When someone says she's promoting "the world's largest music festival," then says it's in Milwaukee, the skeptic in you asks "Says who?" And the lady from Summerfest replies "The Guinness Book of Records in 1999, that's who." Another festival factotum explained that Guinness' judgment was based on "footprint" (I think he meant size), "scope, duration" and something else, but I lost interest in statistics right then. In any case, judging by the 2008 event, it's a hoot, and maybe a holler, too.
I could tell from the refrigerator in a "star dressing room" stocked (only) with Red Bull that this hip hop and rock gathering would be big and brassy, the 11-day affair drawing as many as 892,000 fans at last count. And, unlike many music festivals, it's downright cheap, costing only $15 for general admission, which covers everything except the 23,000-seat Amphitheater, where you pay an additional charge (from about $30 to maybe $100) to see acts like Stevie Wonder, who opened the 2008 show, or Rush on the second night. In fact, if you are willing to come on weekdays between noon and 4pm, admission is only $8. Seniors (60 and over) and children (10 and under) pay only $3 anytime. The festival runs from noon to midnight daily.
Included in the general admission ticket is entrance to the 11 ground stages scattered around the 75-acre lakefront park, close to downtown, with their own pretty views of Milwaukee's Lake Michigan cultural center, especially the Discovery World Center and the marvelous Milwaukee Art Museum. The average summer temperature here is 78 degrees, just right for the 603,000 inhabitants, some told me.
The 2008 lineup bore down heavily on the side of hip hop and rock and roll, but there were also bands featuring country, western, and blues. Seven hundred (yes, 700) bands performed, including the Jonas Brothers, John Mellencamp, Joe Cocker, Steve Miller, and many emerging artists. The 2009 schedule isn't complete yet, but it already includes Bon Jovi, Kid Rock with Lynyrd Skynyrd, No Doubt, and Talib Kweli, among others.
The fairway is lined with 45 places to eat, and Summerfest publishes a handy guide listing types of food and where you can get them, including such Milwaukee and Wisconsin favorites as bratwurst buns (okay), cheddarwurst or sauerbraten sandwiches (I passed) and cheese curds (don't ask). There are also four marketplaces, at least one of which is for local arts and crafts.
If you want fine dining, forget the fairground and head for downtown Milwaukee. You might like one of these excellent places I enjoyed during my visit:
The new location of the Dream Dance Restaurant in the Potawatomi Bingo Casino hadn't even opened yet when I enjoyed a preview dinner there during Summerfest 2008, but my eyes were opened by the marvelous variety of local and regional food set on my table by Chef Jason Gorman. In fact, he calls his work "New Wisconsin Cuisine" and I savored an appetizer of Carr Valley Coterie Vanilla Goat Cheese with Chioggia beets and honey-saturated shredded wheat ($11) above all else. The tasting menu included another appetizer, corned American Kobe beef ($14), the main course of a local veal chop schnitzel a la Holstein style ($40), and an amuse bouche of truffles and squash blossoms. The restaurant is light and airy, the service excellent. This will surely continue to be one of Milwaukee's best dining spots, as already evidenced by the many awards it has garnered in its previous location in the Casino. 1721 W. Canal Street, tel. 414/847-7731; www.paysbig.com.
At the Hinterland Erie Street Gastropub, the dÃ©cor is rustic chic, the menu features both local meats and produce and fish ("delivered fresh daily from both coasts"), but the place is best known for its beers and it all started up the coast at Green Bay a while back. I had a tasting menu that included local cheese (a splendid Pleasant Ridge, "the best in Wisconsin" said a local lady at my table, Red Dragon and Grassfields) and a Washington State Willapa Bay razor clam, lightly fried, each appetizer costing $14 if ordered separately. For the main course, I stayed with the Pacific Ocean, ordering an excellent seared andouille encrusted Alaskan halibut, $32 if ordered a la carte. Of their six beers, I liked the pale ale best ($4.50 for .4 liter, about a pint). The owner, an ex-journalist, became a brewer upstate, then opened this spot in the Historic Third Ward. 222 E. Erie Street, tel. 414/727-9300; www.hinterlandbeer.com.
When you go to Rip Tide, you're still in the Historic Third Ward but right on Milwaukee Harbor, so in good weather, try to sit on the deck where boaters can tie up to enter the restaurant. Seafood is the thing, as well as catfish or whitefish, the service friendly and efficient. I had a nice penne marinara ($9.25), my companion a huge seafood fettuccini ($16.75), and the humongous seafood nachos looked good at $14.95.A glass of pinot grigio cost $6. Rip Tide Seafood Bar & Grill, 649 E. Erie Street, tel. 414/271-8433; www.getriptide.com.
Lunch at the Coast Restaurant can be pleasant, if only for the view through trees to the graceful new (2001) addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum. But the food is fine, too, the service friendly and practical. I liked the bruschetta at $10 for an appetizer, followed by a "gourmet grilled cheese" sandwich, made up of sage Derby, mozzarella, gruyere and boursin, decorated with tomato, avocado and bacon at $11. The only problem was that the four cheeses melted together so I couldn't enjoy their separate flavors. 931 E. Wisconsin Avenue, tel. 414/727-5555; www.coastrestaurant.com.
The Milwaukee Ale House was just a beer stop for me, and the cost was right, the Happy Hour price being $2.50 a pint. In addition to several brews, they also make their own root beer, sweet and sweeter. In business since 1997, in Historic Third Ward, too. 233 N. Water Street, tel. 414/226-BEER; www.ale-house.com.
If you're looking for an old world-type of place to have a beer, the closest thing may be the Old German Beer Hall, which is said to be modeled after the original Hofbrauhaus in Munich, though you couldn't prove that by me, since it is fairly small (only 100 seats) and narrow and pales by comparison, at least in my memory. It's at 1009 N. Old World Third Street, tel. 414/226-2728; www.oldgermanbeerhall.com.
More fun, I'm told, is the Safe House, which tries to create the ambience of espionage while you drink and conspire. You can't get in without knowing the password, they claim, so here it is (at time of writing): "I'm looking for a safe house." If there's nobody in the entrance foyer, go to the bookcase on the left, look for its "secret" lever and pull it, revealing the door to the inner sanctum. International Exports Ltd., 779 N. Front Street, tel. 414/271-2007; www.safe-house.com.
2009 and Getting There
The dates for Summerfest 2009, the 42nd annual event, are June 25 through July 5.
You can fly into Milwaukee on its home-based Midwest Airlines, reach the city by Amtrak, or ferry across Lake Michigan on the Lake Express (April through October), if you don't want to drive or take the bus, that is.
The Summerfest website is www.summerfest.com.
Everything you ever wanted to know about Milwaukee can be learned at the website of the Milwaukee Visitors Bureau, www.visitmilwaukee.org.
The Midwest Airlines site is www.midwestairlines.com.