On a recent evening I kicked back with friends over one of the best grilled cheese sandwiches I've ever consumed and a glass of cava, which is Spanish sparkling wine. Seated in the al fresco area of Firefly Bar & Grill in Wauwatosa, an intimate space off the dining room, the chandeliers overhead whisked us away to another place (Paris, perhaps?). In addition to cava, there are 16 other wines poured by the glass at Firefly.
Faced with a burst of warm weather as autumn kicks into high gear, there are quite a few patios in Milwaukee that offer fabulous wine lists.
Here are my top five picks, in addition to Firefly Bar & Grill.
Ryan Braun's Graffito
Chic wicker furnishings in a chocolate-brown woven fabric beckon on the patio of Ryan Braun's year-old restaurant, next to the bridge on Water Street where the Third Ward meets Walker's Point. Just as the food selections focus on Italy, so does the wine list with selections from many regions, including Tuscany, Veneto, Sicila, Piedmont, Abruzzo, Trentino-Alto Adige and Umbria. Slink back into a chair, slip on your sunglasses and watch the boats float by on the Milwaukee River. Braun chose prime real estate for his first restaurant, and it shows.
What looks like an asphalt parking lot a half block off bustling Brady Street is actually one of the coolest spots to sip wine outdoors. Shielded from the sun, a cute little garden-type environment is shaded and just behind the main dining area in Balzac. Since opening six years ago, the wine list here has been full of surprises, including finds from boutique wineries that don't get much distribution elsewhere in Wisconsin. If you go on Sunday or Wednesday you can probably sample more of the 200-plus selections because it's at a discount. On Wednesday starting at 6 p.m. half-bottles and splits are 50 percent off. Sunday is Raid the Cellar night, when at 8 p.m., select reserve bottles in the cellar are half off.
Roots Restaurant and Cellar
Earlier sunsets means you can experience the glow of downtown Milwaukee's skyline much sooner in the evening. Right outside of the two-story restaurant's cellar, which is on the ground floor, are lounge-style chairs and sofas with stylish cushions. Or, grab a table on the tiered patio where khaki-colored umbrellas protect you from the sun during daylight – but don't block the gorgeous view. Fourteen wines are available by the glass, with a strong focus on the U.S. West Coast (Oregon's Willamette Valley and California's Central Coast) as well as France, Germany and Italy. Quite a few of the producers selected are very into biodynamic and sustainable growing practices, such as Alma Rosa Winery, Adelsheim Vineyard and Dr. Loosen.
Il Mito Trattoria & Enoteca
If it's a sidewalk experience you crave, as opposed to a quaint and quiet patio, Il Mito is the place. Tables are set outside the North Avenue restaurant, in Wauwatosa's busy corridor, on warm afternoons and nights. A wine list of almost entirely California and Italian finds includes a classic, inexpensive California sparkling (Korbel) and a Barolo from Piedmont, Italy (at $61, the most expensive) that is described as "having black fruit flavors and robust tannins." Carefully selected to pair with hearty Italian foods, you can always go light with an antipasto misto platter or select from seven items on the small plates menu.
Anaba Tea Room
When this Shorewood tearoom closed for a spell about a year ago to revamp its menu, part of the tinkering had to do with wine choices. Now that Anaba is open for dinner (Wednesday through Saturday only) you can forgo tea and order a glass of wine or share a bottle with friends. (Which is good because would you want anything else but Italian Prosecco with lemongrass chicken?) About 20 different wines are available, some by the glass only but most are available by bottles too. Ask for a table on the rooftop level, which offers seating in the conservatory as well as uncovered options (in case you are still working on your summer tan). With prairie grasses, wildflowers and plants just a few feet away you really couldn't ask for a better seat.