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Milwaukee, WI. Posted on 06/21/2002.

new-to-mil (7k image)

We were making good time on our sojourn, and it looked as if we could arrive in Chicago a day early. (I had to get there by Tuesday to prepare for teaching workshops on Wednesday and Thursday.) Instead, I suggested to dad that we choose an alternate route, one that would have us staying in Milwaukee for the night. Why Milwaukee? Because I'd both read in the media and heard from friends that the city was having something of a rebirth, and I'd never been there before, and this trip was all about new experiences, so hell, why not?

Our first activity was to find a bookstore, wherein we could find a guidebook that might suggest some options for the day. We ended up at a downtown mall that was pretty much deserted, and a brief conversation with some sales clerks inside the mall's Eddie Bauer informed us that the lack of a crowd is pretty standard. Not a good sign for a city on the rebound. Flipping through a city guide in the Waldenbooks (yes! they still exist!), we read that "Historic Brady Street" was where the "hipsters" were, which in my mind translated to, "that's where the good coffee will be!"

We found pretty good coffee at "Brewed Awakenings." Even better, we found a very friendly local, an unemployed graphic designer ("you have them here, too?"), who filled up an entire napkin with suggestions for where to eat and drink. After driving and wandering around for a couple of hours, we returned to Brady Street for a drink at the Hi Hat, where our very friendly bartender (originally from Orange County, clearly missed California a bit), served my dad the largest martini ever, and offered us the use of the house phone and phone book to find lodging and dining--even though the Hi Hat served food itself!

For dinner we settled on what we learned was a true Milwaukee Experience--Kopp's Frozen Custard. It's a massive operation, serving burgers, fries, and various forms of frozen custard (a supposedly thicker/richer kind of ice cream). A huge crowd of people were ordering and eating, the energy in the place nearly palpable. Unfortunately, the food itself was remarkably bland--I prefer In-n-Out burgers and fries. Still, I suspect we got a sense of "real Milwaukee", which is definitely part of the point of such travels.

Heading out of town the following morning, we did find some very good coffee at the Hi-Fi Cafe (which dad and I kept calling the "Hi-Lo", in honor of our favorite diner in Weed, CA.... and what is it with Milwaukeeans and the diminutive "Hi"?), which is in the Bayview neighborhood, which had the most interesting vibe (funky, ethnic variety, creative) we'd seen in the city.

While I in no way regret the time we spent in Milwaukee, I don't think I'd ever go again. The people were very pleasant, but, frankly, it's a kinda-depressing post-industrial city without a whole lot going on. If you're thinking like I was thinking, "Hey, I have a day to kill, I'll go to Milwaukee," well, I'd now suggest to not bother.

5 comments so far. Add a comment.

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You like coffee & intellectuals, so why the hell did you go to Milwaukee when the always-cheerful college town Madison WI was just as close. Sorry babe, no one to blame but yourself on that call.
Posted by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson @ 06/21/2002 08:39 PM PST [link to this comment]

I've already been to Madison. Pleasant enough town. But Milwaukee was something new! Plus "Milwaukee" is a lot more fun to say.
Posted by peterme @ 06/22/2002 12:19 AM PST [link to this comment]

I'm telling you, the Lakefront Brewery tour and the Eisner Museum of Design & Advertising are enough to almost singlehandedly redeem the entire damn city. Do it right next time! ;)

(And Noel and Stacia are the *really* right people to ask for hints, if you ever decide to brave the area again...)
Posted by Xy @ 06/22/2002 04:48 PM PST [link to this comment]

As a resident Milwaukeean of 2 years, a Californian by upbringing, and avid traveler (especially by highway and back roads), I have to say that you've not given Milwaukee a fair shake. I’m especially glad the malls, however meager they are, are not grand in scale nor attract large crowds which many might define as a tell-tale sign of a booming economy. Instead, Milwaukee’s a town of diversity and family owned businesses, the kind that have gone by the wayside as a result of large franchise chains and mega-stores that have forced the honest multi-generation store owners into demeaning clerk and management positions at blockbuster monoliths.

I think what you might have been looking for was familiarity, a comfort zone you couldn’t locate in a post industrial town whose mostly European neighborhoods are not identifiable by hipster squares and artists hangouts; rather, these friendly and helpful hardworking folk pride themselves in their heritage and identify themselves on cultural foods and activities. When you asked for a place to eat, did you say “burger and fries” or “brat and bier”?

I’ve driven through many towns and even those large enough to call themselves cities. Judging what you want based on what you know doesn’t permit true open-mindedness. I think you were disappointed because Milwaukee doesn’t have a “center” but is more diverse than you know how to recognize. And I agree, In ‘n’ Out Burger has better burgers and fries, but not better shakes. Frozen custard is not richer, thicker ice cream; frozen custard reflects Wisconsin’s pride as a dairy state: frozen custard is a full-bodied dessert, no non-fat here, no ice milk, no carnation milkshake in a carton, this stuff is fresh and made daily and is as waist expanding as you would expect a “cream rises to the top” dessert should be.
Posted by staci @ 06/26/2002 12:39 AM PST [link to this comment]

I haven't had an honest to goodness frozen custard in decades..
When we traveled through the area, and Milwaukee in '93', it was to visit a relative of my husband for a day/night, then on to places east.. I'm sorry I didn't have a custard..
My husband, son, and his room mate ( we were vacationing together), did enjoy a trip to the brewery, which included tasting of another kind..
Being from where they don't have them, my biggest enjoyment was fresh made White Castle burgers with brown mustard (wherever we could find them), and Vienna hotdogs in Chicago.. Hotdogs,fries, and root beer, Yum!!!
Posted by a. webby @ 06/26/2002 03:43 PM PST [link to this comment]

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