By Maureen Post Special to Published Dec 19, 2008 at 12:36 PM

Last Friday night, Nessun Dorma drew quite a crowd. Quiet at 10 p.m., by 11 p.m. the place packed with local Riverwesters looking for a cocktail.

True, I’m not at home in Riverwest, but restaurants, cafes and friends often lure me over. As always, often enjoying the overly friendly service of Evan Barnes (also of Bryant’s Lounge) Nessun Dorma is very close to my ideal. Incredible food, a laid back atmosphere and complexity in beer and wine, Nessun Dorma appeases good conversation and great music.

There is a homey feel to Nessun Dorma; more than likely a result of their first floor house location. From the door jams, to the molding, to the heavy wooden doors, Nessun Dorma reminds me very much of my grandparents house, were they trendy and Italian. Unfortunately, they were neither.

But Nessun Dorma conveys an indescribable comfort; the comfort of casual, quality dining and the kind of place you’re bound to run into someone you know. And if you don’t? It’s the kind of place you can safely assume you’ll be interested in talking with the stranger down the bar.

So, with this in mind, I went into the rest of my weekend, wondering what makes a restaurant or bar this good. Of course, it’s highly subjective. As even the market can attest, there’s a reason the Landmark, Kenadees and Buck Bradley’s are all in business. And assuredly, what I like isn’t necessarily what anyone else likes. But on some level, there is a gold standard of service by which we all judge what we like.

So, what decides your favorite? Is it the music or the food? Do you insist on a large selection of beer or wine? Do you care about location or clientele? Do you look for a place to see and be seen?

Trust me, after careful consideration, it’s fairly tough to pick a single favorite that lives up to everything you desire. But, give it a try. Here are a few examples from my weekend to get you thinking.

Café Hollander? A dinner celebration for a friend led me to Café Hollander for appetizers and dessert. Fairly packed for a Friday night, Café Hollander is perfectly Milwaukee casual with plenty of Belgian beers on tap and rich, heavy Dutch culinary traditions.

The Hi Hat lounge? Regular fixtures at Hi Hat’s pit bar claim this Brady Street lounge is the place to be any night of the week. Usually fairly busy, it was presumably the cold weather keeping the Hi-Hat surprisingly quiet Friday night.

Hinterland Gastropub? Undoubtedly, I’m biased on this one. Employed by Hinterland a night or two a week, this Third Ward fine dining brewery serves a daily changing menu and creates from scratch most of their behind the bar mixes, syrups and juices. The hidden back lounge, cozy and comfortable, carries a late-night crowd complete with albums spinning on the record player and guests filling the couches.

The Cactus Club? Within walking distance of home, Cactus is one of my go to classics. Cheap beers plus local brews give Cactus a neighborhood vibe that simply can’t be bought. Hosting the city’s best bands as well as visitors from Chicago, Madison and northern Wisconsin, I’d say Cactus Club is one of the best venues in the city. 

Maureen Post Special to staff writer Maureen Post grew up in Wauwatosa. A lover of international and urban culture, Maureen received a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

After living on the east side of Madison for several years, Maureen returned to Milwaukee in 2006.

After a brief stint of travel, Maureen joined as the city’s oldest intern and has been hooked ever since. Combining her three key infatuations, Milwaukee’s great music, incredible food and inspiring art (and yes, in that order), Maureen’s job just about fits her perfectly.

Residing in Bay View, Maureen vehemently believes the city can become fresh and new with a simple move across town.