If you haven't ever lived in Milwaukee or spent considerable time there, you might miss the wonderfully eclectic dining scene offered in the city and throughout the suburbs! I didn't realize just how unique Milwaukee's dining options were until moving to boring Ames, Iowa. This review is intended to highlight some of the reasons why Milwaukee is unique and why visitors must venture out into the suburbs to create a true dining experience.
Because there are so many different "types" of restaurants and dining establishments, I'm going to try to highlight them in groupings, providing some of my own observations and favorites.
First and foremost, Milwaukee is an old German city which is why you can expect to find great German food! Many of the fine dining restaurants have a fabulous menu with plenty of options. If you are in downtown, Maders on Old World Third Street is probably the most well known restaurant in the city. Karl Ratzsch's on Mason Street is also an outstanding choice. But if you head out into the suburbs you will also find great German food at Doyle's Milwaukee Inn (West Allis) and at Gasthaus (Waukesha). I was told that the former head chef at Ratzsch's is the owner of Doyle's!
For a more casual Friday family night out in Milwaukee, you cannot beat the Friday Fish Fry which is available on practically every menu in restaurants and pubs throughout the State of Wisconsin. For me, I have a few favorites, depending on which part of the city I am. On the southside, give Cliffords in Hales Corners a try. Served family style, all-you-can-eat, you cannot go wrong... nor can you beat the price (under $10 per person). On the northside, Silver Spring House on Green Bay Road was a personal favorite while I was working in that area. If you're downtown and want to have a casual dining experience, try Historic Turner Restaurant directly across the street from the Bradley Center on 4th Street. You can even get the fish fry to go. At the Packing House (Southside on Layton Avenue) you will see a line of cars six to ten deep for hours on a Friday night!
While Milwaukee has a lot of wonderful fine dining options, including steak and seafood, be sure to give one of their many Greek diners a try. Breakfast can be counted on as exceptional quality with a nice assortment of breads and homemade pastries. For lunch or dinner, the portions of all meals are simply huge! Most of these diners include a complimentary glass of wine or beer plus a dessert selection from their on-premises bakery case. You can expect to find these restaurants mostly out in the suburbs, as much communities have at least one. While I was living in Hales Corners, there were three located in our little village.
While I have my favorites, mostly based on the family who owns them or the staff who serve us, you really can't go wrong with any of them. Here is a short list of those that I would highly recommend:
Family Table (Brown Deer)
Omega II (Hales Corners)
The last culinary delight that I want to make mention of has become synonymous with "MILWAUKEE"...frozen custard. While Leon's on S. 27th is probably the most well known restaurant because President Clinton's visited it anytime he was in town, our preference is divided. If you are going for the custard, it would be Kopps, hands down. If, however, you are going for a "butterburger" and fries, it is probably Oscars. Both have a multiple locations. Kopps can be found on Port Washington Dr in Glendale, S. 76th in Greendale and Bluemound Road in Brookfield. Oscars has locations on Hwy100/S. 108th Street in West Allis and Hwy 18/Bluemound Road in Waukesha. Leon's gets a lot of tourist traffic because it was the inspiration for Arnold's, the burger joint where the Happy Days gang hung out in Milwaukee during the 1960s.
Many people in Milwaukee keep the flavor menu list close at hand and make their custard trip based on what's being offered on any given day. Most will have vanilla and chocolate daily, with at least one and sometimes two "flavors of the day". Beware, however, frozen custard is much richer and "heavier" than your typical ice cream so watch those portions. A "single" is normally the same size as a double scoop at say Baskin-Robbins, so don't feel like you need to go for the medium or large sized cone or dish.
If you are looking for a quirky place to dine and you're downtown, do not miss Ed Debevics on N. Jefferson! Be prepared, however, the service will be marginal, the staff very mouthy and the atmosphere rowdy... but the food will be very good. They pride themselves in being a family entertainment and dining experience. (NOTE: Reports in Wikipedia that this Milwaukee location was closed in 2001 are WRONG! We dined there just a year ago during a visit to Milwaukee.)
Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that throughout the Milwaukee area, you can find outstanding dining opportunities in the local neighborhood pubs and bars. Some of the best burgers and grilled sandwiches can be found at the local alehouse. A couple of my favs are Club Paragon on Hwy100/108th Street in Greenfield and The Bosch also on Hwy100/108th Street in Hales Corners. Be adventurous! Milwaukee folk love their food so I would bet most bars that serve food, do a good job with it. (Club Paragon is also a frequently participant in the Restaurant.com dining certificate program so look them up if you're thinking about taking in a night of darts, pool, and good food in a local bar.)