highlight of the whole trip was probably dinner at the Safe-House restaurant. The food (and beer) were good, but I'm not sure he and his friend even noticed. First, to get into the restaurant you either have to know the password or do something a little silly. We had to put on disguises and do Charlie's Angels poses. A camera captures it all, so when you enter the restaurant, you get a round of applause from the patrons who just watched it on TV. Our table was in a mini jail cell, the waiter called us "spies" and the boys got a card with riddles they had to figure out before their parents told them it was time to go. So it's a little bit escape room, and a lot of fun (there's even a magician!). After 8 p.m., it's an adults-only nightclub. (safe-house.com)
WHERE TO STAY
Not to be confused with the Old World Third Street area, the Historic Third Ward district is also a hip neighborhood full of shops, lofts, restaurants and hotels. We chose the Kimpton Journeyman, a boutique hotel central to everything, where you can get a cup of coffee in the morning and complimentary drinks in the evening, borrow a bike for exploring, play billiards in the lobby or relax in one of the 158 well-appointed and quirky (ours had a dog statue and a yoga mat) rooms. (Rooms start at $219; journeymanhotel.com)
The best reason to visit this hotel has to be the indoor-outdoor rooftop bar and lounge. The night we were there, about 20 fire pits were roaring, and though it was full, it wasn't so crowded you couldn't find a place to sit back and chill with a glass of wine. It's not always beer in Milwaukee.
IF YOU GO
When to go -- Nearly every driver we had mentioned Summerfest, the city's 11-day music festival held along the lakefront in late June, early July. But the weather was perfect on our September trip.
More info -- visitmilwaukee.org; 1-800-554-1448
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