Sunday, January 25, 2009

Escape to Milwaukee

MILWAUKEE - When it comes to winter getaways, many of us think warm: Cabo, Jamaica, Miami. These are the literal hot spots, where bone-chilling winter blahs melt like so many snowflakes into sandy beaches, tropical drinks and balmy sunsets. But a quick jaunt to Cabo, Jamaica or even Miami isn't always an option, for obvious reasons: money, timing and availability.

Consider, then, the rogue winter excursion: Consider heading into the cold instead of warmth. Consider trekking north instead of south. Consider the urban retreat instead of the beach getaway.

In other words, consider Milwaukee.

(It should be noted that as I'm writing this a few days before you're reading this, Miami had a high of 81 F. Milwaukee's was 5 F. But Milwaukee has butter burgers.)

Sure, it's cold there. Big deal. You can handle it. Plan a weekend full of fireside relaxing and comfort-food dining. And shopping. And indoor sightseeing. And Old World culture. Milwaukee, after all, is a metropolis, which means we will feel right at home.

So what's the advantage of heading to a freezing city?

For starters, the traffic -- or lack thereof. There's hardly any congestion in Milwaukee, even during Friday rush hour. Plus, there's parking everywhere -- much of it free, or shockingly cheap. A quarter will buy you an hour.

And then there's the food. Beyond the bevy of brats and cheese curds, Milwaukee's dining scene is surprisingly satisfying. Yes, I did have a butter burger -- correction: I had a veggie butter burger. (Note to vegetarians: You'll do fine here.) But I also indulged in a leisurely Saturday night dinner for two at a restaurant whose executive chef was nominated last year for a James Beard award. Everything right down to the dessert was perfect, and the bill was less than $175 for the two of us, including drinks, tax and tip.

Consider, too, the fact that Milwaukee knows the cold well, and has planned accordingly. Should you visit the Milwaukee Art Museum (and you should), take your time in the parking garage -- it's heated. The museum itself, of course, is fabulous. Beyond the new wing designed by starchitect Santiago Calatrava, there's an enormous permanent collection that rivals most major cities'. It houses one of the largest collections of Georgia O'Keeffe paintings in the states, a cool gift shop and stunning views of Lake Michigan. Not to mention, its exhibitions are top notch. Don't tell the Art Institute of Chicago, but I kind of like Milwaukee's art museum better.

I also like its coffee better. Milwaukee's Intelligentsia, so to speak, is Alterra Coffee Roasters, and there are a half-dozen outposts (my favorite is the Fifth Ward Foundry) at which one can sip the strong stuff; eat a melt-in-your-mouth provolone, cheddar and pepperjack grilled Wisconsin cheese sandwich; and linger awhile.

Friday night fish frys are virtually everywhere in this town -- winter and summer -- and some are better than others. I took my chances on a new place in the suburbs, namely for the fact that I'd read it boasted a fireplace. Still dusted with snow from a big storm the week prior, the Pleasant Valley Inn was a cozy wintry oasis, right down to the snowman stationed at the entryway. The lighting is dim, the soundtrack is Frank Sinatra, and wood paneling is everywhere. Oh, and the fish fry wasn't half bad. Besides, everything tastes better fireside.

Actually, everything is better fireside. Even sleeping. Such was the rationale for booking a semi-pricey (for Milwaukee) room at the Euro-style boutique Hotel Metro. It's housed in a historic art deco building in the East Town neighborhood, and it's all suites, a number of which have gas fireplaces. Further winter relaxing comes courtesy of a rooftop spa with a saltwater hot tub, a sauna … and a mini-workout room in which to burn off some of that guilt stomached with all the good food here.

Speaking of food … That delectable Saturday night dinner for two took place at Bacchus, the newest restaurant in Milwaukee's renowned chain of Bartolotta Restaurants, founded by brothers Paul and Joe Bartolotta. It's named for the Roman god of wine, and how: Bacchus has hundreds of wines on offer, from reasonably priced glasses of Australian shiraz to a $1,200 bottle of Bordeaux. As for dinner? Flawless. The brothers are also responsible for Bartolotta's Lake Park Bistro, poised north of downtown in a stunning location overlooking Lake Michigan. It's excellent for dinner but famous for its Sunday brunch, a prix fixe with three perfect courses of casual French bistro fare. The creme brulee, by the way, is rich enough to earn Milwaukee its Cream City nickname all over again.

Beyond its restaurants, Milwaukee is a brew town, and there's no shortage of pubs at which to drink the sudsy stuff -- or learn how it's made. A tour of the Miller Brewing Co. is free, as are two complimentary samples at its conclusion. Microbreweries tend to be a bit more generous. The Sprecher Brewing Co., for instance, a tiny operation headquartered just down the street from Solly's Grille (home of the aforementioned veggie butter burger), offers a brief tour and four samples for $3, plus unlimited quaffing of its tasty root beer and sodas, and the beer-sampling glass is yours to keep when you leave.

Milwaukee's brew town legacy extends to architectural tours -- good news for gloomy days. The Pabst Mansion, on the edge of the Marquette University campus, is the massive graystone residence built for beer baron Capt. Frederick Pabst in 1892, and it's a true mansion, by every definition of the word: It's grand, it's old, it's hand-crafted, and you're not allowed to touch anything. But it's warm inside.

Also exceptionally warm: the Milwaukee Public Museum's butterfly conservatory, where it's a balmy 80 F year-round. The rest of the permanent exhibits are rather dated. "The Streets of Old Milwaukee," which showcases European immigrants' 1880s abodes, opened in 1965 -- and doesn't appear to have changed much since. But big-time visiting exhibits, like the current "Body Worlds," are a regular feature, and when coupled with admission to the Daniel M. Soref Planetarium, the $15 twofer ticket is a fine way to while away a winter afternoon.

If you venture into the cold at night, parking is a godsend, even in hip 'hoods like the East Side. On my Friday night visit, I scored a spot right in front of Hooligan's Super Bar, a 70-year-old neighborhood favorite that draws a diverse local crowd. There are a rotating 32 brews on tap, including local microbrews like Lakefront and Sprecher, and hundreds more taps decorate the walls. Across town at the Old German Beer Hall on Old World Third Street, parking was a little tougher, but worth it: Pints of Munich-brewed Hofbrauhaus flowed here like, well, beer, occasionally into oversized glasses shaped like boots -- the accessory of choice. The runner-up? An antiquated cross-country ski to which five shot glasses were affixed so that brethren can happily drink (or spill) in unison.

I challenge Miami to show me that kind of camaraderie.

No comments:

Post a Comment