Even a detective might not realize at first that Terra Restaurant Bar deals in Mexican food. Outdoors there's an unassuming table for two and inside, a handcrafted bar and tables with wooden chairs. No sombreros or depictions of southwestern scenery adorn the walls. But investigate the kitchen and the smell of grilled meats and cochinita pibil are a dead giveaway.
Founders Mauricio, Paco, and Nibardo honed their skills for 15 years in the service industry before teaming up to begin a restaurant of their own. In addition to signature Mexican eats—enchiladas verdes, carne asada, tacos—the menu crosses the border with omelets, pancakes, and burgers often unseen in a Mexican restaurant. Extending its devotion to Hispanic culture beyond just food, the eatery hosts salsa lessons on Thursday nights.
Housed inside the old Gas Light building in the Third Ward, Tulip Restaurant combines an Old World menu of Turkish and Mediterranean fare with a chic industrial aesthetic. Cream City brick walls provide the backdrop to framed pattern prints and an onyx bar with colorful lighting. Amid the dining-room tables, a pair of comfy couches and a coffee table surround a red fireplace that provides a place to warm hands or interrogate uncooperative chestnuts. Turkish dishes include succulent lamb chops, while Mediterranean fare ranges from fettuccine with sautéed shrimp to homemade ravioli.
Crocus Restaurant's story begins in Cold War–era Poland, when Andrzej and Elzbeita Wasielewski emigrated to America in 1964. Nineteen years later, they established the eatery, whose name refers to the crocus flower––one of the first spring blooms in the old country. Today, the Wasielewskis have passed the torch to Dorota and Joel Rewolinski, the latter being a third-generation Polish chef. In the festive restaurant, Joel and his kitchen staff keep things traditional, preparing classics such as braised-beef roll-ups, breaded pork chops, stuffed cabbage, and platefuls of pierogi.
At Frankie's, empty stomachs fuel up on eclectic menu selections including hot dogs, sausages and sandwiches made to order using locally sourced ingredients. For hot dogs, teeth sink through Chicago-style fixings into an all-beef link kept from inflating into a life preserver by the constraints of a poppy-seed bun. Sandwich savants layer italian beef on top of fresh french bread, top the meat in a choice of mozzarella, sweet peppers, and hot giardiniera, and then deliver it to taste buds alongside a mild italian sausage. Patrons turn toward the restaurant's chalkboard menu to order up a Meatball Sammich and scribble out calculations for the gravitational pull of a Portabella Sammich, which lures mouths from their meat trance with a marinated mushroom cap topped in tomato and cucumber.
International Small Plates | Ingredients from Local Farms | Vegetarian and Gluten-Free Selections | Seasonal Menu | Patio Seating
What's to Drink: A variety of craft sodas may be on tap thanks to schoolteacher-turned-pop-producer Larry Hanlon. He brews in small batches, which allows him to tinker with creative, housemade recipes. The result is a soda that highlights the flavor of all-natural ingredients rather than the sweetness of high-fructose corn syrup. "We should know what we're eating," he told OnMilwaukee.com, "and what we're eating should taste like what it's made from."
Inside Tip: Nearly all of the dishes are gluten-free, vegetarian, or both—and if it's not already, the kitchen will work to customize it to your dietary preferences.
Behind the Name: The literal translation of the Italian word la merenda is "snack." But La Merenda's owner, Peter Sandroni, sees his establishment as more than just a place to grab a quick bite. Rather, it's a spot for diners to share an experience, where they can relax in the moment instead of wolfing their food down.
Locavore: a person who seeks out locally produced food that's often fresh, sustainable, and natural.
Tapas: what started as Spanish appetizers and bar food now encompasses small plates of myriad techniques and cuisines. Typically, several tapas are ordered for the table to share, and the server staggers their delivery so there's always something to munch on.
If You Can’t Make It, Try This: Odd Duck (2352 S. Kinnickinnic Avenue) also serves up seasonal, globally inspired small plates created from local ingredients.
American-Fusion Cuisine | Local and Organic Ingredients | James Beard Award–Nominated Chef | Old-World Ambiance
Notable Chef: Before branching out on her own, Chef Peggy Magister honed her skills in San Francisco at the California Culinary Academy before moving on to work at Postrio under the tutelage of renowned chef Wolfgang Puck. In 2010, the James Beard Foundation nominated her for the honor of Best Midwest Chef.
Where to Sit: Feast beneath chandeliers in the dining room, which was designed to look and feel like an old-school European bistro. The restaurant is housed inside a renovated 19th-century feed store, and the owners enhance this historical setting with antique furnishings and Victorian-inspired wallpaper.
While You're in the Neighborhood
Before: Take a tour of Great Lakes Distillery (616 W. Virginia Street) before sampling some of its handcrafted small-batch spirits.
After: Enjoy a stogie and bourbon at Shakers Cigar Bar (422 S. Second Street), which ghost tours frequent in search of rumored paranormal activity.
If You Can’t Make It, Try This: Pair local, organic eats with cocktails and brews at Chef Magister's newest venture, AP Bar & Kitchen (814 S. 2nd Street).