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Hidden Gems

Apr. 1, 2015
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Tip Top Atomic Shop - Photo by Dave Zylstra


3041 W. North Ave.

Billed as an “urban country club for the soul,” 3041North boasts an interior heavy on black and touches of chrome, balanced by a sunroof over the dance floor. The setting provides the backdrop for music and happenings diverse enough to include blues, smooth jazz, alt and adult R&B, reggae, salsa, bachata, comedy, poetry/spoken word and dance lessons. African American soul food and Caribbean brunches and dinners are served. Appealing largely to 35-plus clientele, the space is truly one for urban “grown folks.” As of this writing, some outdoor signage as eye-catching as its interior would be welcome, but even without it, 3041North has already proven to be a valuable addition to inner city nightlife and culture. (Jamie Lee Rake)

The Board Game Barrister 
Bayshore Town Center (next to the Food Court)
5800 N. Bayshore Drive 

Greenfield Towne Center 
6120 W. Layton Ave.

In this age of online shopping, it could be tempting to simply order your games from the Internet. But then you’d miss out on the exceptional opportunity the Board Game Barrister provides. Few things are more fun for gamers than browsing through the well-stocked shelves, picking the brains of the knowledgeable staff or even partaking in demos or other gaming events. If you’re unsure about buying a game you haven’t played, chances are it’s in the 900-some game library and you could try it out before shelling out. The Board Game Barrister also stocks a solid selection of brainy toys and puzzles. (Susan Harpt Grimes)

Brenner Brewing Company

706 S. Fifth St.

Part brewery, part tasting room and part contemporary art gallery, the inside of this newly established 25,000-square-foot facility is much more than just a bar. The space is located just a few storefronts down from La Perla restaurant in Walker’s Point. At Brenner, beer and art, not necessarily the most obvious companions, coexist nicely. Patrons can meander through the conjoined gallery’s art installations or simply watch the game, which is projected on the wall, and munch on bar snacks. Tours are $8 a head and come with four 5-ounce glasses of authentic Brenner beers. The selection is impeccable, including the HaseWeizen Hopfenweizenbock (a pilsner malt with subtle hints of banana flavors), City Fox Pale Ale (a session ale with hints of fruits and citrus) and the Bacon Bomb Rauchbier (a blend of beechwood- and cherrywood-smoked malts with chocolate wheat and fresh black pepper). (Mac Writt)

Bugsy’s Back Alley Speakeasy

218 N. Water St.

Bugsy’s is a hideaway in the heart of the Third Ward. Like any good speakeasy it has two ways in and out, an unmarked door in back of Gouda’s Italian Deli and an alley entrance marked by a red light. Elegance resides inside, with a vintage white-and-black tile floor and lots of black lacquer, a bar, a pair of elevated seating areas and an alcove with a power view. The lights are dim and candles flicker along rows of top-shelf liquor. Happy Hour runs 5-8 p.m. on weekdays and features a small menu of sandwiches and appetizers from Gouda’s. Tuesday is vintage movie night and live music is featured Thursdays through Saturdays. The waitresses are dressed in flapper fashion to help maintain the image of a joint where Capone and Dillinger could have talked shop. (David Luhrssen)

La Casa de Alberto

624 W. National Ave.

Longtime Conejito’s employees Alberto and Laura Gonzalez opened their own restaurant with inexpensive, delicious Mexican food, but without the paper plates ubiquitous at their former establishment. The menu is small and includes favorites like tacos, tostadas, tortas and mole, plus guacamole and of course, margaritas. If you’re in the mood for seafood, the shrimp a la diabla with peppers and onions in a spicy red salsa should fit the bill. (Lacey Muszynski)

Chef Paz Restaurant

9039 W. National Ave.

Milwaukee has never had a rich tradition of Peruvian restaurants and the few that have popped up haven’t lasted long. Thankfully, West Allis’ Chef Paz seems in it for the long haul. This small restaurant offers a big menu of seafood entrées and Peruvian specialties, including ceviche, chicken pot gratin and lomo saltado—strips of soy sauce-marinated tenderloin stir fried with tomatoes and onions and served over French fries and white rice. This is comfort food at its most satisfying. (Evan Rytlewski)

Circle A

932 E. Chambers St.

Upon first glance, this bar seems like American Science & Surplus got a liquor license. Cozy and the height of cool, there is not room for more than three tables but you can choose to sit at the bar and watch a live band pack into the corner every Friday-Sunday. Plastered with posters and ephemera of the music its walls have heard, the friendly bartenders can whip you up a drink while your eyes explore the layers of stories from floor to ceiling, or pause on the television set to constant static. (Hannah Klapperich-Mueller)

Coast In Bikes

703 S. Second St.

For cyclists who tire of riding the same wheels every week, Walker’s Point’s Coast In Bikes offers an easy way to mix things up. Customers can rent out nearly any bike in the shop, even new ones or specialty ones like tandem bikes and fat bikes, whose monster tires make biking a breeze even on slick, snow-covered streets. The rentals are a great option for visitors who want to rip around the city for a weekend or for cyclists afraid of committing. If renters decide they’d like to buy their bike, Coast In will deduct their rental fees. (E.R.)

Cold Spring Inn & Vineyard

1033 Plat Road, Hubertus

Not your typical restored Victorian turned bed and breakfast, Cold Spring Inn is thoroughly modern, comfortably elegant and above all, very peaceful. Three well-appointed rooms with whirlpool tubs and fireplaces, a tropical greenhouse that can double as a breakfast spot, miles of trails, tennis courts and a private vineyard are just a sample of the many amenities offered by innkeepers Kari Davidson and Jerry Munley. Located near Holy Hill, the inn and the grounds are beautiful in all seasons. (S.H.G.)

CORE/El Centro

130 W. Bruce St.

A community organization based on natural healing principles, CORE offers exercise classes, bodywork including massage, acupuncture and reiki, and a children’s wellness program, all on a sliding fee scale. They have a strong group of volunteers and promote the bilingual community they serve. CORE makes its home inside the Clock Shadow Building in Walker’s Point; the structure is designed on green principles, with a rooftop garden, energy-efficient elevator and a stairwell that boasts an impressive fabric mural celebrating the beauties of the natural world. (H.K.M.)

Dino House

Corner of 33rd St. and W. Cherry St.

One of Milwaukee’s residential curiosities, this home boasts an outdoor menagerie of strange stuff. This visually arresting house appears to be part museum, part toy bin and part junk drawer. From life-size dinosaurs to totem poles, the ensemble includes mannequins, horses, bears and bones. While definitely worth a look for those interested in eclectic collections, it is a private residence, so don’t venture beyond the chain link fence. (H.K.M.)

El Señorial

1901 S. 31st St.

The must-order dish at this South Side Mexican spot is the parrillada. It’s served family style on a tabletop burner and you order by how many people are partaking. The regular parrillada comes piled high with grilled beef ribs, Mexican sausage and steak and the “combination” adds chicken legs and pork loin to the meat fest. There’s also grilled whole peppers, onions and tortillas for make-your-own tacos. Wash it all down with their large and very respectable michelada, a beer and spicy tomato juice mix. (L.M.)

Gene’s Lane & Lounge

6315 W. Fond du Lac Ave.

A ball rolling into some pins may distinguish the signage for Gene’s Lane & Lounge, but bowling looks to be a secondary attraction for this far Northwest Side mainstay of Milwaukee’s African American nightlife. Gene’s Lounge hosts a stage where concerts by touring Southern soul acts and local artists specializing in other grown folks’ music play out. TVs throughout the venue can be tuned to a sporting event or set for a video jockey to play videos of old-school funk and R&B. The second of those options also works in conjunction with Gene’s ample dance floor, where it’s not uncommon for well-known DJs about town to show off their skills. As of this writing, WNOV’s Ernie G. currently holds a Friday night residency wherein he reprises the largely ’70s-’80s slant of his Saturday afternoon “G.’s Jams” show. That night of nostalgic sounds coincides with a Friday fish fry, but mouthwatering fried butterfly cut pork chops and other easily made bar entrées may be had from the kitchen most every night. The entryway may not be the most handicap-accessible, but amiable, often dressed-to-impress clientele will likely assist anyone wanting to join in on the fun to be had at Gene’s. (J.L.R.)

Hubbard Park Beer Garden

3565 N. Morris Blvd.

In a brilliant nod to Milwaukee’s German roots, the decision to create beer gardens in several of our public parks these past few years has been met with much local support. One of the newest, located in Hubbard Park, is extra special because you get to go through a tunnel to get to it. One visit to the open-air beer garden will educate visitors as to why our ancestors began such traditions. Grab a freshly tapped local beer and a brat, gather around a picnic table and enjoy the sights and sounds of nature. Prost! (S.H.G.)

JC King’s Tortas

3128 S. 13th St.

This small restaurant and food truck serves up massive tortas of all kinds and combinations, plus a menu of other Mexican favorites. Tortas that mix rich meats like steak and bacon with caramelized grilled pineapple are the big winners, along with anything with fried chicken or steak cutlet, called milanesa. If you’re in a taco mood, try the melt-in-your-mouth carnitas. Don’t be surprised when you sit down and don’t get salsa, though. Instead, you get a cup of warm, smoky pinto beans, a hearty welcome. (L.M.)

Kewpee Lunch

520 Wisconsin Ave., Racine

One of the last remaining locations of this Depression-era franchise serves up hand-formed burgers in an old-school diner setting. Creepy antique kewpie dolls fill up display cases, but it’s worth their little plastic eyes staring at you for these loosely packed burgers topped with pickle chips and raw onion. Crinkle-cut fries, malts and homemade root beer round out meals at this spot that’s been open since the 1920s. The original building is long gone, but the diner-style counter and stools remind you of a bygone era. (L.M.)

Koppa’s Fulbeli Deli

1940 N. Farwell Ave.

This small East Side grocery and deli has received a major boost in selection, quality, layout and charm since the Shah family bought it two years ago. Good-weather outdoor seating and a sign offering grocery deliveries with a 5% senior discount hint at the friendly atmosphere inside, where new tables nuzzle a wall of amusing customer comments. Store aisles are named for neighborhood streets. A black walk-in beer cooler named “Batcave” boasts 380 different beers. A well-stocked liquor aisle features 400 wines. Normal grocery store items mingle with funny-strange wall decorations. Sixty percent of everything sold here comes from Wisconsin including fresh organic produce, fresh meats, freshly brewed coffee and a big selection of coffee beans to grind on the premises. Peruse old books from overstuffed chairs or play original Atari games gratis while your deli order is readied, be it salad, sandwich, Indian, Chinese, vegetarian, gluten-free or made from the flesh of the fabled Rhinelander Hodag. (John Schneider)

Mazos Hamburgers

3146 S. 27th St.

Sometimes a hidden gem can go unnoticed for decades right under your nose. Mazos Hamburgers has been on the South Side since 1934 and many people still aren’t familiar with their burgers made from beef ground daily in the restaurant. Each burger order comes with two sides and you can pick from homemade soups, American fries, baked beans and applesauce, among others. Walk across the street and you can get a cone at Leon’s Frozen Custard to complete the ultimate old-school Milwaukee meal. (L.M.)

MKE Shears

1690 N. Franklin Place

MKE Shears is a cool new hair salon just off Brady Street on the East Side. But it’s more than just a place to get your hair done—the building has a true Milwaukee vibe, with walls of Cream City brick filled with art from local artists, all available for sale. The goal is comfort and fun: You can even enjoy a drink while you wait. Women’s haircuts start at $40. (H.K.M.)

Mount Mary University Grounds

2900 N. Menomonee River Parkway

Mount Mary University has operated in its current location since 1929, when it took over the 80-acre plot from a horse farm. The Gothic bell tower, archways and academic buildings date from that period. When asked about her favorite features of the campus, former Director of Buildings and Grounds Sr. Georgeann Krzyzanowski cites the “beautiful fountain with our Blessed Mother looking over it and our woods. Come through in the fall when the trees change color. We also have a labyrinth.” Mount Mary’s groves and green space are also great for walking the dog, jogging or flying a kite. (Selena Milewski)

North Avenue Grill

7225 W. North Ave.

In the two years since current owner Mike Topolovich took over, the North Avenue Grill has gained a loyal following. Fresh, simple ingredients, prepared quickly have been a winning combination. Killer all-day breakfasts, creatively topped burgers, an outstanding Friday fish fry and an all-around great staff also factor into the success of the North Avenue Grill. It can fill up fast at peak times, so you may have a short wait for a table. If you find this to be the case, just know it is definitely worth the wait. (S.H.G.)

Ono Kine Grindz

7215 W. North Ave.

Pining away for Hawaiian delicacies? Lucky for Milwaukee, Ono Kine Grindz, part specialty grocery, part Hawaiian restaurant, is so near. Coffee, beer, juice, specialty sauces and other goodies from the 50th state are well represented. Plus, amazing dishes like the barbecued Char Siu Chicken and the smoked pulled-pork Kalua Pig will transport your taste buds to the best of island dining. Most of the dishes are served with unique sides like a delish carrot-pineapple slaw, macaroni-potato salad or purple sticky rice. Take your meal home or grab a seat in the cozy Hawaiian-themed dining area. (S.H.G.)

Outword Books, Gifts & Coffee

2710 N. Murray Ave.

This unsuspecting little LGBT bookshop is snuggled amongst the rows off-campus student housing on Milwaukee’s East Side. You’ll find here shelf upon shelf of fiction and nonfiction reading materials, including gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and African American topics, LGBT literary classics and a children’s book section. They carry a wide music selection, stacks of queer magazines, DVDs and all the rainbow-colored flags, buttons and clothing you’ll find outside Milwaukee Pridefest. Outword also has a small coffee bar, both men’s and women’s book clubs and book signings to socialize with fellow LGBT Milwaukeeans. (M.W.)

Red Light Ramen

1751 N. Farwell Ave.

Every Friday and Saturday night at 11:30 p.m., upscale Ardent transforms into an underground ramen shop. The complex broth ranges from classic tonkotsu with soft-boiled egg and pork to Cincinnati-style chili ramen with cheddar noodles and oyster crackers. Wash it down with a PBR tallboy or the popular booze slushies, often in 7-and-7 or brandy old fashioned flavors. You’ll have to get there early to get a spot though, since a line forms outside before they open, even in snowstorms. (L.M.)

Refuge Smoothie Café

2758 N. Broadway (inside the Milwaukee Athletic Club), 414-847-2020
2328 N. Farwell Ave., 414-455-3369
422 E. Lincoln Ave., 414-616-1565

Each of Refuge’s fruit smoothie concoctions—like the Will Allen (spinach, kale, apple and mint), Diane De La Santos (pineapple, mango, banana and papaya) and the Joe Herr (pineapple, raspberry and grape)—is delicious and special in its own way, much like the famous Wisconsinites they were named after, veering away from the average coffee shop or bar. Their menu boasts eight smoothie choices and six juices, each customizable with protein powders and multi-vitamins. They also serve roll-ups, breakfast sandwiches, coffee, tea and lattes. The café’s East Side location is particularly nice to relax in, with cozy tables and booths, free WIFI and team trivia every Wednesday night featuring Quizmaster trivia with $5 smoothies. (M.W.)

Roman’s Pub

3475 S. Kinnickinnic Ave.

You won’t find any watery domestics at Roman’s Pub. You won’t even find Spotted Cow. Positioned between Bay View’s trendy hot spots to the north and St. Francis’ cozy corner taps to the south, this 35-year-old pub prides itself on the most selective taps in the city, offering dozens of craft and specialty brews and a beer list that rotates constantly, with exotic sours, rare imports and aged cellar beers. Owner Mike Roman doesn’t care much for appearances. If it’s on tap here there’s only one reason for it: It’s one of the best beers in the world. (E.R.)

Rupena’s Fine Foods

7641 W. Beloit Road

Rupena’s is a small neighborhood grocer and butcher that remains a staple on the South Side. There’s a small grocery, produce and frozen section, but the real draws are the butcher, deli and bakery at the back of the store. Homemade sausages, especially the hot Hungarians and brats, are ever popular, as are high-end beef cuts and venison processing during hunting season. The deli counter serves up a popular fish fry by the pound, along with myriad salads and slaws. Hot ham with Vienna rolls and fresh donuts are a Sunday morning tradition. (L.M.)

So Cool Crafts

4160 N. Oakland Ave.

Nestled in the collection of shops next to Benji’s Deli, this Shorewood studio provides artistic and educational opportunities to both young and old. Owner and purveyor Seon Joo So first moved to the US in 2006 to pursue a career in the food industry but soon changed gears, choosing to study early childhood education. Upon graduation she opened So Cool Crafts, where she now teaches ancient Korean origami art, or Jong-Ie Jopgi. The classes are a great way to introduce art and geometry skills to young students, but the classes also teach kids about Korean culture. So’s studio holds classes for children as young as 4 and offers teenage and adult certification programs along with private tutoring sessions. Free open studio sessions are available starting at 4 p.m. on Saturdays, or you can stop in to peruse or purchase So’s meticulously crafted origami pieces, which cover her studio’s walls. (M.W.)

Stag Barbershop

3064 S. Delaware Ave.

This Bay View establishment puts a new twist on an old-time tradition. Walking into Stag is like walking back in time; glassy-eyed taxidermies line the walls, a wooden display case features pomade and straight razors and shiny antique barber chairs are present. In a neighborhood overwhelmed with specialty beauty salons, this barbershop has an uncomplicated approach to the humble haircut. A men’s cut or shave will run you $30 or $55 for both. The store also offers patrons beard and mustache trims, neck waxing, grey blending and even shoeshines, Tuesday-Friday. What sets this place apart is its friendly all-female staff who greet greets every customer with a warm smile and cold PBR. Stag is for that rugged American man in everybody. (M.W.)

The Standard

1745 N. Franklin Place

Just enough off Brady Street to go unnoticed, this small, sweet neighborhood bar from the 19th century was bought in 2011 by friends with many years of experience working at East Side taverns. They’re friends with the reps and the patrons too. Beer is the specialty. “Good beer, old vibe,” summarized owner-operator Steve Gilbertson. “A 70-year-old couple next to college kids and middle-aged businesswomen, blue collar, white collar, service industry people, bikers. We have 130 different beers available on average. Tap beers are all craft micros, imports and American, most from the Midwest. We never have the same barrels twice in a row. Some I’ll bring back after a month or so, the rest are never seen again, not because they’re bad but just because there are so many other good ones to try.” (J.S.)

Ted’s Ice Cream & Restaurant

6204 W. North Ave.

If you ever wonder what it was like to eat at a 1940s diner, take a trip to Ted’s on North Avenue and wonder no longer. Double U-shaped counter seating encourages a sense of community and classic diner “stick-to-the ribs” breakfast food will satisfy even the hungriest customers. Be sure to try a thick and creamy malt—no matter what time of the day you visit. The business has been in the same family since 1941 and perhaps that continuity is what has kept Ted’s a go-to place in the neighborhood. (S.H.G.)

Thai Bangkok

9112 W. Brown Deer Road

Located in an unassuming strip mall on the Northwest Side of town, it’s not exactly in one of the hot dining areas of the city. Undaunted by this, Thai Bangkok continues to turn out some of the best food in the city. All of your Thai favorites, plus a few Hmong, Vietnamese and Chinese dishes that round out the menu, are made with fresh, simple ingredients for delicious results. The excellent food coupled with reasonable prices and generous portions should leave no doubt as to why Thai Bangkok is a Milwaukee treasure. (S.H.G.)

Three Bridges Park

Banks of the Menomonee River
South 35th Street to Layton Boulevard

This park is truly one-of-a-kind in the spirit of collaboration that marked its creation. It pockets a section of the Hank Aaron State Trail, the Menomonee River and a number of businesses that call the valley home. It also has the added benefit of support from the nearby branch of the Urban Ecology Center. The park houses community garden plots, two miles of handicap-accessible biking and walking trails, river access for canoeing, kayaking or fishing, and the three striking bridges for which the property is named. It is neither a state nor a county park but rather a small section of wild amidst the city bustle, well-loved by the people who know it. (H.K.M.)

Tip Top Atomic Shop

2343 S. Kinnickinnic Ave.

Though Bay View has welcomed a number of high-end businesses over the last half decade, the neighborhood hasn’t lost its sense of kitsch. No store better embodies that retro spirit than Kinnickinnic Avenue’s Tip Top Atomic Shop, an antiques store that celebrates the forward-looking designs of the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. It’s a must-stop for anybody with even a fleeting interest in rockabilly or pin-up culture, packed tight with vintage cocktail shakers, tiki collectibles, bowling shirts, bright sundresses and loud jewelry. (E.R.)

Twisted Fisherman

1200 W. Canal St.

Barnacle Bud’s has long been Milwaukee’s go-to destination for beachy ambiance and riverside food and drinks, but the Menomonee Valley’s too-easily-overlooked Twisted Fisherman deserves a spot in the city’s heart, too. The food is a touch more upscale than Buds’ plastic-basket fare, with a solid fish fry and a surf-and-turf option for big spenders, and the drinks are unabashedly sweet and boozy. After a couple of them on the bar’s sunny patio you’ll feel like you’re on vacation, even if you have to report to work a half mile away the next morning. (E.R.)

The Yardarm

920 Erie St., Racine

Down a steep hill at the end of a road overlooking Racine’s harbor, The Yardarm is a rambling collection of rooms linked together in a single bar-restaurant. Aside from a great view of the lakefront and the masts from the marina, The Yardarm has an excellent menu of sandwiches, fish fry and a house specialty: sand dollar potatoes. The service is friendly and a small stage near the bar affords space for free live music on Wednesday and Saturday. It’s a favorite hangout in Racine and worth the trip from Milwaukee. (D.L.)


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