Laura Thompson
Urban Guide

20 Great Downtown Lunch Spots

Soups, sandwiches, Ramen, Italian, Ethiopian, vegan, Vietnamese and more.

By - Mar 21st, 2018 11:40 am
The Soup House. Photo by Laura Thompson.

The Soup House. Photo by Laura Thompson.

Someone had to do it.

In the name of journalistic integrity, I have had to personally research tasty lunch spots in the greater downtown area. I was amazed by the variety. All are within walking distance of Downtown, though a couple might push you past lunch hour. Some are tried-and-true favorites, and others are lesser known spots that contribute something unique to Milwaukee’s midday dining scene. You’ll find great diversity here in terms of styles of cuisine, and I’ve also paid special attention to affordable options. Here is the complete menu of options:

Shah Jee’s Pakistani Cuisine, 770 N. Jefferson St. Lunch Monday-Friday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Cash only. Pedestrians strolling down Jefferson Street might be forgiven for being unaware of the delights that await them at Shah Jee’s. The restaurant has no street-level sign, and is tucked away in a basement food court for office workers. But despite its simple surroundings, Shah Jee’s is one of the city’s best lunch values. Each day, Azhar Shah and his family cook up flavorful Pakistani dishes including chana masala, dal mansoor, chicken masala, aloo palak, and on some days, rotating eggplant and cauliflower dishes. Early lunch customers can also buy South Asian flatbreads. Two entrees with rice and drink come to $8, a bargain. The Shahs are planning to open another downtown location soon at 228 W. Wells Street (next door to Xankia).

Alem Ethiopian Village, 307 E. Wisconsin Ave. Tuesday-Friday 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Alem offers a sumptuous vegetarian lunch buffet with richly seasoned dishes made of lentils and potatoes, a fresh salad and fruit bar, and traditional Ethiopian injera bread (a kind of sourdough pancake that it is ideal for soaking up the sauces). For an extra charge, customers can supplement the buffet with meat dishes from the dinner menu. My favorite dishes are the entrees in red sauce, which has a flavour as bright as its color.

Swingin’ Door Exchange, 219 E. Michigan St. Lunch Monday-Friday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. After Urban Milwaukee columnist Michael Horne raved to me about Swingin’ Door Exchange, I decided to head down to Michigan Street and try the food for myself. This ‘saloon and eatery’ has operated on the street level of the historic Mackie Building in one form or another officially since Prohibition ended in 1933. (Personally, I wonder if it had any prior incarnation as a speakeasy during Prohibition, but that’s a story for another day.) The wood-paneled walls and dangling stained glass lamps make it easy to imagine downtown workers jostling for position at the bar – easy, because they are still doing so today. But Swingin’ Door Exchange is not just a bar with incidental food – it is an establishment that pays attention to the details in its cooking. They make potato chips from scratch each day, and in addition to the usual sandwich and burger staples found at most downtown restaurants, they also make garlicky mussels, seared and blackened ahi, hold a Friday fish fry and taco Tuesday. I tried the small garlicky Caesar salad ($5) and the sautéed spicy carrots with vermouth ($4), and both dishes were beautifully prepared.

Buckley’s Restaurant & Bar, 801 N. Cass St. Open daily at 11 a.m. I walked into Buckley’s expecting it to be filled with cigar smoking businessmen, but was instead surprised by its artsy ambiance and creative lunch menu. Chef Thi Cao has led the kitchen since 2016, creating tempting dishes like Middle Eastern-inspired cauliflower and eggplant, torched marinated salmon with Japanese seasonings, spinach and squash salad, lobster rolls, bahn mi sandwiches, and salmon burgers. The restaurant is located in a Victorian mansion just east of downtown that is colorfully decked out with paintings evoking 1920s France.

Café Calatrava at the Milwaukee Art Museum, 700 N. Art Museum Dr. Open Tuesday-Sunday at 10 a.m. Though I don’t think of the Art Museum as downtown, it is an easy walk down Wisconsin Avenue and across the Calatrava-designed bridge to get there. I knew the art museum had a restaurant, but was afraid that its prices might be geared towards wealthy art collectors. The menu indeed has artistic items, some of which are said to be inspired by the visiting exhibit, but is surprisingly affordable, with entrees priced in the teens. I was especially tempted by the brown butter apple tart with orange cream and hazelnuts ($5), the beetroot salad with soft egg and crispy leeks ($15), and the margarita flatbread ($14). I cannot say for sure which dishes were homages to the art. Maybe the Barcelona turkey sandwich is a tribute to Picasso?

The Soup House, 324 E. Michigan St. Open weekdays 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., or until soups run out. Cash only. A veritable cornucopia of soups, the Soup House offers just what the name declares: thick soups, thin soups, hot soups, cold soups, meat soups, veggie soups, all quite scrumptious. On the day I visited, the menu included chicken soup, meaty chili, chicken pot pie soup, buffalo chicken, harvest pumpkin and Italian veggie. They also make their own French bread and cornbread daily, and offer a refrigerator case of sandwiches and hard boiled eggs. Soups range from $6-8 depending on size; a 32-ounce serving can be purchased for $16. They also have a spacious dining room with a quirky assemblage of mismatched furniture.

Milwaukee Public Market, 400 N. Water St. Open daily at 10 a.m. The always bustling Public Market is a great place for friends with disparate tastes to eat together. Aladdin’s Taste of the East (which also has locations in the basement of City Hall and at the Intermodal Station) makes pita sandwiches to order, and also offers lunchtime specials of curries, spanakopita, samosas and other dishes that customers can combine into lunch plates. The popular St. Paul Fish Market cooks a wide range of fish sandwiches (the blackened tilapia was very tasty), and also has an excellent clam chowder. A new vegan café called On the Bus offers vegan ice cream (made from almond milk and coconut milk) as well as savory entrees like veggie burgers and the requisite avocado toast for millenials. Other options at the public market include soup from Soup Market, fresh salads and juices from the Green Kitchen, and coffee from Anodyne Coffee.

Hofbräu München’s Old German Beer Hall, 1009 N. Old World Third St. Lunch 11 a.m. to The Old German Beer Hall offers an unusual weekday lunch deal: “Free lunch!! Buy any HB beer, root beer, or cocktail and get a free sausage, sauerkraut, and a side dish.” Their menu also includes pork chops with traditional German sides, apple strudel, soft pretzels, cheese curds, chili and many types of sausages—many of the dishes featured at their popular summer beer garden in Estabrook Park. The space on Third St. is long and narrow, and is adorned with paintings and other mementos reminiscent of Bavaria.

Birch + Butcher, 459 E. Pleasant St. Open daily at 7:30 a.m. Birch + Butcher is a more formal restaurant in the evening, but offers quick delights from its coffee and butchery counter at lunchtime. They make their own rustic breads and bagels each day, and a cauldron of hearty soup was bubbling when I visited. I tried the “French Exit,” which was a ham and cheese sandwich with mustard on homemade bread, and it also came with a side kale salad. The food was simple but delicious, and the ambiance was airy and modern, with ample seating space.

Gouda’s Italian Deli, 218 N. Water St. Open Monday-Saturday 10 a.m. to 6.p.m. Gouda’s is a tiny but atmospheric old-timey Italian deli located in the Centanni Building in the Third Ward. They make hot and cold sandwiches to order for $7-9, sell “take and bake” pizzas for $6, and also sell Italian tea, espresso drinks, Italian sodas, spumoni and most importantly—cannoli. I tried a daily special of a sausage sandwich: Italian sausage on a bun with tomato sauce, and it hit the spot.

Bollywood Grill, 1038 N. Jackson St. Weekday lunch buffet from 11 a.m to 3 p.m. Because of the dark exterior windows surrounding Bollywood Grill, I was hesitant to visit this cafe, wondering if it would have the feel of a basement casino. However, I was bowled over by variety of colorful offerings in the lunch buffet ($11.95), and have since been converted into a fan. When asked if they specialize in a particular regional cuisine, a server said they serve dishes from all over India.

Blue Star Cafe, 1619 N. Farwell Ave. Open Tuesday-Sunday at 11 a.m. Blue Star Café brings Somali food to Milwaukee, and it is delicious. I ordered a platter of seasoned tilapia with rice, salad, sautéed onions, potatoes, and raisins, and it was wonderful. Furthermore, this bountiful plate came to less than $9. For $1 more, I tried the sweet chai tea, which complimented the food excellently. At a neighboring table, young men dug into a platter for four while speaking Somali, eating directly with their hands as is traditional in Somalia. Blue Star also sells crispy filled sambusas (the East African version of samosas), crepes and a special flatbread called a kay-kay.

Café at the Plaza, 1007 N. Cass St. Open daily from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. A trip to the Plaza feels like a retreat to a 1920s art deco sanctuary. The atmosphere is both refined and simple: it features ornate molding covered in ferns and Grecian-style figures, but also has a curved countertop for communal dining reminiscent of 1940s drugstore diners. I tried the short stack of lemon poppyseed pancakes with housemade blueberry dressing and sliced almonds on top and can report that it was delightful. Though those pancakes are only officially on the weekend menu, the staff said that they are also available on weekdays. Their weekday lunch menu also includes a falafel plate, sandwiches and burgers, and breakfast burritos.

Xankia, 222 W. Wells St. Open Monday-Saturday at 11 a.m. Xankia serves up delicious Vietnamese and Hmong dishes out of a utilitarian shop, and specializes in bahn mi sandwiches and the bone-warming meat soup known as pho. Walking into the shop, I didn’t know what to expect, but I ordered the #2 bahn mi sandwich, which was a baguette topped with grilled pork, special mayo sauce, pickled carrots, daikon, cucumber, cilantro, and optional jalapeño, and I loved it. The sandwich cost less than $7, and was very substantial.

Urban Beets Cafe and Juicery, 1401 N. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr Dr. Open Tuesday-Thursday at 7 a.m., Friday-Sunday at 9 a.m. When my vegan friend told me about how great Urban Beets was (shout out to Heather Zinninger Yarmel, second flute of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra!), I took her advice with a grain of salt. In general, vegans have fewer choices of places where they can dine, so they often seem grateful when someone makes something remotely edible within their diets. However, when I tried the barbeque “pulled” carrot sandwich on a pretzel roll at Urban Beets, it felt nourishing and flavorful. It also came with a side kale salad, so I felt that I was getting a healthful serving of vegetables, and also my money’s worth. Urban Beets has recently expanded into the space next door to its original shop, and has created a sunny and inviting atmosphere with hanging potted plants and funky artwork on the walls. Urban Beets also hosts events on Thursday evenings, including fundraisers for the Wisconsin Humane Society.

Artisan Ramen, 530 E. Mason St. Open daily from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Artisan Ramen quietly opened this past September, and is playfully decorated with characters from Japanese anime. The shop differentiates itself from the city’s other ramen options by making their own noodles each day on a machine imported from Japan. They make pork, chicken and vegetable ramen broths, and top each one with a festive display of scallions, corn, spinach, cabbage, eggs and fish cakes. Menu items also include dumplings, skewers and cheese sticks to accompany the ramen. The shop also considers itself a tea shop, and serves Rishi green and oolong teas, and also brews their own milky boba tea from scratch.

Cuisine at MATC, 1015 N. 6th St. Reservations taken most Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays throughout the semester between 11:15 a.m. and 12:15 p.m. Cuisine gives diners the chance to try white tablecloth-style fine dining at a fraction of the usual price, all cooked by students in Milwaukee Area Technical College’s respected Culinary Arts Program. The menu includes French onion consommé with carmelized leeks, red onion, and cheddar baguette ($5), a pheasant terrine with pistachios, truffles, cherry Cumberland sauce, pickled fennel, and grilled baguette ($6), grilled hanger steak with potato, butternut squash, and parsnip gratin, with green beans with garlic and lemon zest, port wine sauce, and béarnaise ($15), just to name a few of the decadent options available.

Sweet Diner, 239 E. Chicago St. Open daily at 6 a.m. Sweet Diner just opened in November in the Third Ward, and brings farm-to-table cooking and a beautifully open ambiance. The décor of the main dining room feels inspired by hipster corners of Brooklyn, with a wall of cream city brick ruggedly stained in various shades of grey. The menu includes a wide range of eggs benedict, skillet bowls, pancakes, waffles, French toast, breakfast tacos, salads and sandwiches. They also have a juice and coffee bar. Everything I tried was prepared well, but the real star of Sweet Diner is the atmosphere.

Brown Bottle, 221 W. Galena St. Open Monday-Saturday at 11 a.m. Brown Bottle was the former tasting room at Schlitz Brewery where tours came to an end, but it is not just a bar these days. It has the atmosphere of a Germanic fraternal society, with antler chandeliers, wooden carvings of Schlitz globes and yellowing photographs of visits from Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. The bartender told me that Brown Bottle’s most famous dish is its buttermilk fried chicken sandwich, but the menu also stretches to kimchi reuben, salmon burgers, macaroni, Italian flatbreads and Friday fish fry. Most entrees range between $9-13.

Bavette La Boucherie, 330 E. Menomonee St. Open Monday-Saturday at 11 a.m. When I mentioned that I would be writing about lunch spots, two different friends passionately declared that Bavette la Boucherie was their favorite restaurant in the city. It is many things at once: a bar, a neighborhood café and a butcher shop that provides unusually specific information about where each cut of meat comes from. Owner Karen Bell previously operated a restaurant in Spain, and the Iberian influence is clear in many of her dishes. The spectrum of cuisines represented at Bavette is dizzying: poutine, sauerkraut pancakes, roasted carrots with baba ghanoush and pistachio dukkah, Cuban sandwiches, roast beef sandwiches, burgers, BBQ, jamon iberico and many more. Aside from salads and desserts, vegetarians will not find much to eat here. But for those who eat meat, the food here is creative, exciting and remarkably affordable, with larger dishes in the $11-14 range.

All 20 places are worth a try, and show what remarkable variety Milwaukee offers to its downtown diners. Bon appetit!

5 thoughts on “Urban Guide: 20 Great Downtown Lunch Spots”

  1. Nick says:

    Missing two of the best lunch spots. Zarletti’s and Doc’s Commerce Smokehouse.

  2. Carl says:

    The Downtown Kitchen in the U.S. Bank building has lots of variety and is a good value.

  3. 2fs says:

    “The Shah’s”? C’mon: you don’t pluralize names with apostrophes.

  4. Dave Reid says:

    @2fs Thanks. Fixed

  5. A Bee says:

    Great article, thanks!

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