We're on the cusp of summer. The sun is shining and it’s time to make the most of our great (but fleeting) warm season. That means plenty of patio dining at restaurants. But, it also means communing with nature, enjoying outdoor concerts and spending quality time with family and friends.
So grab your picnic blanket and get ready, because we've got great suggestions for some of the best places to dine on gorgeous summer days. And, if you're lucky, you might even be able to catch some live music, thanks to one of the Milwaukee area's numerous free concert offerings.
Milwaukee County has a pretty impressive selection of parks from which to choose. But, I’ve selected a number of ideal spots for outdoor feasts – from Shorewood to South Milwaukee – each with a source for picnic fodder within a reasonable distance.
Bay View and South Side
If it’s Tuesday night, chilling out at Chill on the Hill at Humboldt Park is always a winning option. It's also an event where finding dinner is easy, thanks to the varied selection of food from local vendors and food trucks.
If it’s Thursday, it’s time to head over to Lazy Susan, 2378 S. Howell Ave., for some KFC (Korean Fried Chicken), the perfect carry-out picnic dinner. The chicken is light and crispy on the exterior and super juicy on its interior, and it‘s served with house-made kimchi, house-made spam mac & cheese, sticky rice and Asian style veggies (all are gluten-free to boot). The chicken is first come, first served, so you'll want to call ahead and reserve your half or whole chicken.
On any other night of the week, why not grab a couple of panini and a few items from the bakery at G. Groppi Food Market, 1441 E. Russell Ave., and head over to South Shore Park for a shady evening on the lakefront? If the weather is steamy, this park is a particularly good choice, as it’s almost always a few degrees cooler than anywhere else in Milwaukee. If you prefer, you can also make a stop at the South Shore Terrace Beer Garden for a beer or two and some socializing.
Head even further south and Grant Park is one of a string of parks that dot the shoreline throughout the southern Milwaukee suburbs of St. Francis, Cudahy and South Milwaukee. It is the second largest park in Milwaukee County, and it’s the home of the Seven Bridges Trail, a beautiful walk along the ravine featuring Lannon stone paths and foot bridges galore. Secure takeout from Tsing Tao, 5765 S. Packard Ave. (note: it's closed on Tuesdays) , and enjoy any number of the gorgeous picnic spots available in the park. Once you’re done eating and sunbathing, take a walk on the trails, where you'll find yourself among enormous native beech trees, astride creeks and secluded areas, as well as along the shore of Lake Michigan.
Feeling like a bit of music? On Tuesdays beginning in July, you can enjoy the free COA Skyline Music series at the Selig-Joseph-Folz Amphitheater in Kadish Park, 909 E. North Ave., betwixt the Riverwest and Brewers' Hill neighborhoods. The views of the Milwaukee skyline are breathtaking.
There's also nearby fare to carry out, including the delicious cheesy artichoke panini or pesto melt from Fuel Cafe, 818 E. Center St., falafel, chicken and lamb wraps from Casablanca, 728 E. Brady St., a caprese panino or fresh salad from the Beerline Cafe, 2076 N. Commerce St.. or even a poke bowl like the Mango Tango or Spicy Tuna from Freshfin Poke, 1806 E. North Ave.
If you're downtown, there are numerous places to stock your picnic basket, including the Milwaukee Public Market, 400 N. Water St., where you can purchase anything from cheese and sausage to sandwiches, salads or sushi. However, just minutes from downtown is one of my favorite spots: The Tandem, 1848 W. Fond du Lac Ave., You can't beat great fried chicken for a picnic, and this version comes in a paper bag so it stays hot and (remarkably) crispy. An entire bird with the chef's choice of sides is just $26 and comes in your choice of Memphis (spicy) or Georgia styles. Either is worth eating, so there shouldn't be any regrets.
Take your chicken and head down to Veterans Park, where you can rent a kite to fly on a breezy day, rent bicycles to ride along the lake, or just sit and enjoy the marina view.
No matter what day it is, stopping at Glorioso’s Italian Market, 1011 E. Brady St., for picnic supplies is a no-brainer. It’s one of the most perfect places to grab a basket full of goodies for a weekend day at the lakefront. There are sliced cheeses and meats at the deli. Smoked salmon dip and tapenade are great grab and go options for spreading on crackers, and made-to-order salads are also a hit. Add a bit of BelGioioso burrata with a loaf of Sciortino’s bread and you’ve got an Italian feast waiting to happen.
Once you're set up, head southeast to Juneau Park and enjoy the city-side oasis of trees and plants on a ravine overlooking Lake Michigan. Or, if it happens to be a Thursday, you're well equipped for an evening at Jazz in the Park in Cathedral Square.
Prefer to skip the shopping trip? This is the sort of moment for which the Crossroads Collective, 2238 N. Farwell Ave., is well-equipped. Grab a BBQ feast (complete with cornbread and greens) from Heaven's Table BBQ, crepes from Beerline Cafe or delectable sandwiches from Frida, a kefta bowl from Falafel Guys, a salad from Egg & Flour or an East Coast Roll from Raw Bar ... you're all set.
Now, plant yourself just about anywhere in Lake Park for a tree-lined feast. The park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, famous for co-architecting New York's Central Park. As a result, it's well worth your time to spend a few hours exploring the foot trails and footbridges along the ravine path. Check out the North Point Lighthouse on the south side of the park. And don't miss the 30-foot waterfall just south of the Lake Park Bistro parking lot.
A picnic is a surefire way to beat your Monday blues. If you’re on the near North Side of town, the deli at Outpost Natural Food Cooperative, 100 E. Capitol Dr., has plenty of delicious salads, sandwiches and spreads to choose from. I'd recommend the Tuscan kale salad if it's available, as well as a tub of cheese spread, some olive tapenade or charcuterie to enjoy with crackers. Grab what you like and head over to the Estabrook Beer Garden about a mile or so east. Enjoy a few brews, dance to a polka, or simply enjoy the sound of the rushing Milwaukee River which lies adjacent to the beer garden.
(PHOTO: Outpost Natural Food Cooperative)
If you’re looking to bring a little bit of a spark to your relationship, I recommend grabbing a deli sandwich (you can’t go wrong with the corned beef) from Benji’s Deli, 4156 N. Oakland Ave., and heading over to Atwater Park in Shorewood, located on the eastern end of Capitol Drive along the shore of Lake Michigan. Especially romantic in the evening, Atwater Park offers great views from both the bluff and the shore. The park also features an 8-foot sculpture by internationally renowned Spanish artist Jaume Plensa, possibly best known for the piece he designed for Millennium Park in Chicago, featuring two 50-foot glass towers with a shallow reflecting pool connecting them.
Rocket Baby Bakery, 6822 W. North Ave., is open until 6:30 p.m. on weeknights, so West Siders can easily grab a sandwich or two for al fresco dining. You can also get great salads, sandwiches or even a cheese and charcuterie plate at Tusk, 5513 W. North Ave., where the options include the Drunken Boar, a sandwich featuring pulled pork, beer bbq sauce and slaw on a toasted roll.
Of course, if Hawaiian fare sounds better, Ono Kine Grindz, 7215 W. North Ave., can sate your craving with their tasty char siu chicken or kalua pork plates. And there's little better on a hot day than a fresh bowl of their no-frills Hawaiian style poké.
Once dinner is secured, head off to Washington Park for an night among the trees. Originally named West Park, this park spans nearly 130 acres and was once the home of the original Milwaukee zoo. The park, also designed by Olmsted, is home to a branch of the Urban Ecology Center. If you're a member, you can rent canoes to paddle around the lagoon during the summer months. Or you can simply explore the park's grassy expanses and winding paths. A bandshell features local bands on Wednesday evenings from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Check out our free music guide for a schedule.
(PHOTO: Washington Park)
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.