By Caitlin Elftman Arts & Entertainment Contributor Published Dec 19, 2017 at 6:01 PM

Welcome to Eat, Play Applaud, a new OnMilwaukee series where we serve up a perfect pairing of dinner and a show – tied together by a common thread, both tasty and theatrical. Make your next night out in Milwaukee even more memorable!

It’s that time of year – the time of frosted windowpanes, when the weather outside is frightful and city sidewalks are dressed in all kinds of holiday style. They say it’s the most wonderful time of the year, and I couldn’t agree more.

I’ve never been one to shy away from getting into the spirit of the season. I’m that person who, throughout the month of December, is constantly playing Christmas songs and watching holiday movies (yes, even the ones on the Hallmark Channel). OK, fine, I’m also that person that will even occasionally play a Christmas song in September if the mood strikes.  

What is it that makes the holidays so magical? Maybe it’s the fact that the presence of snow still excites us rather than irritates us. Perhaps it’s because there always seems to be a Christmas cookie within arm’s length. But my theory is that, like the song says, there’s no place like home for the holidays – and to many, home means honoring cherished family traditions.

Everyone has a special something or two they do with loved ones to make these days especially merry and bright. For me, that usually involves getting your Christmas tree the minute Thanksgiving is over or feasting on Grammy’s famous coffee cake as we open our presents.

But despite my intense love of the holiday season and all of the family customs that come with it, one Christmas tradition that never made it to our household was seeing a live performance of "The Nutcracker" (probably because we were too busy watching "White Christmas" on a loop). That’s why I decided that if I can watch "The Muppet Christmas Carol" conservatively five times every December (no exaggeration), I can see "The Nutcracker" once, hopefully creating a new holiday tradition in the process.

But first, an early lunch in the city to start the day off right.

Eat: AJ Bombers

When considering my list of favorite restaurants (and checking it twice) and deciding which one I wanted to pair with finally seeing a live performance of "The Nutcracker," my train of thought went something like this: Where can I go that’s close to the Marcus Center? What would tie into "The Nutcracker" show? Nuts … peanuts sound good. Where can I get peanuts?

Of course: AJ Bombers.

There are few restaurants in our beloved Brew City that are as fun and delicious as AJ Bombers. Every time I visit, I feel like a kid on Christmas morning. Not only do I know I’m about to enjoy an incredible burger (always with a side of buffalo chicken eggrolls), but I am allowed, and even encouraged, to act like I belong on Santa’s Naughty List.  

For those of you who are unfamiliar with this Water Street staple, the brains behind this delightful restaurant describe it as "Rube Goldberg meets Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, except Ruby is into peanuts and Willy Wonka is into crazy cheeseburgers." What does that mean exactly? It means that it’s perfectly logical for peanut butter to be on a hot dog, and food falling from the sky is not only completely natural but expected. Their peanut delivery system is just as exciting as getting a Barbie Dreamboat on Christmas morning when you’re six years old (spoken from experience).  

(PHOTO: AJ Bombers Facebook)

And the fun doesn’t stop there. Now, I have to confess that normally in restaurants, I’m that adult that always looks longingly at children. Why? Because they are still at an acceptable age where they can ask for crayons and color while they eat. Someone at AJ Bombers clearly understands me, because kids from 1 to 92 can color on the walls. And color I did. To keep with the festive time of year, on this visit, I drew plenty of Christmas trees and snowmen while I ate enough peanuts to fill Santa’s sleigh.

So, after dining at AJ Bombers, I’m offering this simple phrase: Tthe food combinations and playful atmosphere make for a dining experience as beautifully choreographed as any ballet performance. Although I certainly didn’t feel like a ballerina after my Colonel Mustard burger (no regrets), it was finally time to walk the 0.3 mile distance to the Marcus Center and experience another kind of nut in the heart of Downtown Milwaukee.

Play: "The Nutcracker"

There are some pop culture staples that some would consider "sacred", or perfect as is. I remember being utterly shocked this past fall when Disney announced plans to remake the Halloween classic "Hocus Pocus," or hesitant to hear that Amazon is developing a "Lord of the Rings" TV series. After all, why mess with flawlessness?

Although I have never seen "The Nutcracker" for myself, this is also something that strikes me as "sacred" to those who have seen this ballet countless times as part of their annual Christmas tradition. This isn’t a show where fans aren’t looking for a new way to tell the beloved tale of a young girl’s magical adventure on Christmas Eve night. Nobody wants to watch a performance of Tchaikovsky’s unforgettable ballet filled with laser light shows or modern choreography; they just want the story presented to them in the way they’ve always known and loved.

Since I was hoping this would become a new, personal holiday tradition, I was expecting to see a very traditional presentation of "The Nutcracker," especially since I was unfamiliar with the story. But as I watched the graceful dancers glide and spin across the stage at Uihlein Hall, I suddenly understood why this ballet is so important to so many people. After 30 holiday seasons of not seeing The Nutcracker live on stage, I felt that after all this time, I was finally part of the club.

(PHOTO: Mark Frohna)

The Milwaukee Ballet's "The Nutcracker" is a jubilant, thrilling show that demands you see Christmas from a child’s eyes. It begs you to look on the holiday with unabashed joy and celebration. That overwhelming sensation of happiness instantly brought me back to my meal at AJ Bombers just hours earlier; this is the time of year to be swept away by fantasy and good cheer, and everything we do, from the food we eat to the activities we enjoy, should be about taking full advantage of this festive season.

Whether you are enjoying old holiday traditions or creating new ones, my Saturday excursion at AJ Bombers and The "Nutcracker" proved that there truly is nothing like the Christmas season in Milwaukee.

Caitlin Elftman Arts & Entertainment Contributor
A proud Wisconsin native, Caitlin Elftman is always up for a night on the town in the Brew City. If you ever need someone to catch a play or a concert with, or a friend to check out the latest Milwaukee restaurant opening, she's your gal!

Caitlin is also a lover of international travel, makes a mean risotto and knows every Neil Diamond and Celine Dion song you could throw at her.