Up from the River…Seeing Milwaukee from Its Waterfront Pubs

Maybe starting the day with the green fairy was not the best plan…

The Trocadero sits on a quiet corner facing the river on the east bank. It’s a sunny day, so their flowery patio is completely full. We make our way into the uncrowded bar, where my wife will try her first absinthe.

Absinthe at the Trocadero
Distilled south of downtown at the Great Lakes Distillery, this all-American version is a strong, licorice flavored kickstart to the day. I have my standby of Cazadores reposado tequila while my son stays sober with a Coke.

It’s the city that beer made famous, so it’s not surprising that Milwaukee has 101 ways to keep sobriety away. To keep things safe, our hotel’s shuttle driver is dropping us off at the north end of the Milwaukee Riverwalk. We will work our way down from here, noting the sights and drinking in the spirit of this town before calling for a ride back at the end of the day.

A quarter century ago, this area was a rundown mess with vacant land, vagrants, and trash. Now it’s teeming with gleaming new condos and a nice pedestrian bridge hung under the Holton Street Bridge. Walking across it gives us great views downriver of downtown Milwaukee. On the other side, we walk down the hill to our next stop, Lakefront Brewery.

The only building existing here during the down times, Lakefront now brews several tasty varieties of beer in that remaining structure. It’s Sunday afternoon, and the laid back staff is taking the money for the day’s only tour down in their make-shift beer garden on the river.

Seven dollars gets you the tour, a plastic glass, and four wooden tokens that can be traded for a glass of your choice of brews.

The tour guide comes out and says everyone must have a full glass of beer to start the tour, so if you already had one poured, the bartender will top it off for you and off we’ll go.

It is, as the guide says, a “magical tour.” Generous samples along the way add to the pleasant buzz we started with. The humor of the seriously inebriated and hung-over tour leader gives our funny bones a serious workout.

By the end we’ve laughed until we cried, learned the process of making this fabulous beer, swilled down several samples, and even sung the Laverne and Shirley theme song while watching a glove come down the bottling line.

I can drink no more yet I still have 4 tokens left (correct trivia answers or helping the tour guide earn you more tokens along the tour), so I make some other drinkers happy with them as we continue down the Riverwalk.

After the tour, the walk takes a turn through a quiet area where the massive Schlitz Brewery used to be. Now it’s a large office park called Schlitz Park. Just beyond it, life begins again at the Aloft Hotel where the lobby has some nice restrooms to empty off some of that beer.

Just beyond that, we detour a short block west of the river to visit Old World Third Street, a German neighborhood that now has a block filled with great shops, restaurants and bars.

A group of bruised, battered women in short shorts and tight t-shirts lingers around and chats with us. Not to worry, they’re not in need of a shelter…it’s just a roller derby team in town for the championships…

Mader’s is the big, German restaurant that’s been anchoring the northwest corner of the block for well over 100 years. They’re having a happy hour so we go in to sample some fine German beer, served in ceramic steins, at sale prices. Mader’s also makes huge and delicious pretzels that cover half of the table. It’s great beer drinking food and can feed half a dozen people.

The regular food at Mader’s is a bit on the expensive side so we continue our crawl along the block. Across the street is another Milwaukee landmark, Usinger’s sausage factory.

Serving the community since 1880, you can step into the brightly lit factory store and sample any sausage in the case. Since we’re traveling and don’t have refrigeration, the section of cured sausages that don’t need it is very handy for us. They also ship, and the sausages are reasonable and tasty.

We’d like to try some but the store is not the place to get a prepared link, nor is our hotel, so it’s back across the street where the Milwaukee Brat House sits directly across from Usinger’s.

More darkly lit bar than restaurant, the Brat House nevertheless serves up quite a menu of food…most of it geared to go down well with the multiple glasses of beer in front of us. Yes, it’s happy hour again, and here at the Brat House it’s two-for-one. Pay one price and get two glasses of beer.

We go with their namesake sausage, which is made right across the street at Usinger’s, cutting down greatly on the cost of shipping I’m sure. It’s very good on the toasted bun, especially when we load up on the giardinera, sauerkraut, and mustard. It’s also where we meet our roller derby queens.

Onward we go while my wife takes in the Spice House shop next door, my son and I sit outside away from the sharp scents of the merchandise inside. Still on the block, but will have to wait for next time, is another restaurant called Bradley’s, a branch of Munich’s Hofbrau, the Buckhead Saloon, the Notte Night Lounge (with a nice rooftop bar), the ONE Sports Lounge, and the Wisconsin Cheese Bar across from Mader’s.

All on one short block…

With the brats and pretzels soaking up the beer and keeping the sloshing to a minimum, we head back over to the river and continue our walk. It gets a little narrower at this point, not helped by the construction going on to replace a couple of the drawbridges, but we make it through. At a couple of points, we have to navigate through a sea of diners and drinkers at a few of the restaurants and bars that seem to pop up every 100 feet or so.

Now, in the heart of downtown, our trip down the Riverwalk enters the entertainment zone. My son points out the Bradley Arena…home of the NBA’s Bucks…the Pabst Theater, the Marcus Center, the Pabst Mansion, the U.S. Cellular Arena, and the Frontier Airlines Center. This is also where you’ll find the history museum, and just a few blocks east to the lakefront, you’ll find the art museum.

We’re getting down to it now as we stroll under the interstate and into the Historic Third Ward neighborhood. It’s into the Milwaukee Public Market to sample cheese, pick up some wine and beer for another day, sample hummus from Aladdin, and chips and salsa from Margarita Madness.

Out the back door and across the street is our last stop, Benelux. It’s a bar…it’s a restaurant…it’s a gift shop…it’s a European market. Actually, it’s all these things to one degree or another but mostly a restaurant.

Serving up brews at Benelux

We find a nice, roomy table in the middle of their woody dining room. At the suggestion of someone walking out as we walked in, we start off with the tater tots filled with bleu cheese and served with the Sriracha ketchup. We are not disappointed. A couple of flights of tasty Belgian and Belgian-style beers mixes well with the local lineup we’ve had along the riverfront. A pot of mussels and a pannekoken (a large, thin, crispy crepe topped with prosciutto, egg, cheese, and asparagus) fills out the bill.

The delectable food paired with great beers makes a great coda for our day-long adventure.

We return to the river, ring the giant wind chimes, and head on down to the southern terminus of the path, just beyond the lively Milwaukee Ale House…another of the city’s endless supply celebrating the brew that made them famous…as we meet up with the hotel shuttle driver to deliver safely back to our lodgings.

Photo credits:  puroticorico, all other photos courtesy of the author and may not be used without permission.

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