Milwaukee! It's easy to understand why it's called Chicago's Northernmost Suburb; it's amazing how fast you get there. I mean, by the time you hit Racine, you're practically there, already ankle deep in Miller products and gravy. Along with their proximity, the two cities share many affinities, particularly one for sausage. That was all the reason I needed to plan a day trip to the Wisconsin lakeside town, and the gems I discovered there brought as much joy as a juicy brat slathered in mustard.
Start your day the Sausage Way at Mader's German Restaurant
If you've ever wanted to get primed for heart disease first thing in the morning, brunch at Mader's is a solid way to start. I sometimes feel spoiled with all the excellent brunch spots in Chicago, but how many start you off with strawberry champagne and a plate full of beef goulash and big, thick knackwurst? Standard breakfast options also abound at the buffet—eggs, bacon, made-to-order Belgian waffles and omelets—but I didn't shell out just under $20 for toast and some scramble.
My plate overflowed with fresh shrimp, smoked salmon, dill-heavy mashed potatoes and brats. Smoked pork loin and sauerbraten quickly followed, and the meal ended with a big plate of Black Forest cake. Though the brunch buffet is only on Sundays, it’s safe to say that any day you visit, Mader's will have plenty of pork product on hand.
The text orgy at Renaissance Books
I admit I'm something of a bibliophile, so the promise of three stories stocked with floor-to-ceiling books made me take notice of Renaissance. As I arrived at its main location, housed in a riverside warehouse, I thought to myself, "This place looks like it used to screen porn flicks back in the seventies."
On the inside, it feels a bit like a poorly organized garage: hard to walk through, with god-knows-what from god-knows-when sitting around on the floor. It's just books after books after books, though handwritten tags stuck to bookcases guide your way...sometimes. Signs that appear to have been printed during the waning years of the Reagan administration are taped to doors with words crossed out and faded pencil arrows. But oh God, the books: paperback romance novels, hardcover fiction, cookbooks for days, coffee table books from every era, shelves and shelves of foreign language writings from across the world and magazines dating back decades.
Oh sweet, fried everything at Palomino
On all of my other Wisco getaways, I've heard people raving about Palomino Bar and Grill and wondered what was so great about a random bar. Now I know. It's part rec-room, part punk-rock bar and part vegan-friendly restaurant. (It keeps one fryer strictly animal free, so even the no-meat cadets can have some fresh, fried goodness.) The menu proudly proclaims, "If it's good, it's better fried," and I dove right in with eight fried dill spears as an appetizer. I'm not a pickle person, but when you have the chance to eat deep-fried pickles, you damn well better take it. Violently hot, deeply juicy and only mildly pickle-y, the little suckers won me over.
I followed them up with something I never thought I'd see; Palomino actually found a way to make bacon worse for you. I had the $7.95 Chicken Fried BLT with chicken-fried bacon. Allow me to repeat: chicken-fried freaking bacon. I also partook in some beer, mashed potatoes, hush puppies, more beer and a generally awed discussion about the chicken-fried bacon.
An evening in the bar of silence at Art Altenburg's Concertina Bar
Billing itself as the only concertina (in the accordion family of instruments) bar in existence, Art's is a small slice of vintage Milwaukee barely holding onto life. From the classic brewerania covering just about every inch of wall space, to the stacked-up concertinas behind the bar—some almost as old as America—Art's breathed authenticity.
It was also quiet enough to hear the lonely breathing of the few retirement-age bar patrons. I'd hope to check out one of its concertina performances, but, unfortunately, there were only a half-dozen people huddled around a bar, with no music, live or otherwise. It didn't even have all the lights on. The matronly bartender offered me a crack at a double CD of Art's tunes but I declined, opting for a pint of Point. Rather than wait for Art, who was apparently on his way, I paid for my Point and called it a night. An interesting side note about Art's: The bartender gives you change in $2 bills and half-dollar pieces. Every time you order a beer, it's like getting a birthday card from your grandparents in return.