Now that dining month is official over, and you’ve seen all the results of the OnMilwaukee Best of Dining 2013, I figured it was a good time to weigh in with some of my picks and opinions.
I’ll admit that I’m not always a fan of restaurant surveys, which tend to become mere popularity contests for restaurants that are more flash than substance. Surveys are also undeniably difficult to write, as they inevitably become either unfathomably long or painfully un-inclusive (for instance, how is it that a restaurant like c.1880 is relegated to only one category in this year’s survey, namely "Most Romantic"?).
But, Milwaukee is beginning to earn its keep when it comes to dining. As restaurants continue to step up their games in terms of artful, fresh seasonal dishes, it’s getting more and more enjoyable to dine out. But, it’s also getting more and more difficult to choose favorites.
Fortunately, there are plenty of spots that do deserve acclaim. And I hope I can capture at least a glimpse of them by sharing my picks, including a few spots (and categories) that didn’t appear on the original OnMilwaukee survey.
When it comes to Best new restaurant, I’m giving props to AP Bar and Kitchen , 814 S. 2nd St., for knocking it out of the park with stellar technique and inventive seasonal cuisine. Service is attentive and friendly. Their wine list is far-from-boring. And the food… well, from their uber-fresh oyster selection to dishes like beef cheek goulash and rabbit cassoulet, you really can’t go wrong.
Best steak: My house. On the Weber. Seriously; you can’t beat it. But, if you insist that I pick a restaurant at which to eat my steak, I’m actually a big fan of Five O’Clock Steakhouse at 2416 W. State St. They get it right pretty much every time. And it’s hard to beat that dark, dingy, supper clubby interior.
Best breakfast/brunch: For me, spots I pick to eat breakfast are quite different from places I go to enjoy brunch. For instance, Mad Rooster, 4401 W. Greenfield Ave, would get my vote for best breakfast. It’s a spot I’m happy to head any day of the week for a plate of eggs and toast. But, I don’t really aspire to lingering there as I would for brunch.
But, currently Wolf Peach, 1818 N. Hubbard, and Blue Jacket, 135 E. National Ave., are my "go to" spots for hanging out, enjoying time with friends, and sipping on a bloody Mary. Why? They both offer deliciously inventive offerings in a calm, relaxed atmosphere. And Blue Jacket’s breakfast cocktails rock my socks off.
Best burger: I’ve got to say, I have no idea why Ugly’s Pub, 1125 N. Old World Third St., didn’t make the list. Their burgers are stellar – cooked to order, topped with fresh ingredients, and balanced on a bun that holds its own.
But, an even bigger omission is forgetting about Mazo’s, 3146 S. 27th St., that classic Milwaukee spot that not only grinds its own beef daily (since 1934), but also serves up amazing old fashioned chocolate malts.
Best view/patio: In my mind, the two categories can’t really be combined. Patios are only available during the summer months, while a great view is available all year round.
When it comes to views, I’m not sure how you can beat the lake. So, I’ll always be an advocate for Harbor House, 550 N. Harbor Dr. Whether it’s sunny and warm, or frozen solid, that view of Lake Michigan and the Calatrava is pretty difficult to beat.
On the patio front, I’m giving my vote to La Merenda, 125 E. National Ave. Their patio is fairly new. It offers a combination of sun and shade, comfortable chairs, and a great garden view. Add the outdoor fireplace for chilly nights and you’ve got my bases pretty well covered.
Best small plates: I’m a big fan of sharing food when I go out to dinner, so small plates are right up my alley. But, it seems everyone is jumping on the small plate bandwagon these days. You can get them at Rumpus Room, Bacchus, Braise. There are also spots like Wolf Peach that encourage sharing, but that really are offering shareable entrees… not exactly small plates.
But, I’m giving this one solidly to Odd Duck, 2352 S. Kinnickinic Ave., who constantly surprises me with their innovative approach to little dishes. They don’t hit the mark on every dish. But, they get huge props for not being afraid to step wildly outside of the box every now and again.
Best coffee shop: I love my coffee. But, a coffee shop has to offer something more – comfortable seating, plenty of space to spread out, a decent soundtrack playing, and a reason to keep me coming back. Stone Creek Factory Store at 5th and St. Paul gets my vote most days, especially in the winter when the air is filled with the aroma of wood smoke from the warm, crackling fireplace.
Best dessert: I don’t have a particularly active sweet tooth, so you’ve got to produce something pretty stellar to win me over in the dessert department. I’m generally looking for something artful, beautifully balanced, and impeccably presented.
So, when I’m looking for dessert, I usually head to Umami Moto, 718 N. Milwaukee St., where I know Pastry Chef Kurt Fogle has put together something pretty special. Or, on more of a whim, Rocket Baby Bakery, 6822 W. North Ave., where Matt Haase can be trusted to satisfy my chocolate, caramel, or almond tooth quite nicely, thank you very much.
Best comfort/bar food: In my mind, whoever voted for Comet, 1947 N. Farwell Ave., got it right every time. Whether I’m craving mashed potatoes, meatloaf or macaroni and cheese, I can be pretty sure they’ve got a steaming plate of it waiting for me.
Bar food, by the way, is a completely different category altogether.
Best pizza: Gosh, darn it. I’m a Pizza Man, 2597 N. Downer Ave., girl. But, they won’t get my full vote until they bring back the deep dish. In the meantime, I’m opting for the chewy wood-fired crust at Wolf Peach.
Best food truck: I think it’s unfair to put all food trucks into one category and expect a favorite to win out. The fact is, much like restaurants, the truck I choose depends on my mood. There isn’t one food truck anywhere that can satisfy all of my needs. Period.
Best seafood: I’m pretty picky about my seafood, in part because I can taste it when that salmon has been sitting for a day too long, or when the shrimp has been thawed one too many times. So, when I eat it, it tends to be on the coast. But, a few places in Milwaukee get it right. And Harbor House is one of them. Their raw selections are pretty darned impeccable, so they’re my top pick for oysters. But, Maxie’s, 6732 W. Fairview Ave., is the other spot I’ll entrust with my fish cravings. After all, their turnover is great, and they’re producing seafood dishes that are not only fresh, but inventive.
Best barbeque: I’ve got a soft spot for Ashley’s Bar-B-Que on 15th and Center Streets. Maybe it’s the fact that they’ve got a barbeque pit. But, more likely it’s because their offerings move way beyond shoulder and ribs. Barbequed snout or goat? Yup. You’ve got my attention.
Best late night/drunk eats: Great late night food in Milwaukee is pretty difficult to find. Looking for a meal after a theater performance at 10 p.m., you might find a few places open, but most kitchens close around that time. Fortunately, both Blue Jacket and AP Bar and Kitchen serve a full menu until midnight, so you needn’t worry over finding a decent meal after dark.
As for drunk eats… people eat weird crap when they’re drunk, and I’m not sure there is a "best" choice here. My recommendation is that you pick the spot that’s closest to you at the time so there’s no danger of you being on the road while you’re incapacitated.
Best romantic: Honestly, I hate this category because it’s too difficult to define. Lots of places become romantic when you’re with the right person. And, quite frankly, it might not be a high end spot like Lake Park Bistro or Crazy Water. So, my vote is that we ditch this category altogether.
Best sandwiches: I think Jake’s Deli wins this by default almost every year. I love that we have a great deli as much as anyone. But, when I’m looking for a seriously artful sandwich, I’m probably heading over to Love Handle, 2215 E. North Ave., or Bavette La Boucherie, 330 E. Menomonee St., in the Third Ward. Both Chefs Chris Benedyk and Karen Bell do amazing work with their sandwich offerings, and I’m always eager to check the menu to see what daily specials they’re offering.
Best vegetarian: The mark of great vegetarian cuisine is, for me, the ability of a restaurant to feature vegetables in a meaningful way without resorting to the use of fake "veggie" meats as a staple. So, spots like The Noble, 704 S. 2nd St., really appeal to me. With items like their wild mushroom pate or specials like savory challah bread pudding with poached egg, grilled leeks, and truffle oil, this cozy spot makes me exceedingly happy.
Best Chinese: Honestly, Milwaukee, I have to pass on this one. I’m still waiting for someone to impress me.
Best wings: I’m trusting the editors’ choice of Club Garibaldi, 2501 S. Superior St., on this one, since I don’t get out much to eat wings. But, I do have a question: what’s up with people thinking BW3’s has the best wings? That’s sheer nonsense.
Best French: All I really need is the great bistro food at Le Reve, 7610 Harwood Ave., to make me happy. After all, there’s nothing better than their Croque Monsieur on a rainy day or a taste of those tantalizing Pernod-spiked mussels served with a side of bread to soak up the delicious sauce.
Best Greek: I’m going to pass here too. Best Greek in Milwaukee ends up being mostly about gyros, which is a real shame. I’m waiting for a restaurant that showcases a nice selection of mezethes, fresh seafood, braised lamb dishes and Greek pastas. Spots like Ouzo give me a glimmer of hope, but they’ll have to up their game to make me a regular customer.
Best Indian: I’m still waiting for an Indian restaurant in Milwaukee to truly knock my socks off. But, I do have a suggestion. Make the trek out to Pewaukee to visit the Hindu Temple of Wisconsin, N4063 W243 Pewaukee Rd., for their Sunday Cafeteria events from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Pricing varies, but are usually $5 per plate, and includes food from a different region of India every week.
Best Italian: It could be pure nostalgia, but Ristorante Bartolotta, 7616 W. State St., is the Milwaukee spot I think about when I’m craving true Italian flair. It’s quaint. The food is fresh and seasonal. They make their pasta by hand. And, most importantly, the offerings step squarely outside of the "red sauce Italian" box.
Best Japanese: While Kanpai, 408 E. Chicago St., is more fusion than authentic Japanese, it’s my pick – particularly for sushi, which has gotten better over the years but can still be a touchy proposition in Milwaukee. For the best experience, I recommend sitting at the sushi bar and opting for omakase, chef’s choice.
Best Mexican: Bel Air Cantina? I love them too, but I think we’re confusing our cuisines when we vote in a California style taco joint for best Mexican. Instead, put me down for spots like Café La Paloma, 606 S. 5th St., which dispenses with the expected beans and rice side dishes, or even Guanajuato, 2317 S. Howell Ave., where I can eat staple street food favorites like tongue tacos.
Best Middle Eastern: My vote goes to Sababa, 391 State St., where you can get your fill of Middle Eastern mezze like kibbeh, stuffed grape leaves and labaneh for $5-7 each, along with kebabs and shawarma.
Best Asian Fusion, Vietnamese, Korean: If we’re talking fusion, RuYi at Potawatomi Bingo Casino actually gets a thumbs up. Their menu offers a nice variety of Chinese American dishes, as well as Thai, Vietnamese, and Korean noodle dishes. Authenticity isn’t the standard at RuYi, but delicious fusion cuisine is.
Although I’d love to see a Vietnamese spot that really delves more deeply into authentic terrain, my vote goes to Pho Viet on 27th Street, where I can load up my bowl of Pho with authentic ingredients.
And I’m sad to say I haven’t really found a great Korean option yet here in Milwaukee.
More best ethnic: On the other hand, there are a few other ethnic restaurants that deserve a shout-out:
Although it’s just counter service, the Armenian fare at Arin Bert, 222 W. Wells St., is well worth a mention. Whether you choose a platter of kebabs or a wrap, you’re sure to be impressed by the artfully cooked, well-seasoned offerings.
Ono Kine Grindz, 7215 W. North Ave., offers up Hawaiian fare that you shouldn’t miss, including spam specials and Kahlua pork that hits the spot when eaten straight up or leftover on a sandwich.
And you need to try the papusa at El Salvador, 2316 S. 6th St., a little family run Salvadoran restaurant across from the historic St. Josaphat's Basilica. Try the revueltas with pork, cheese and beans or the Lorocco, which is chock-full of Salvadoran vegetables. Served with traditional curtido, a simple cabbage salad Honduran Baleada – a thick flour tortilla filled a variety of fillings.
Anmol, 711 W. Mitchell St., also deserves kudos for great Pakistani fare. Since meat plays a more dominant role in Pakistani fare than in other southern Asian cuisines, try mutton haleem, boneless lamb cooked with lentils, or nihiri, a classic Pakistani beef stew.
And what are the categories I’d love to see on a restaurant survey next year?
How about best service? This is an area where Milwaukee tends to struggle. So, why not recognize the spots that really do it up right? -- those that train their staff to be friendly, attentive, knowledgeable and masterful at handling customer complaints.
Or top décor? We talk a great deal about food. But, what about atmosphere? The fact is, everyone loves a little "oooh" and "aaah" with his or her meal. And that doesn’t necessarily mean a lake view. It can be a matter of tasteful design, thoughtfully planned spaces or snazzy artwork.
I’d also advocate for a category that captures accolades for higher end spots like c.1880, Crazy Water and Sanford who don’t fall easily into any other slots. Although I don’t believe that high end restaurants are, by nature, better than other eateries, it’s important to build a standard for fine dining in a city like Milwaukee. High end means flavorful, beautifully presented food that is thoughtfully prepared with impeccable technique. And we should really recognize that, no?
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.