Where to Get A Great Burger and Martini
Great fries, too. Here are my six favorite places. What are yours?
I’ll be writing a dining column for Urban Milwaukee a few times a month. While I’ll be reviewing restaurants, I think of myself less as a restaurant reviewer—Milwaukee already has several excellent ones—than as a food writer in the James Villas or Calvin Trillin vein, and I’ll sometimes write about particular dishes or, as in this first column, particular kinds of dining experiences.
Sometimes when I don’t feel like cooking and won’t be eating out with anyone else, my thoughts turn to a certain solitary meal: an excellent hamburger and a perfect martini (gin of course, and up) at an elegant and civilized bar. You can get a hamburger and a drink just about anywhere of course, but what I’m talking about is an atmospheric bar, preferably attached to a restaurant, where you can lose yourself in contemplation while enjoying both the food and the drink—which immediately rules out sports bars and places with lots of flat screen TVs or jukeboxes on steroids.
The bar at Bacchus (925 East Wells Street, in Cudahy Towers) is a fine example. A hamburger isn’t on the menu and you can’t get one in the dining room, but if you ask for it at the bar you can get one with first rate beef cooked to order (medium rare is always my preference) with the right kind of bun—a bun with a brioche or egg crust, not too big and doughy (this is harder than you might think, as a lot of otherwise decent Milwaukee hamburgers are overwhelmed by an oversized, bready bun). Bacchus’s burger comes with lettuce and tomato, which I usually discard, and you can get it with a slab of nice cheddar cheese, which I always order, and it’s accompanied with very good, if not overwhelming, French fries. And they usually have Plymouth gin, one of my favorites, and know how to make a martini (though you should remind them to put a little vermouth in it if you want it—this is true everywhere).
Buckley’s (801 North Cass Street) is another agreeable place, not far from Bacchus. The intimate wooden bar is quite beautiful, with sconces, mirrors, busts and glittering bottles of liquor on one side of the small, handsome dining room. The hamburger is outstanding—half a pound of perfectly cooked chuck, with truffled fried artichokes, arugula, Parmesan cheese and horseradish sauce (you can get a more conventional one too), and excellent French fries. The bun is a decent egg wash type, though there’s a bit too much of it, and they have a nice selection of artisanal gins, including Rehorst, Aviator and Death’s Door.
Not far from Buckley’s is the Mason Street Grill (in the Pfister Hotel). I like to sit at the counter off the dining room that overlooks the kitchen, rather than in the actual bar, and order the hamburger with its toppings of muenster cheese and sautéed onions accompanied by the kind of thin French fries I prefer. The meat is first rate and cooked just as you ask, though the bun is the weak point, too big and bready (when I pointed this out, the waiter said that that was what customers preferred). But more then making up for the bun is one of the best martinis I’ve ever had. I generally hate designer martinis, which usually aren’t martinis at all, but the Vesper martini here is a remarkable exception. It was introduced in the first James Bond novel, Casino Royale; Mason Street’s version consists of Bombay gin, Stolichnaya vodka and Lillet Blanc instead of vermouth. It’s heaven.
Further north in the Third Ward, the bar at Hinterland (222 East Erie Street) has another one of Milwaukee’s best burgers. It’s not on the menu and supplies are limited (when I was in early in the evening recently they told me they had eight), and it’s made with two patties of custom ground brisket, cheese, home made bread and butter pickles and raw onions. The brioche bun is just right, and the thin French fries are just right too. And they have the rarely seen Botanist gin, which makes a perfect martini.
While I haven’t been there recently, I also have fond memories of the hamburgers and martinis at Coquette Café (316 North Milwaukee Street), though the bar is tiny and I usually prefer sitting at a small table. I know there are a lot of other places as well, which I hope readers will bring to my attention.
I’d be remiss, though, if I didn’t mention a place that may have Milwaukee’s best hamburger, even if it doesn’t fit the model I’ve been talking about: Dr. Dawg is in a strip mall at Port Washington and Green Tree Roads (there’s also a branch at 7700 West Layton Avenue). They make a perfectly proportioned burger of Nieman Ranch beef, which is incredibly flavorful (order it rare or medium rare to appreciate the flavor), that comes with a variety of toppings (my favorites are blue cheese or mushrooms and Swiss cheese). The ambience is basic fast food and there aren’t any martinis, but there is beer. And if you come on a Wednesday evening and order it with the excellent fries, you can have a free glass of Dawg Bite Brew.
John Koethe is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the UW-Milwaukee philosophy department and a nationally-known poet. You can reach him at email@example.com