The 38 Essential Milwaukee Restaurants

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The 38 Essential Milwaukee Restaurants

Oysters at Odd Duck. | Odd Duck

“Cliffie, quick. Breath test. What do you smell when I do this?” asks Norm.

“Milwaukee,” Cliff responds.

The punchline from season four of Cheers, which aired in 1985, made a joke of a town that smelled like its breweries and wasn’t known for much else. Today the midsize city’s cultural industries work to refute that sentiment, especially with food. For every sneer that Milwaukee lives in the shadow of its Lake Michigan neighbor, Chicago, someone is serving up quiet, casual defiance with a pastrami chop cheese bagel sandwich, or a pambazo, or Peruvian chicken, or an olive oil cake. For every dig that the city is a staid Rust Belt town of sausage and cheese, there’s Nashville hot chicken sausage and goat cheese curds in chorizo cream sauce. And, regardless of any commentary, there are James Beard nominees and winners turning the sleeper restaurant scene into a Midwestern culinary stronghold.

As Milwaukee prepares to host Season 21 of Top Chef, the Harley Davidson Homecoming this summer (the 120th birthday of the city’s favorite and noisiest native son), and the Republican National Convention, residents continue to bask in the Giannis Antetokounmpo era and the simple exhilaration of surviving Great Lakes winters. Through all the activity, restaurants keep pushing forward, finding new ways and reasons to celebrate a city that, yes, sometimes smells like beer — and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Todd Lazarski Is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and the author of the new novel Spend It All.

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