Milwaukee’s urban market is cream of the crops

MILWAUKEE — The Milwaukee Public Market is open year-round, but the best time to visit is during the annual Summerfest celebration that runs June 25-July 5 along the lakefront.

After all, a market stop makes it SummerFeast.

The 25,000-square-foot downtown market is loosely based on Pike Place in Seattle and has been called a model for a potential Chicago market. The market is three blocks west of the Summerfest grounds.

During an early May visit to the Milwaukee market I picked up some smooth cheese curds at the West Allis Cheese & Sausage Shop and Point Nude Beach Summer Wheat beer (whose provocative bottles are banned in Michigan!) at Thief Wine Shop and Bar. A stranger looked at me, smiled and said, “Cheese curds and beer, that’s all you need.”

Welcome to Milwaukee.

The Outdoor Urban Market launches this weekend on the streets adjacent to the public market. The urban market runs rain or shine from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays through Oct. 17 and features live street music. The public market has 16 indoor vendors and bumps up to 35 with the outdoor market.

Like a fine cake, the Milwaukee market was built from scratch. The indoor arches and natural light are modeled after Les Halles (central market) in Paris. Before being demolished in 1971, Les Halles was known as the “Stomach of Paris,” although the “Stomach of Milwaukee” just doesn’t go down right.

The Milwaukee Public Market is a key component in my evolving summer series of using market places as a tourism tool. The market is at 400 N. Water St., just under the I-794 expressway in the Historic Third Ward. Although the market is only four years old, the red neon sign has become an iconic figure on Milwaukee’s landscape, much like the Pike Place sign in Seattle.

There’s room for market expansion in the Third Ward. Last fall, Good Harvest opened an old-timey grocery and plant store in a former old man bar across the street from the market. More than 90 percent of Good Harvest’s grocery products are organic — unlike the bar’s regulars.

I noticed visitors in the market’s upstairs Palm Garden area reading tourist guides and travel brochures.

“It has absolutely developed into a tourist destination,” said market operations manager David Ware. “We see people with museum stickers who come here after their visit. Part of the goal was to use this as a tool to enhance the neighborhood, although the neighborhood was well on its way with condominiums and warehouses turned into shops.”

The Third Ward is on the National Register of Historic Places. There are more than 400 mostly small businesses, restaurants and art galleries. As recently as the 1970s the area housed a seedy red light district. Ware said, “The area next to the market is the old Commission Row where Milwaukee’s produce was distributed for a number of years. The market was designed to reflect the area, rough and tumble with hardwood floors. The market became the crown jewel of the neighborhood.”

The crown jewel of the year-round market is the Green Kitchen, an eatery that works with the Milwaukee-based nonprofit Growing Power. The founder of Growing Power is Will Allen, a former American Basketball Association player-turned-urban farmer who last year received a MacArthur Fellowship (aka “genius grant”). Allen’s mission is to create easy access to high-quality, affordable food. Growing Power also sponsors the Chicago Avenue Community Garden at Cabrini-Green and Grant Park’s “Art on the Farm,” the park’s first organic garden.

Growing Power supplies the wheatgrass for Green Kitchen’s juice. Orange or carrot juice ($3), strawberry mint lemonade ($3.50) and a “Green Dream” (apple, celery, spinach, ginger, $4.50) all can be accompanied with a

$2.50 shot of wheatgrass. Green Kitchen also sells salads and artisan sandwiches.

The St. Paul Fish Co. creates the similar floundering, folksy atmosphere of Pike Place. Founder Tim Collins buys Viking Village day boat sushi sea scallops and smoked trout and smoked whitefish from Schwarz Fish Co. in Sheboygan. Wis.

Brian Moran is chef at St. Paul Fish. “We see all kinds of local chefs and that’s part of the reason the owner and I started this business,” said Moran, 49. “He had contacts on the wholesale end and I’ve been a Milwaukee chef for more than 20 years. Chefs don’t necessarily have to go to Chicago now.

“The market has gone through a bit of a metamorphosis,” he added. “It was intended to be a place where you buy

your fresh fish, flowers, cheese and take it home. It’s turned into a ‘food court,’ although I hate to use that term. It has a negative connotation, but we draw people because it’s a casual atmosphere and they love it. We talk back and they hang out. I teach cooking classes on the second floor (Palm Garden) where there is a demonstration kitchen.”

There’s nothing cheesy about the sense of community at the Milwaukee Public Market.

Here’s my custom-made “SummerFeast” schedule:

Meat Puppets, 8 p.m. June 25 on the U.S. Cellular Connection Stage; Buckwheat Zydeco (get a cup of traditional celery, onion and bell pepper gumbo at St. Paul Fish Co.), 10 p.m. June 26 on the Mid-Gate Stage at the Potawatomi Bingo Casino Pavilion; Spoon, 10 p.m. June 29 at the Harley Davidson Roadhouse.

Then have “one more cup of coffee” before checking out Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson at 7:30 p.m. July 1 at the Marcus Amphitheater; G. Love & Special Sauce plays tasty pop and soul at 10 p.m. July 5 on the U.S. Cellular stage. Drink a PBR when you soak up Kid Rock and Lynyrd Skynyrd at 7:30 p.m. July 5 at the Marcus Amphitheater.

I say it every summer: Summerfest beats the stuffing out of Taste of Chicago.

For a complete Summerfest schedule visit summer fest.com or call (414) 273-3378. (via SunTimes)

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3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Mary on May 31, 2009 at 1:21 pm

    I forget how spoiled I am.. I work about 1/2 a mile up the road in Walker’s point, and I’m there quite a bit for lunch. Friday a co-worker and I split a whole bunch of Sushi between us for lunch and we were gone and back before the boss ever knew we had taken lunch! Where else can you get a lobster lunch and then an epic panini? As long as i’m near, I will DEFINITELY be taking advantage of how blessed I am!

  2. I hear that St. Paul’s Fish Market is going to going to expand their outside seating this year. Not only that, but their is now a taqueria inside the Milwaukee Public Market that could even expand your horizons for lunch, umami & horchata to go!

  3. Posted by Fran on June 1, 2009 at 2:00 pm

    I hear a lot of the Taste of Chicago line up has same artists – Counting Crows, Barenaked Ladies, Buddy Guy–only there the price is the best….FREE

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