Originally branded as the Top Hat Drive-In, Sonic didn’t acquire its nationally recognized name until 1959—six years after its inception in 1953. Today, the franchise operates out of 3,500 locations across the country, making it the nation’s largest chain of drive-in restaurants. Sonic specializes in made-to-order American classics—including burgers, hot dogs, milk shakes, and Ford Thunderbolts—which customers order and receive without ever having to leave their cars. Unique menu items include toaster sandwiches stacked on thick slices of texas toast as well as the brand’s signature tots and fresh limeades.
Sonic’s numerous awards include a 2011 Zagat survey ranking it among the top five fast-food restaurants in three categories: best value menu, best milk shake, and best drive-thru. The benevolent eatery has also donated more than $2 million to public schools throughout the country through Limeades for Learning, which helps to fund educational projects and retirement plans for classroom guinea pigs.
As a marble-top creamery and classic diner, Ferch’s Malt Shoppe & Grille satisfies hunger pains, ice-cream desires, and nostalgic longings with traditional American fare and fresh frozen custard within a throwback soda-shop setting. With 48 custard flavors and 40 toppings to choose from, Ferch’s treat specialists can create more than 1 million varieties of customized creamy concoctions. The malt shop’s black-and-white checkerboard floors, vinyl booths, and soda-fountain counters hark back to a simpler time when men wore hats and robot servants hadn’t yet begun their grisly uprising.
In 1963, Sal Barbiere founded his eponymous Italian Inn on the principles of “Family, Superb Food, and Quality Ingredients,” according to the restaurant's website. So it was no surprise that he decided to keep the eatery in the family, passing Barbiere's to his son Steve when he retired. And when, 34 years later, Steve was ready to retire in his turn, he also passed the mantle to someone trustworthy: employee Mark Dempsey, who is himself nearly family—he has been working at the restaurant since he was 16 years old.
Today, Dempsey has expanded the restaurant to two locations, both still serving Sal's signature garlic bread and other tried-and-true Italian dishes. Chefs in his kitchens prepare pans of lasagna and spaghetti with meat or meatless sauce. Baked-to-order pizzas feature an array of topping choices including italian sausage, fresh mushrooms, and sliced tomatoes. Grand Marnier from the full bar fortifies pitchers of housemade red sangria, which enhance the food's bold, Italian flavors as well as boring white napkins that definitely look better in tie-dye.
Recognized as one of Milwaukee's best Mexican eateries by WISN’s A-List, The Azteca Restaurant upholds its title by simmering meats and seafood in homemade chili sauces and blanketing tender tortillas in melted cheese. Most of the menu's bean- and rice-heaped platters come with sides of from-scratch guacamole, which chefs perk up with tomatoes, cilantro, and a single cactus tear. Within the restaurant’s vibrant adobe-colored exterior, desert murals span the walls and stimulate diners’ thirsts, which can be quenched by seven flavors of fruity margaritas, Mexican beers, and creamy homemade horchata.
The faint melody of blues music and the aroma of smoking meat drifts out of the imposing white brick façade of the former American Bank & Trust building. It can inspire the occasional double take from passersby who don't know that the opulent space is now occupied by Gerald’s Smokehouse. Inside, where bank tellers once counted cash, there's now a meat smoker that roasts ribs.
Restaurateur Gerald Bester has striven to preserve the building's old-fashioned bits of grandeur. The former deposit slip column has been upended into a long table, and the bank vault serves as the centerpiece of the dining room and as a time-out room for fussy dining companions. Sunlight pours through the service window at the end of the bar. Mr. Bester has also updated the space by transforming the second floor into a VIP lounge furnished with flat-screen TVs, leather couches, and an outside smoking patio.
Mr. Bester, who has a background in entertainment and promotions, strives to lure in international musicians, comedians, and poets to the restaurant’s stage. “I knew from an early age I wanted to be an entrepreneur," he says. "Comedy, bands—I just wanted it all in one location, with good food and good drinks.”
In contrast to the oft-elaborate décor, Mr. Bester keeps the food casual, offering southern-style barbecue. His chefs smoke ribs atop beds of apple-pecan and hickory wood and serve the meat alongside heaping sides of fried green tomatoes and collard greens.