The Best Food and Drink in Wisconsin for 2019
December 20, 2018
There’s a lot of meat and cheese on this list
The Best Food and Drink in Wisconsin
Wisconsin calls itself “America’s Dairyland,” and it takes the responsibility seriously. That, combined with its large German and Irish populations, means that hearty meat-and-potatoes cuisine rules — perfect for those long, dark winter months. Needless to say, it’s pretty tough to determine the best steakhouse in the state or best burger, but we’ve done that and more as part of our second annual guide to the best food and drink in every state.
There is another area where the state famously excels: beer. The birthplace of Pabst Blue Ribbon and Miller beer has enjoyed a flowering of smaller craft breweries in recent years.
Over the course of the past year we’ve honored everything from its best hot dogs and fried chicken to its best bar and craft beer in our comprehensive and wide-ranging lists and rankings, compiled through extensive research and with input from a wide network of site contributors, bloggers, journalists, and chefs. We’ve compiled these into individual slideshows celebrating the best food and drink in every state, and you can find our Wisconsin gallery ahead.
Best Airport Restaurant: Vino Volo (General Mitchell International Airport)
Vino Volo, which means “wine flight” in Italian, is a San Francisco-based airport winebar with locations in 33 airports across North America, including Milwaukee’s Mitchell International Airport. You can purchase wine by the glass or bottle or with tasting flights, but they also have food for you to eat in or take to go, such as sandwiches, cheese plates, artisan meats, or pasta.
Best All-You-Can-Eat Deal: Amber Indian Cuisine (Middleton)
Located in an unassuming strip mall, this bright and charming Indian restaurant has attracted legions of fans for its absolutely massive lunch buffet, served daily from 11:30 to 3. All the bases are covered here, along with some (delicious) surprises: chicken tikka masala, samosas, tandoor-baked naan, a variety of curries, chana masala, kati rolls, and more than a dozen more specialties, along with 12 different chutneys and a huge assortment of desserts. All that for just $11.35.
Best Apple Pie: The Elegant Farmer (Mukwonago)
The Elegant Farmer/Yelp
The Elegant Farmer is perhaps most famous for its signature apple pie baked in a paper bag. The unique cooking method, using a brown paper bag, creates a crunchy top crust and light, flaky, old-fashioned bottom crust that has earned it the title of best pie in America on more than one occasion.
Best Bar: The Old Fashioned (Madison)
Inspired by the traditions of Wisconsin taverns and supper clubs, The Old Fashioned has beers, brats, cheese, and more. Opened in 2003, the bar is utterly Wisconsin (its motto is “Where Wisconsin is king!”), complete with a food menu that highlights local specialties from Wisconsin producers to create traditional home-cooked feasts like fish fry, prime rib, and wood-fired chicken. The drink menu is similarly rich in state pride, featuring 52 Wisconsin beers on tap and about 100 bottled beers, wines, spirits, and specialty drinks — including its namesake, the classic, hand-muddled old fashioned, which is pretty much the state cocktail. As if the food and drink weren’t enough of a draw, the tavern also has a rewards program, called “Big Shot,” through which points ($1 equals one point) can be redeemed for merchandise like bumper stickers, tap beers, Wisconsin cheese, or even a party.
Best Beach Bar: Tom's Burned Down Café (Madeline Island)
There are many tales surrounding this wacky watering hole and art gallery, located near the shores of a wooded island in Lake Superior. The day after the original bar burned down, a beer delivery truck showed up, and owner Tom Nelson decided to re-open for business right then and there, in the charred remains of the former bar. Tables, chairs, and tarps were collected from local recycling centers, and the open-air bar was decorated with Tom’s “broken down tool collection.” Among the many homemade signs that grace Tom’s, indicative of the unique spirit of the place: “We don’t do windows or walls.”
Belgian Red, New Glarus (New Glarus)
Wisconsin’s New Glarus may be most well-known for its Spotted Cow, but its Belgian Red is truly the brewery’s best beer. At just 4 percent alcohol, this fruit beer has over one pound of cherries in every bottle, giving you perfect fruit flavor. It also helps to prove that beers don’t need to be big and boozy to be the best in their state. Instead, this beer thrives because of its perfect pucker and deep red color.
Best Brunch: Mimosa (Milwaukee)
When a restaurant is called Mimosa, it better have a killer brunch menu. Thankfully, this Franklin hotspot hits it right on the head. Steak and eggs (with shrimp if you like), house-made corned beef hash, blueberry pancakes, chicken and waffles, crêpes, French toast oatmeal, omelettes, creative skillets, biscuits and gravy, several creative Benedicts, sandwiches, salads, burgers… This place has all the bases covered, and they do it right.
Best Burger: Solly's Grille (Milwaukee)
Family-owned and -operated since 1936, Solly’s claim to fame is the butter burger, one of the last and finest examples in the nation. Fresh-ground sirloin is delivered daily from a local butcher, and the shakes, fries, and burgers, complete with a healthy dose of real Wisconsin butter, are prepared in full view of diners. About 15 toppings and burger varieties are available, but the trademark Original Solly Burger is the way to go. Each 3-ounce patty gets cooked on a large flat-top griddle and is topped with impossibly flavorful stewed onions and a pat of butter — at least 2 or 3 tablespoons’ worth — before being placed in between two halves of a soft white bun. The butter melts into the meat and into the bun, and it’s unlike any other burger you’ll experience.
Best Chili: Chili John’s (Green Bay)
Yelp / Ben M
Chili John’s was founded in Green Bay in 1913 by Lithuanian immigrant John Isaac; a second location that opened in Burbank, California, in 1946 is still considered the new kid on the block. This chili ain’t pretty, but it’s certainly delicious. Served over spaghetti and beans, it’s available in mild, medium, hot, or extra hot varieties.
Best Chinese Food: Sze Chuan (West Allis)
The best Chinese food in Wisconsin can be found at Sze Chuan, which opened recently in the Milwaukee suburb of West Allis. Only fresh ingredients go into the dizzying selection of authentic Szechuan dishes, including stone pots and dry hot pots, braised pork belly, fatty beef in sour chile broth, sizzling fish fillets, cumin lamb, dan dan noodles, and mapo tofu. If you're not feeling especially adventurous, plenty of Americanized favorites like lo mein and sesame chicken are available, but if you want to get into some advanced territory look no further than dishes like homestyle sea cucumber, pork kidney in chili sauce, and pork intestine with blood cake.
Best Chocolate Shop: Vande Walle's Candies (Appleton)
You can’t go wrong with anything at Vande Walle’s Candies; the chocolate is so high-quality and delicious that everything is great. This local candy shop is best known for its angelfood candies, with a light, airy center that melts in your mouth. Their truffle chocolate bars, with a classic chocolate outside and smooth, velvety interior, are also a highlight.
Best Coffee Shop: Anodyne Coffee Roasting Co. (Milwaukee)
With a few locations throughout Milwaukee — including a café in Bay View that also serves pizza — Anodyne Coffee offers a friendly, warm atmosphere with excellent coffee. Try one of the classic types or go for a specialty such as a Honey Bee (a latte with honey and vanilla), Frosty (mocha espresso with mint), or My Buddy (an almond and vanilla cappuccino).
Best Craft Brewery: New Glarus Brewing Company (Green County)
New Glarus, located in a charming Swiss-heritage town, is co-owned by Dan Carey, a diploma master brewer formerly with Anheuser-Busch, and his wife and co-founder, Deborah Carey. They produce six year-round beers, including the lauded Wisconsin Belgian Red, and seasonal specialties like Uff-da and Fat Squirrel.
Best Cupcake: Classy Girl Cupcakes (Milwaukee)
If you want something done right, you gotta do it yourself. At least that is what Erica Elia thought when she baked the cupcakes for her own wedding. When her guests told her that they were good enough to sell, she listened! Today, Classy Girl Cupcakes sells cupcakes every which way you can imagine. In the mood for a push-pop cupcake? Check! How about an ooey-gooey cupcake truffle or bomb? Check! And while she does have classic cupcakes in specialty flavors, we are particularly intrigued by the cupcakewiches, which house flavored buttercream between the top and bottom slices of a cupcake. Though she only has five on the menu, we recommend you try the cookies and cream cupcakewich, a Ghirardelli chocolate cupcake encasing Oreo buttercream and rolled in crushed Oreos.
Best Dive Bar: Silver Dollar Tavern (Madison)
There’s a lot of cheap beer in Wisconsin, but the $8.50 pitchers at the Silver Dollar Tavern in Madison are hard to beat. You’ll find all your classic dive tropes here: shuffle board, pool, ATMs, dartboards, a jukebox and poker machines. It’s a great laid-back respite from your everyday life.
Best Doughnuts: Manderfield’s Home Bakery (Appleton)
Manderfield’s Home Bakery has been following its baking traditions since 1934, and although it is known for all of its baked goods, its yeasted doughnuts are definitely a key reason for its popularity. They sell out incredibly quickly, so make sure you reserve yours in advance to avoid disappointment.
Farmers Market: Dane County Farmers’ Market (Madison)
The Dane County Farmers' Market is America's largest producers-only farmers' market. Their primary mission is to unite the urban and the rural cultures seeking to foster a community and provide an opportunity for farmers and consumers to deal directly with each other rather than through third parties. They have also created educational programs and scholarships that provide grants to promising students interested in agriculture. Stock up on Saturdays and Wednesdays with “the tastiest selection in Madison.” Reviews highlight the quality of produce and reasonable prices.
Best Food Truck: Streetza (Milwaukee)
Food trucks are all about serving the people without frills or pretentiousness. Nobody does that quite like Streetza, which crowdsources everything from pizza toppings to the art on the side of the truck. Conventional slices, special slices, Milwaukee neighborhood slices using "the best stuff from Milwaukee’s neighborhoods," and slices whose components are suggested by Twitter fans all come out of its oven, which is heated to a blistering 650 degrees F. Exceptional examples include the Wisconsin State Fair Chili Slice (made with an award-winning chili recipe from 1989) and The Farmer’s Market Slice (which is actually made of a medley of random vegetables from the Milwaukee Public Market).
Best French Fries: Anchor Bar (Superior)
Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives featured this Wisconsin eatery, which serves only burgers and fries. That’s it. No chicken, no fish, no problems. Its fries are straightforwardly awesome and are described on the bar’s website as “Fresh potatoes just minutes ago,” which we’re pretty sure is the best description in the history of French fries.
Best Fried Chicken: Tomken's Bar & Grill (Milwaukee)
Tomken’s Bar and Grill serves fried chicken “hobo-style,” with fries, coleslaw, and Italian bread, and the thin batter that doesn’t let the crunch overpower the poultry’s natural flavor. If you’re lucky, your visit might fall when the “sauce of the week” is the Nutty Rooster, which consists of peanut butter loosened with sriracha.
Best Fudge Shop: Wisconsin Dells Fudge (Wisconsin Dells)
This fudge shop opened in 1962 and today has four locations in town. All locations are still making fudge the old-fashioned way, in small batches using high-quality ingredients including Wisconsin cream and butter. Favorites include turtle, double dark chocolate, peanut butter, maple nut, and butter pecan, made with twice the butter.
Best Grocery Store: Woodman’s Markets
Ken C. / Yelp
Woodman’s Markets is a clear winner in Madison. Woodman’s is the place to go for all your needs on the cheap. One local reviewer said: “I love Woodman’s. This is the cheapest grocery store in Madison and it's open 24/7. Produce is good; I never really have trouble finding something fresh.”
Best Hole-in-the-Wall Diner: Franks Diner (Kenosha)
Franks was constructed as an old railcar-style diner in 1926, shipped from Jersey to a prime spot in downtown Kenosha, and opened there later that year. A seven-booth dining room was added in 1935 and the kitchen was expanded in the 1940s, but not much else has changed since then. Settle into a stool at the original counter and order up pancakes, biscuits and gravy, or a burger, or do as the regulars do and opt for the famous Garbage Plate: three or five eggs, scrambled into hash browns with peppers, onions, meat (go for the house-made corned beef hash), cheese, and vegetables, served with homemade bread.
Best Hot Dog: Vanguard (Milwaukee)
This popular Milwaukee sausage shop has several regional-styled dogs on their menu (the Buffalo, for example, is topped with Red Hot gravy, blue cheese, and celery salt), and they’ve really gone overboard in inventing the “Milwaukee-style” dog: It’s a hot dog (or one of the several other types of sausage available) topped with not one, not two, but three different cheeses: shredded Cheddar, Cheez Whiz, and deep-fried cheese curds. Only in Wisconsin!
Seven different sausages are available (including bratwurst, jalapeño Cheddar brat, and two different vegan options), and they’re served on a warm, freshly baked roll and topped with your choice of onions, kraut, spicy kraut, hot giardiniera, relish, or short peppers. But if you want to go upscale, you can also choose from 15 different “styled sausages,” including the popular Bunkhouse: a bacon-wrapped cheddarwurst topped with fried jalapeños, Cheddar, barbecue sauce, and guacamole.
Best Hotel Restaurant: The Immigrant Restaurant (Kohler)
The Immigrant Restaurant /Yelp
Destination Kohler is a resort village located on 21 pastoral acres formerly home to fixture company Kohler’s factory town (opened in 1918, it was one of America’s first planned communities), and its Tudor-style former main building, the AAA Five-Diamond, Forbes Five-Star American Club, has been one of Wisconsin’s finest resorts since it opened in 1981. There are five dining options in The American Club Hotel (including the former pub for Kohler employees, which is now a lively tavern), but the fine-dining The Immigrant is the true showstopper. Insanely elegant, its six rooms each pay homage to the different nationalities of early Wisconsin settlers. The menu is American with a European twist; opt for the tasting menu ($120 for five courses or $230 for seven) and you can expect dishes including crispy veal sweetbreads with pomegranate, pistachio, watercress, and sunchoke; Niman Ranch pork cheek with pork liver, pear, chipotle, sweet potato, chicory, and rhubarb; and A5 wagyu strip with wagyu fat fries, blue cheese marrow, almond, and kohlrabi.
Best Mexican Restaurant: Taqueria Guadalajara (Madison)
This small and unassuming taquería one block from Monona Bay is a beloved institution in a city not known for its culinary diversity, and during peak times the line can stretch out the door. The secret to its success? Using all fresh ingredients and making all of its proteins in small batches. This is most evident in the juicy carne asada made with high-quality local beef and grilled until a perfect medium.
Most Expensive Restaurant: Republic Chophouse (Green Bay)
This classy Green Bay steakhouse is a great place to drop some serious cash. A $26 seafood platter is a good way to start your meal, followed up by $49 bone-in veal chop, $51 cowboy rib-eye, or $57 lobster. If you’re feeling especially spendy, opt for one of the “reserve cuts,” which include a $69 Kansas City strip or a $79 bone-in dry-aged 22-ounce rib-eye.
Most Outrageous Restaurant Dish: The Bloody Beast, Sobelman's Pub & Grill (Milwaukee)
The Bloody Beast is a Bloody Mary gone wild. In addition to all the signature garnishes of a regular bloody, it also has a colby-jack cheeseburger slider and bacon-wrapped cheese balls on top. There's even an entire fried chicken skewered on there.
Best Pancakes: Mr. Pancake (Wisconsin Dells)
A Wisconsin tradition for more than 50 years, Mr. Pancake looks almost exactly like a Louisiana paddlewheel boat for some reason, but just go with it. Run by the Thompson family (the third generation is now at the helm), this fun and friendly restaurant makes their batter fresh daily and keeps their ingredients a closely guarded secret. What we do know is that they fluff up to an almost impossibly high level on the well-seasoned griddle, and are available in 18 delicious variations. Their buttermilk pancakes are the flagship, and come topped with your choice of peaches, blueberry compote, glazed apples, or bananas. They’ll also incorporate Iowa corn and corn meal, pecans, pineapples, chocolate chips, oat and wheat, or peanut butter right into the batter. If you’re looking to go outside the box, try the bacon strip pancakes, which have a strip of crispy bacon nestled right into them.
Best Pasta Dish: Uovo in Raviolo, Ristorante Bartolotta (Wauwatosa)
Renowned chef Paul Bartolotta’s flagship Italian restaurant is located on the outskirts of Milwaukee, and it’s been drawing guests from downtown for more than 20 years. It’s easily Milwaukee’s best Italian restaurant, and its must-order pasta is Bartolotta’s signature uovo in raviolo, a notoriously difficult dish to pull off. A single large raviolo (that’s the singular of ravioli) encases ricotta, spinach, and a whole egg yolk, and it’s topped with brown butter and some white truffles (if desired) for good measure. When you cut into it the yolk oozes out and mingles with all the other components, and the end result is lavish and decadent.
Best Pizza: Zaffiro’s Pizza (Milwaukee)
Steve S. / Yelp
First-generation Italian-American Liborio "Bobby" Zaffiro opened Rock-a-Bye Tap, where he started serving thin-crust pizza with the help of his brother John before they opened Zaffiro’s in 1956 to make a go of it full-time.
It all worked out beautifully for the Sicilian-blooded brothers until John's 1988 retirement. Bobby died the year after, at which point his wife and two sons took over. Zaffiro's has stayed in the family, and is now helmed by Bobby's son Michael Zaffiro.
However, the tradition of a thin-crust Milwaukee pie topped with about three to four times as much cheese as crust lives on at this Wisconsin icon where, among the 11 classic pies on the menu, you’ll find two “E”-centric menu items with one difference between them: The E has everything (toppings-wise at least), and the EBF has everything but the delicious (yet divisive) anchovies. If you’re not an anchovy devotee, opt for the latter and appreciate one of Milwaukee’s pizza gifts to the nation. Or try one of their two new pies: the Italian Veggie Supreme and the Meat Lovers.
Best Restaurant for Breakfast: Stuff’s (Wisconsin Dells)
Open daily at 7, Stuff’s is a cute and charming Wisconsin Dells landmark that’s hugely popular with locals. All the bases are covered here to a tee: pancakes, biscuits with country gravy and sausage, skillets and omelettes loaded with eggs and breakfast meats, French toast, corned beef hash, ham steaks, country fried steak, and eggs Benedicts… they’re all here, and they’re all prepared fresh to order using top-notch ingredients.
Best Restaurant: Ristorante Bartolotta (Wauwatosa)
Chef Paul Bartolotta’s flagship restaurant is located on the outskirts of Milwaukee, and it’s been drawing guests from downtown for more than 20 years. A must-order is the Uovo in Ravioli (a single large raviolo encasing ricotta, spinach, and a whole runny egg yolk). Other standouts include hand-cut pappardelle with slow-braised duck ragù, a half chicken roasted under a brick, an assortment of grilled seafood, an oak-fired filet of beef with pureed potatoes and Umbrian black truffle sauce, and whatever happens to be on the chef’s three-course seasonal menu that day.
Best Sandwich: Great Wisconsin Sandwich, Fromagination (Madison)
The restaurant’s name might be a slightly awkward portmanteau of “fromage” and “imagination,” but we like where its head’s at. One of the country’s finest purveyors of artisan cheese, Fromagination specializes in local cheeses that are very difficult to find out of state, and they also happen to be turning out some spectacular sandwiches. Just about every one they make is a winner, but our money’s on the Great Wisconsin sandwich, a three-cheese miche loaded with Genoa salami, Italian prosciutto, Tuscan salami from Madison’s Underground Meats, and mozzarella and provolone from Monroe-based Roth Cheese. It’s the best of Italy and Wisconsin, all in one sandwich.
Best Soup: Beer & Cheese Soup, The Horse & Plow (Kohler)
Yelp/ Fred K.
The Horse & Plow is located inside Destination Kohler’s The American Club, a luxurious retreat that was previously the compound where Kohler’s famous fixtures were made and its employees lived. This comfortable pub was once the taproom for Kohler’s employees, and it’s the best place in the state for a bowl of beer and cheese soup. Wisconsin is all about the cheese, and three local cheeses go into this soup — Wisconsin Cheddar, Wisconsin Swiss, and Wisconsin jalapeño jack — along with a hefty dose of good local beer.
Best Sports Bar: Major Goolsby’s (Milwaukee)
Opened in the early 1970s and located less than a block from the Bradley Center (the home of Marquette basketball and the Milwaukee Bucks) and across from the UW Milwaukee Panther Arena and the Milwaukee Theatre and Wisconsin Center, Major Goolsby’s is a city institution. With a “gazillion” large screen HDTVs, it is especially vibrant on NFL Sundays, but is a great place to catch your favorite team any night of the week. It’s been named one of the best sports bars in the country by Sports Illustrated.
Best Steakhouse: Mr. B’s (Milwaukee)
Mr.B’s - A Bartolotta Steakhouse/Yelp
Paul Bartolotta is a renowned restaurateur, best known for his eponymous seafood restaurant at the Wynn Las Vegas (which he left last year) and his 20-year-old Bartolotta Ristorante on the outskirts of Milwaukee, but he’s proven that he’s mastered the art of steak with his nearby Mr. B’s. At this classic Italian steakhouse, the steaks are aged for up to 35 days, and are flown in fresh from Nebraska or Colorado. Sit out on the patio and go for the 35-day-aged prime Colorado rib-eye; on a gorgeous night with the stars overhead, you just might think you’ve gone to carnivore heaven. For more states, check out our ultimate guide to the best food and drink in every state for 2019.