Milwaukee’s Best New Restaurants of 2018
Comforting and cozy were Milwaukee’s main restaurant buzzwords in 2018. Life feels a bit out of control right now, leading diners to seek out familiar, homey foods and restaurants that feel like a fuzzy pair of mittens. It's a feeling that Milwaukeeans have always embraced, so it's not surprising that our city’s restaurants went all in on the trend this year. From reimagined diners to cooking hearths and your grandma's macrame plant hangers, each one of these spots that opened since January is comforting in its own way. Next time you need a pick-me-up, head to one of these new addictions waiting to happen.
Casual, modern approach to classic French cuisine
With the closure of a couple French restaurants in Milwaukee in recent years, the market was ripe for a replacement: enter Dan Jacobs and Dan Van Rite, the talented duo from DanDan. Their Fauntleroy isn't the stuffy, uptight bistro of yore. The food is classic, like radishes with butter and steak frites, but its presentation is modern to match the ‘70s glam rock decor and music. How do you know they're keeping it real? The best item on the lunch menu is the Grand Royale cheeseburger, which goes just as well with a glass of wine as the steak tartare.
Midwestern ingredients cooked in an open hearth
With the last year being completely terrible for a lot of people, "cozy" is what many are looking for in a restaurant -- and it's difficult to get much cozier than the open cooking hearth at Birch + Butcher. Sit near the end of the bar to peer directly into the open kitchen, with its big butcher block work surface and giant fireplace with its own stainless steel hood. Cooking food directly over an open flame will never get old, and when you combine it with Midwest ingredients and modern techniques, you really can’t lose. Roasted meatballs over grits with Pleasant Ridge Reserve cheese and whole roasted chicken are the standouts.
Tiny, romantic Mediterranean attached to a vintage movie theater
Mistral's pretty small: just a bar, and maybe eight tables, including one that's secluded by itself in an alcove, complete with curtains. The decor is warm and reminiscent of Morocco, matching the remodeled Avalon Theater it shares a lobby with. The menu is influenced from all around the Mediterranean, including Spanish charred octopus and chorizo, a savory Tunisian pastry called brik served with seared ahi, and Italian rabbit cacciatore over brown butter polenta. With such a small space, chef Joe Schreiter is able to give each plate the attention it deserves.
Traditional Sichuan dishes in no-nonsense strip mall digs
West Allis has long been a hotbed of international cuisines in Milwaukee; Sze Chuan is the latest addition, and in true 'Stallis fashion, it's even located in a strip mall. Owners and chefs Luo Shungui and Sun Yin both hail from China's Sichuan province and they have brought with them traditional Chinese food. You'll usually see families sitting at big round tables with a bubbling cauldron of hot pot in the middle. Check boxes on the menu sheet to indicate what you want to order, like thinly sliced lamb and fish balls, for a warming winter meal. Whole fried fish bathed in bright red chile-specked sauce is also popular, as are spicy pork dumplings, cumin lamb noodles, and dry pot dishes from cauliflower to duck wings.
Chaotic, nostalgic bar with inventive small plates
Imagine a bunch of slightly stoned older millennial dudes who felt super nostalgic got together and opened their ideal hangout spot -- oh, also, imagine they're all really great chefs and bartenders. Voila: You’ve got Snack Boys. The space is adorned with macrame plant holders, custom neon, retro fish tanks, and a giant nude Burt Reynolds, and somehow that's a perfect atmosphere to serve up slushie cocktails rimmed with Pop Rocks. The menu changes all the time, but always get the homemade cheese fries, fried turkey tail, and whatever the "Send Noodz" noodles are that day. After-school snacks like fried bologna sandwiches (with aioli and giardiniera) and "Chips Toodaloo" are also good bets.
Chic vegan spot with global flavors
Milwaukee isn't exactly the most vegetarian-friendly city, but it took a big step in that direction when Celesta opened on the East Side this year. It started as a pop-up restaurant in other locations, but became popular enough that a permanent spot was feasible for owner Melanie Manuel. Cuisine from all over influences her menu, with items like crispy lemon risotto arancini balls and roasted potato Lima fries with cilantro, scallion, and remoulade. Vegan versions of comfort food classics, like a "turkey" club with house-made seitan and smoked tempeh, and a riff on a plate of Southern classics like mac and cheese and fried seitan, also appear prominently on the menu.
Sleek Korean fusion that's cafe by day
There are surprisingly few Korean restaurants around town, so when a new one pops up we take notice. Char'd is Korean at its roots, with modern presentations to match its industrial chic interior. During the day, the space is a casual cafe with coffee and lunch items, but becomes a full-blown restaurant and bar for dinner. Grilled meats and vegetables served on a sizzling stone are the focus and are served with ssam, the leafy lettuces and herbs used for wrapping the grilled items into a tasty little roll. Korean-style fried chicken is ultra crispy and served in a sticky sweet and spicy sauce, while fusion dishes like kimchi paella with bulgogi and beef tartare with Asian pear and wasabi cream exemplify the kitchen's vision.
Cozy, reimagined diner and full bar
If there's one restaurant format that will always be welcome in Milwaukee, it's the diner. Don's takes the familiar comfort food classics and adds a bar, because booze is always welcome in MKE too. The menu is smaller than your average diner’s, but the food is streamlined and totally Wisconsin-appropriate. Breakfast is available all the time (duh) and goes beyond the usual eggs and toast, with items like corned beef tongue hash and a Yooper baked French toast casserole topped with duck confit and Door County cherries. Sandwiches, like the burger that's served in a rich pool of demi-glace, come with creamy red potato salad or sauerkraut sides. Milkshakes can be spiked, but if you're really looking to drink, go for lunch when martinis are only 10 cents with your meal. Smart move limiting those to three...
Small plates and cocktails with a view (duh)
View MKE occupies the building with one of the best views of the city in Milwaukee. Its arrival was contentious due to some drama with the previous, beloved tenant, but the new guys -- who also own kid-friendly StoneFire Pizza in New Berlin -- have staked their claim in the locally-sourced small plates world. The patio has been expanded and a wall of windows that open fully to take full advantage of the majestic view. Cheese and charcuterie boards are designed for sharing on the patio, as are the thin crust pizzas that come out of the wood oven. Plates range from jaeger schnitzel to curried cauliflower, but the baklava french toast at brunch steals the show.