“Cliffie, quick. Breath test. What do you smell when I do this?” asks Norm.
“Milwaukee,” Cliff responds.
The punchline from season four of Cheers, which aired in 1985, made a joke of a city that smelled like its breweries and wasn’t known for much else. Today the medium-sized city’s cultural industries work constantly to refute that sentiment, especially in the proudly cosmopolitan food scene. For every sneer that Milwaukee lives in the shadow of its Lake Michigan neighbor, Chicago, someone is serving up quiet, casual defiance with duck confit poutine, Thai barbecue pork noodle soup, chef-ified Big Macs, Andalusian salmorejo, lamb quesabirria, or buttermilk sorbet. For every dig that the city is a staid Rust Belt town of sausage and cheese and beer, there’s Nashville hot chicken sausage, goat cheese curds in chorizo cream sauce, and private chalet dinners at a third-wave craft brewer.
As Milwaukee inches back from the pandemic, and residents bask in the 54-foot Giannis Antetokounmpo mural honoring the Bucks’ 2021 championship, Milwaukee restaurants push forward too, finding new ways and reasons to celebrate a city that, yes, sometimes smells like beer — and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Todd Lazarski Is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and the author of the new novel Spend It All.
Note: Restaurants on this map are listed geographically.