Milwaukee: The Midwest Marvel

Milwaukee isn’t on your list of favorite travel destinations? It may be time to update your list, like I did after discovering its awesome music culture, jumping nightlife and impressive cuisine.

The hub of the early 20th socialist movement and currently a democratic stronghold, Milwaukee is a metropolis that prides itself on its liberalism as much as its beer. And as “the city of festivals” Milwaukee celebrates an annual Polish fest, Festa Italiana, German Fest, PrideFest, among others. City initiatives are working to tear down lingering prejudices about this midwestern cultural hub to unveil the truly hip behind the presumptively hick.

I must admit that my drive from the airport into downtown past smokestacks, red brick structures and factories only reinforced my prejudices. But as we ventured deep into the heart of downtown Milwaukee, my skepticism gave way to pleasant surprise. The streets were lined with trendy restaurants and bars. Red brick gave way to chic high-rise apartments. A beautiful park ran along the shores of Lake Michigan. And if you were under the impression that exercise was alien to Wisconsin culture, you will understand my surprise when I saw sidewalks crowded with joggers and bicyclists braving the 87 degree heat. In fact, Men’s Fitness Magazine ranked Milwaukee “10th Fittest City in the Nation” in 2009.

Designed by three legendary architects, the Milwaukee Art Museum sits on on the shore of Lake Michigan as testament to the importance of art culture in this metropolis.

I checked into the Intercontinental and asked the concierge for dinner recommendations. “Do you like Cuban food?” I’d give it a try, I said. He directed me to Cubanitas — one of his personal favorites, and insisted that I try their mojito. But my room almost took away all motivation to venture out for dinner: two flat-screen TVs, a plush couch, a luxurious separate lounge area and a queenly bed that invited me to nap in the grand style.

I had every intention of dining Cuban for the evening, but as I stepped out of the building I was snared by the siren strains of a familiar tune. It overpowered my desire for Latin cuisine. I was led across a bridge and into Pere Marquette Park where an unlikely blonde in a jean miniskirt belted the jazz standard “ I Don’t Know Enough About You.” Families gathered to watch. I would later learn that what had seemed to me a very happy coincidence was routine in Milwaukee. The city offers a free outdoor concert at least two summer evenings a week.

Sitting on that small plot of grass along the river transported me to some small southern town on the Mississippi rather than the middle of a major metropolis. That was when I began to sense that Milwaukee was unlike any city I had ever seen.


The next morning I took a stroll lakeside. By the time I reached the shore I was regretting having foregone the convenience of public transportation. The blazing sun made me sweat from pores I never knew I had. I cut resentful glances at cheerful joggers coursing the path.

Just as I was about to surrender to the heat, I spotted a very pleasant structure perched across the street. The Alterra Café on the lake turned out to be a local landmark. I walked in, admiring the spacious dark logwood interior that was at once hip and mellow, just the kind of café I loved to frequent in Berkeley.

Looking out onto the shores of Lake Michigan, the Alterra Café provides a perfect spot for a leisurely afternoon drink out on the terrace.

Pooped from my morning journey (which I later learned was just under 2 miles), my stomach grumbled for a good breakfast and a very cold, very refreshing drink. I ordered the Florentine Sandwich and the “sportea” for $8.36. Not bad. I took my number, picked up my tea and headed outside.

I rarely gush over tea, but this was one of the best iced teas ever. It was tangy and fragrant and sweetened lightly enough for even a diehard unsweetened tea drinkers like me. It hit the spot. The blocky egg patty in my sandwich left me baffled me, but overall, the place was a real charmer. I understood why locals hung out there with laptops and books.


In the afternoon we were off to the Potawatomi Casino. We drove out of downtown venturing into what looked like abandoned industrial land. Admittedly, I wasn’t too excited as we pulled into the entryway of the massive casino structure. I have never been a fan of gambling — the only real appeal of Vegas for me being its cuisine and shopping.

For lunch we dined at the Dream Dance Steak Restaurant, located inside the casino, presided over by award winning chef Jason Gorman. The interior was beautifully decorated: modern, luxuriant and elegant. Tacky was always a word I associated with chandeliers but I marveled at the one that hovered above our table. The food was equally spectacular.

While I’m not a true fan of anything shellfish I nearly finished off my plate of the white shrimp cocktail — refreshing, delicate, and very tasty. Next came the Dream Dance Steak Salad. The steak was cooked to tender perfection and lightly drizzled with a cheddar vinaigrette. We chased our two courses with a monster brick of chocolate cake.

The modern elegance of the Dream Dance Steak Restaurant makes for a romantic evening, while the steak salad drizzled with a light cheddar vinaigrette is just what the name implies: dreamy.

Named “The Best Casino in the Region” by the Chicago Tribune in 2009, the Potawatomi Casino attracts more than four million visitors a year. With over 3,000 slot machines, 20 tables of poker and over 1,300 seats for bingo, the casino houses every gambling vice and device you could want. Equally impressive is the fact that it is one of the largest minority-owned businesses in the state. Minorities comprise 53% of its payroll.

For those who just want entertainment and good grub, the casino’s Northern Lights Theater offers regular performances and free comedy shows every Saturday evening. The Ru-Yi restaurant offers authentic Asian cuisine with a menu specifying the nationality of each dish ranging from Vietnamese to Korean. The manager himself is half-Japanese. And of course the mini-Vegas experience wouldn’t be complete without a sports bar lined with flat screen TVs, a full Vegas-style buffet, and a food court. Next

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