Cooking Light Best Cities: Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Our eighth-ranked city proves a worthy destination for food lovers, adventure seekers, and culture aficionados alike.

Our eighth-ranked city proves a worthy destination for food lovers, adventure seekers, and cultural aficionados alike.

Douglas Merriam

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One of the first things you notice about Milwaukee is what locals fondly refer to as the "Polish Moon"-the Allen-Bradley Clock Tower that's a beacon from downtown vantage points. While the clock tower has remained the same since it was built in 1962, the city surrounding it has undergone tremendous change: a dining scene that's evolved far beyond beer and bratwurst, a world-class addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum, and a surge of retail and residential development. As the city continues to evolve, locals are rediscovering it every day. You can, too, with these suggestions.

Milwaukee ranked highly for a high percentage of the population who report good or better health, a high percentage who participated in physical activity during the last month, a low percentage of population with diabetes, number of farmers' markets, and a high percentage of the population who consume five or more fruits and veggies a day.

Best way to eat like a local: Milwaukee's Friday night fish suppers are a throwback to the city's melting-pot roots. Predominantly Catholic German, Italian, Irish, and Polish immigrants brought their culinary traditions to Milwaukee in the mid-19th century. Until the mid-1960s, Catholics refrained from eating meat on Fridays and fast days, and Milwaukee restaurants responded to a demand that's never waned. Popular at venues from taverns to high-end restaurants, fish dinners are now as secular as pot roast. The fish-baked or deep-fried-is often served with potato pancakes, coleslaw, and marble rye bread. Chef/co-owner George Burzynski meticulously selects the cod and lake perch at Polonez (414-482-0080), his 23-year-old Polish restaurant. A rich cream-dill sauce flavors his baked cod.

Best healthful dining: Long before there were chain juice joints, Beans and Barley (414-278-7878) was serving fresh carrot and wheatgrass juice. The café/market's success is perhaps evidence of why more than a quarter of Milwaukee residents consume the recommended five or more servings of fruits and vegetables each day, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. Loyalists fill the sun-drenched dining room for Beans and Barley's dairy-free burritos, vegetarian chili, and mesclun salad with grilled veggies and herbed tofu.

Best indulgent treat: Despite an average annual temperature that hovers around 48 degrees, Milwaukee residents love frozen custard. Though it got its start on the East Coast, custard quickly became a Midwest staple after appearing at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair, and now Milwaukee sells more of the creamy concoction than any other city in the country. Local favorite (it consistently ranks at the top of food critics' lists) Kopp's (414-961-3288) began in 1950 and sells basic chocolate and vanilla, plus two flavors of the day-anything from German apple streusel to Never Enough Chocolate.

Best locally grown fare: Many of the ingredients Chef John Raymond uses at Roots (414-374-8480) come from a 67-acre farm in nearby Cedarburg tended by co-owner Joe Schmidt. The duo finds creative uses for their harvest. For example, last winter Raymond crafted an unusual ice cream using Red Landis Brandywine Heirloom tomatoes preserved from the summer before. Schmidt has found that Red Landis grow particularly well in the Milwaukee area's clay soil.

Best way to stretch your sea legs: Years ago, Milwaukee used the motto "a great city on a great lake." One of the first signs of summer is sailboats on the horizon of nearby Lake Michigan, within blocks of downtown. The Milwaukee Community Sailing Center (414-277-9094) turns novices into confident sailors. The center offers lessons for all ages and maintains its own fleet of nearly 80 boats. With advanced reservations, MCSC skippers can take parties of up to four people out for a one- or two-hour sail and "mini-lesson." You can't find a better view of the downtown skyline than from a sailboat cruising along the Milwaukee shoreline.


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