Drink, Pray And Polka In Underrated Milwaukee

milwaukee brewing companyIt’s Friday night and I’m at a brewery tour in Milwaukee drinking beer. Good beer – not the mass-produced crap that Milwaukee is famous for. Tom Martin, our guide at the Milwaukee Brewing Company, takes a moment to state the obvious for the benefit of out-of-towners like us.

“We have a drinking culture here in Wisconsin in case you haven’t noticed,” he says, standing beside an imposing stack of 50-pound barley sacks. “You can get caught driving drunk with a child in your car and it’s still only a misdemeanor here.”
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He’s joking but the point registers. According to Trulia, Milwaukee has the second most bars per capita in the country, just a hair behind New Orleans, with 8.5 bars per 10,000 households. (And unlike the Big Easy, all the bars in Milwaukee cater to locals.) But Forbes named Milwaukee America’s drunkest city and, according to USA Today, the state of Wisconsin has the highest percentage of binge drinkers in the country and ranks fifth in total number of breweries with 112.


milwaukeePerhaps the good people at the Milwaukee Brewing Company had these statistics in mind when they created their brewery tour. Brewers ordinarily make patrons suffer through long, boring tours before they deign to offer a chance to taste their product and even then, they might serve just one full beer or a few tastes.



But tonight, our tour started with free beers, and then there were two beer breaks during our hour-long tour before we were sent back to the bar for a half-hour long open bar to cap the experience. And did I mention that our $10 ticket also entitled us to two tokens that are good for even more of their beer at area bars? Welcome to Milwaukee.

If you want to compile a short list of America’s most underrated cities, start with the places that have lost population over the last 50-100 years. Philadelphia, St. Louis, Buffalo and Cincinnati all had a larger population 100 years ago than they do now. And Milwaukee and Richmond were more populous in the 1950s and 1960s than they are now.



These are seen as declining cities – yesterday’s news – but I think these are six of the most underrated urban destinations in the country. All of these cities are brimming with history, culture and style but none are overwhelmed with tourists.

A year ago, I opined that Richmond might be the country’s most underrated city, but after a recent visit to Milwaukee, I might be ready to change my vote and not just because I like beer. In the winter, the place has a vacant, almost haunted vibe. It would be easy to conclude that the place is dead but keep looking. The city is synonymous with bad beer and the television shows “Happy Days” and “Laverne & Shirley,” but if you take the time to get to know this inviting city and the unpretentious people who live there, you’ll discover that it’s one of America’s best-kept secrets.

It’s a city where the Friday night fish fry is an institution, a place where sausage is elevated to an art form, a community where every neighborhood has a church that even an atheist would want to visit, a metropolis defined by its taverns and people who aren’t too cool to the do the Chicken Dance, and good, yes, good beer. Go ahead and tour the Miller and Pabst breweries if you must, but when you’re ready for the good stuff, check out the tours at Sprecher, Milwaukee Brewing Company, and Lakefront Brewery, which also has a killer Friday night fish fry complete with live polka music (see video below).




basilica of st josaphatStart your Milwaukee tour at the Basilica of St. Josaphat, which opened in 1901 to serve the largely ethnic Polish community in the Lincoln Village neighborhood. The basilica is modeled after St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and the interior is as beautiful as any place of worship in the country (see video below).

You can see the domed basilica from miles away but you could easily miss the St. Joan of Arc Chapel (see above), which dates to the 15th century but was moved to the campus of Marquette University in 1966. (The chapel was moved from near Lyon, France, to Long Island in the 1920s before its move to Milwaukee.) It’s worth the effort to find this place – as soon as you step through the big wooden doors and feel the bluish glow of stained glass, you’ll feel like you were visiting an ancient church in rural France.



If you want a flavor of old Milwaukee, the city, not the beer, take a stroll through the lobby of the Hilton City Center, which was built in 1927 and is still loaded with vintage charm. Check out the German bars and sausage shops on Old World Third Street and then, to get a feel for some of the outlying neighborhoods, cruise over to Brady Street or Murray Hill on the east side, or Bay View or Walker’s Point on the south side. Definitely have lunch at Milwaukee’s Public Market in the historic Third Ward and, if the weather is good, don’t miss the Estabrook Beer Garden. There are great neighborhood bars everywhere, but Wolski’s is one old-school watering hole that everyone washes up in at one time or another.


I think of Milwaukee as a venerable old town but the city’s premier attraction is modernity personified. The Milwaukee Art Museum has an impressive collection of art but the real attraction here is the Quadracci Pavilion, a stunning, futuristic annex built by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava in 2001. Even if you don’t want to visit the museum, take a walk into the pavilion or dine at Café Calatrava downstairs for gourmet food and a sublime view. The building’s Brise Soleil wings open and close during the museum’s opening and closing hours and the wings also flap at noon each day.




milwaukeeEach time I visit Milwaukee from my home base in Chicago – which was once called a “pompous” Milwaukee – I feel like the city is a less expensive, more laid back, and more manageable version of the Windy City. And I think that Badger state residents have more pride in their state than any other place in the country, with the possible exception of Texas. There’s a cohesive culture in Wisconsin that revolves around beer, brats, cheese, the Packers, the Badgers, fish fry, supper clubs and 1,000 other things that make this state unique. Milwaukeeans will tell you that they are content to keep their hometown a well-kept secret, but there’s always an empty barstool somewhere in town, so stop by the next time you thirst for something different.



[Photo/video credits: Dave Seminara]


Airports Add Free Power For Electronics, Vehicles

free powerUsing free power to charge electronic devices before boarding a flight is a popular activity. Airlines and airports know that and are adding more charging stations all the time. The same goes for electric vehicle travelers who might drive to the airport. As more environmentally friendly cars hit the streets, airports are adding charging stations for them too, also a complimentary service.

“Delta’s addition of power stations at airport gates has been cited by PCWorld magazine as an important aspect of travel and improving the customer experience,” said Wayne Aaron, Vice President, Marketing Programs and Distribution Strategy at Delta Airlines in a Travel Daily News article this week.

Delta is adding at least two power stations per gate power in 12 additional U.S. cities before the end of the year including Anchorage, Alaska; Austin, Texas; Denver; Dallas/Ft. Worth; Houston Intercontinental; Kansas City, Missouri; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; New Orleans; Ontario, California; Philadelphia; Phoenix; and Syracuse, New York.

“Customers today are savvy travelers who bring their smartphones, computers and tablets with them,” says Aaron. “Providing a power source they can use before they get on a long flight helps them do what they need to do in the air, whether for work or pleasure.”Electrical Vehicle Charging Stations are becoming more plentiful too. Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport is typical of airports with charging stations where spaces are reserved for electric vehicles only. Each station is capable of charging two vehicles simultaneously with 240V connectors. There is no fee to use the stations, but regular parking rates apply.

ChargePoint is the largest online charging network in the world, connecting drivers to charging stations in more than 14 countries. ChargePoint service plans are compatible with charging stations from any manufacturer and yes, they have an app to find stations close by, make, view and cancel reservations. As they pass through security, at the gate or in the air with their Wi-Fi connected devices, users can view charging stats while their car charges and get notification when fully charged.




[Flickr photo by gillyberlin]

Traveler’s Guide To Quirky Milwaukee


pin boys


While Milwaukee is known for its great beer, beautiful foliage and tasty cheeses, the state also offers a range of unusual activities. Add the following to your itinerary for a quirky trip.

The Holler House
2042 W Lincoln Avenue

Bowl on real wood laid in 1908 at the Holler House, the oldest certified lanes in the country. Don’t forget to tip your personal pin setter as you go back in time to the original days of bowling. The historic, two-story house also features a main-floor bar with eclectic decorations dating back to the early 1900s, like signs advertising 25-cent beef sandwiches and Polish falcon crests showing the ethnic background of the old neighborhood. There is also an extensive collection of autographed brassieres “donated” by patrons dangling from ceiling fans. Lanes are close together, there are no chairs and scores are taken with pencil and paper. The best part about the Holler House might not be the what, but the who, in the form of owner Marcy Skowronski – a sassy woman who made history for the venue. In fact, it was she who started the tradition of drinking with friends and taking their bras off, and the bar now has over 1,000 of them.


safe house


The Safe House
779 N. Front Street

In the Intelligence trade, a safe house is “a secret refuge for spies engaging in covert operations.” These places look unassuming on the outside, and good luck finding the door, but on the inside are spaces for conducting clandestine activities. Serving hungry agents since 1966, The Safe House is a spy-themed restaurant containing mysteries and even a hidden exit. Wandering down dark, narrow hallways, you’ll find a phone booth where you can get an alibi if you blow your cover, as well as a wall of mysterious moving puzzle pieces and clues. The building is hidden in an alley and misleadingly labeled International Exports Ltd. You’ll need a password to enter, or at least enough sense of humor to make animal sounds and do silly poses until the doorman lets you in. Hint: Control never turned away agents on the run because they didn’t know the password. Drinks take on a classic cocktail philosophy that coincide with the spy-theme, like the “Spy’s Demise” and the “Double Agent.”


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Lakefront Brewery’s Palm Garden Fish Fry
1872 N Commerce Street

Get to know your neighbors elbow-to-elbow at a community table as you feast on beer battered fish plates, heaping stacks of homemade potato pancakes, soft slabs of rye bread, creamy coleslaw and tart applesauce. Every Friday night at Lakefront Brewery’s Palm Garden, the beer venue transforms into an authentic fish fry. The sounds of the squeezeboxes and banjos of The Brew House Polka Kings, whose act features a functioning bubble machine, allow locals aged two to 92 to polka all night. Established by brothers Russ and Jim Klisch twenty years ago, Lakefront offers more than a dozen original brews including the nation’s very first 100% organically brewed ale, Organic Extra Special Bitter Ale.


oriental theatre


The Oriental Theater
2230 N Farwell Avenue

Located on the city’s east side, the Oriental Theatre has been providing entertainment for Milwaukeeans for more than 75 consecutive years. What’s also unique is the venue is said to be the only standard movie palace ever to incorporate east Indian decor. Although two theaters were added in 1988, the theatre still maintains its beautiful and ornate original architecture and decorations. Additionally, the Oriental Theatre is the world record holder for showing a current and continuing film consecutively over the years. The Rocky Horror Picture Show has shown at midnight every second Saturday of the month at Oriental Theatre since 1978.


kochaniskis


Kochanski’s Concertina Hall
1920 S 37th Street

Built in the 1900s, the building’s original purpose was to house celery farm workers, and then as a brothel. After being used for a few other purposes, the venue was acquired by Polish businessman Andy Kochanski, who turned it into a quirky entertainment venue. A “normal” night at Kochanski’s Concertina Bar could include regulars playing a game of Sheep’s Head, groups of all ages clapping and whirling around the dance floor to live polka music or a full out accordion jam session in the middle of the bar. Dueling polka, rockabilly bands, open mic Polka, and odd decor like a year-round upside Christmas tree are also to be expected. This historical polka beer hall also boasts the largest assortment of Polish and German imported beer this side of the Atlantic.


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Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge
1579 S 9th Avenue

No jukebox, only a record player with classical tunes. No menu, only 450 classic, artisan or Depression-era cocktails to choose from that are ordered based on what you’re “in the mood” for. No wallpaper or paint, but plush velvet walls. That’s what you’ll find at Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge, Milwaukee’s oldest cocktail lounge, established in 1938. Originally a “tied house,” many regulars that go to the bar today come in and talk of when their grandparents used to frequent the venue. Tip: From 5:00 PM to 9:00 PM Tuesday through Friday, Bryant’s serves up Depression-era cocktails for half-off.


joan of arc


St. Joan of Arc Chapel
1442 W Wisconsin Avenue

On Marquette University’s campus lies Milwaukee’s oldest structure, the St. Joan of Arc Chapel. The chapel was dismantled and moved from France to New York, then from New York to Milwaukee and was rebuilt and completed in 1966. Containing artifacts that date back to the 15th century, the chapel is said to be the only structure of its kind in the western hemisphere still used for its original purpose. According to legend, Joan of Arc herself prayed to Mary standing on one of the stones of the chapel, and when she finished, she leaned down and kissed the stone. Ever since, people say the stone has remained colder to the touch than the others.


bronze fonz


The Bronze Fonz
100 E Wells Street

In August 2008, Arthur Fonzarelli came home to Milwaukee as The Bronze Fonz, a life-sized, bronze statue of the popular “Happy Days” character. The Fonz can be found in his leather jacket, forever holding his famous thumbs-up “Aaay!” pose just south of Wells Street on Milwaukee’s Riverwalk. During the holidays, Fonz has been spotted wearing everything from a Santa hat to bunny ears.

[Images via Are We Not Men?, Visit Milwaukee, daniel.baker, Marquette University and Dan Bishop of Bishop Photography]

‘Food Forward’ PBS Series Debuts With ‘Urban Agriculture Across America’ Episode

cowsIn less than a century, the United States has gone from being a mostly agrarian society to an urbanized one. Most of us live in cities and, despite our growing cultural fascination with food, most Americans have no idea where the ingredients on their plate (or in that wrapper) are actually coming from.

That’s where “Food Forward” comes in. After a three-year effort, the premiere episode of this innovative new PBS series, as first reported by the Huffington Post, is airing nationally throughout April (see schedule after the jump). In “Urban Agriculture Across America,” the “Food Forward” crew travel from the Bay Area to Milwaukee, Detroit and New York City, talking to urban farming innovators such as Abeni Ramsey, a single mother in West Oakland.

Formerly relegated to feeding her family Top Ramen, Ramsey was inspired some years ago by a farm stand she spotted in her neighborhood, operated by West Oakland’s City Slicker Farms. As part of City Slickers’ initiative to nourish under-served communities, their staff and volunteers build garden boxes (designed for small-scale, intensive production) in residents’ yards.

Ramsey got her garden box and soon had a backyard full of produce. Next, she got chickens to provide her family with protein in the form of meat and eggs. Today, she’s the farm manager of the East Bay’s urban Dig Deep Farms. Dig Deep sells and delivers produce to local communities through its CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture) program and works in collaboration with Oakland’s acclaimed Flora restaurant.

Says Flora chef Rico Rivera, “We order the produce, she picks it and it’s here the next morning.” Adds Ramsey, “It’s a modern idea that you get all of your food from the store. People have been farming in cities…since there were cities.”

[Photo credit: Flickr user Martin Gommel]rooftop gardenJohn Mooney, chef and rooftop hydroponic farmer at Bell Book & Candle in Manhattan’s West Village, is another interesting subject as is urban beekeeper Andrew Coté, who collects specific blends from hives around Manhattan and Brooklyn.

While the idea of keeping bees in the midst of a metropolis may seem an unnecessary objective, or a somewhat precious craft food enterprise, it’s anything but, as Coté points out. “Bees help pollinate the city’s community and rooftop gardens as well as window boxes.” Localized honey also contains pollen that helps allergy sufferers living in these neighborhoods.

Of Detroit, “Food Forward” co-creator/producer Stett Holbrook says, “It blew my mind. It’s a city that has been devastated by industrial collapse and the exodus of half of its population, but the resilience of the residents still there to remake the city – literally from the ground up – was truly inspiring. Urban agriculture is a big part of the renaissance.”

According to its website, the objective of “Food Forward” is to “create a series that looks beyond the world of celebrity chefs, cooking competitions,” and formulaic recipe shows. From my perspective, it also goes beyond the seemingly endless variations on scintillating (not) reality series on baked good empires, riffs on “Homo sapiens vs. Arteriosclerosis” and “Twenty Crappy Things You Can Cook With Canned Goods.”

Instead, “Food Forward” looks at what it calls the “food rebels” across America – farmers, chefs, ranchers, fishermen, food artisans, scientists and educators – who are dedicated to changingurban farm the way we eat and finding more sustainable alternatives to how food is produced and procured.

“Food Forward” succeeds (if the pilot is any indication) in a way that documentaries of this genre haven’t (despite being excellent on all counts: see, “The Future of Food,” “Food, Inc.,” etc.).

It’s mercifully not about food elitism, either. Rather than leaving you depressed, angry or guilty, the show inspires, entertains and sends a message of hope. Future episodes will focus on school lunch reform, sustainable fishing and meat production and soil science. Some segments are animated, either to better illustrate a point or to engage a wider age demographic.

“Food Forward” is “written, produced and directed by a veteran team of journalists, cinematographers and storytellers that includes: director Greg Roden (PBS, FOX and National Geographic channel’s “Lonely Planet” and the Los Angeles Times, Dallas Morning News, and San Francisco Chronicle); aforementioned creator-producer Holbrook (Food editor for Metro Silicon Valley and The Bohemian in Sonoma County, and contributor to the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Saveur and Chow.com); Brian Greene (Food Network, Discovery Channel, NBC), and director of photography David Lindstrom (PBS, National Geographic and Discovery channels).

On April 22, the pilot will air on WTTW in Chicago at 5:30 p.m. and WLIW in New York at 2:30 p.m. On April 28, it will air on Washington DC’s WETA at 5:30 p.m. For future episodes, check your local PBS listings, visit the “Food Forward” website or www.PBS.org/foodforward.


Milwaukee Art Museum opens major exhibition on Impressionism

Milwaukee Art Museum
An exhibition at the Milwaukee Art Museum is looking at Impressionism in a new light.

Impressionism: Masterworks on Paper is the first major exhibition to explore the drawings of famous Impressionists. Previous exhibitions have always focused on their paintings, such as Renoir’s Bathers with Crab, which is also part of the show and appears here in this photo courtesy Moira Burke.

The famous Impressionist exhibitions in Paris between 1874 and 1886 changed European art. Not only was the style vastly different than traditional painting, but the Impressionists emphasized drawing as a medium equal to that of painting. The exhibit gathers together more than 100 drawings, watercolors, and pastels by important artists such as Manet, Degas, Renoir, Cézanne, Seurat, Van Gogh, and Toulouse-Lautrec.

The Milwaukee Art Museum is one of Wisconsin’s great attractions, besides all the wonderful hiking, camping, and fishing. In addition to offering major shows such as this one, it boasts a collection of more than 25,000 works of art from a variety of different movements, from German Expressionism to Haitian folk art.

Impressionism: Masterworks on Paper runs from October 14, 2011 to January 8, 2012.