Breakfast isn't an afterthought at these places in the Milwaukee area. Instead, it's the main event, with the chef's ethos woven into classic eggs dishes, pancakes, and French toast, plus items that bridge the gap between breakfast and lunch with ease. These spaces are fun, too, and include a former firehouse, a casino restaurant, a casual cafe attached to an organic-foods market and a 1920s-era diner on the ground floor of a retro hotel.
Beans & Barley
At Beans and Barley, an East Side staple since the 1970s, a constant has been the farm-to-table mantras, whether it’s huevos rancheros, the pancake of the month or a frittata. Prices are relatively low for the quality. If there’s a wait, don’t fret, as this just means you now have time to browse in the organic-foods market and deli, which also sells magazines, cookbooks, and kitchen décor. Vegans and vegetarians can find plenty to eat and drink here, from soy-milk lattes to pesto-tofu scrambled “eggs.”
Although located in far-west Milwaukee, breakfast fans are known to drive clear across town for breakfast at Blue’s Egg, the sister eatery to Maxie’s and Story Hill BKC. Hearty, comfort-food-driven portions with an eye on modern flavors result in weekday breakfast items like eggs Benedict, “The Dubliner” (poached eggs, corned beef, creamy leeks, and rye toast) and creamy polenta served with roasted mushrooms and braised kale. Brunch additions include berry-smothered French toast, crispy blue-crab cake, rooted-veggie hash, and pumpkin-stuffed French toast. Many dishes can be prepared gluten-free.
Cafe at the Plaza
Just like the Art Deco hotel in which this ground-floor café resides, the dining area at The Café at the Plaza is a true design throwback (with original etched glass, tiles and flooring—and yes, even a U-shaped counter), and open only from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Come summer, you can grab a seat in the outdoor courtyard. Working with a dozen or so local food purveyors and farmers, the menu features breakfast poutine, either buttermilk pancakes or French toast (with strawberry compote, dark chocolate and balsamic mascarpone), empanadas filled with braised-beef biscuit, and the 1007 Breakfast Sandwich (either bacon or ham, plus cheddar, egg, arugula, tomato and herbed goat cheese on choice of toast, croissant or bagel).
Engine Company 3
Want proof that Engine Company 3 is a sweet little spot for breakfast? On a recent Milwaukee visit, former president (and avid foodie) Barack Obama dropped in. The sister eatery—dinner-only La Merenda—shares a chef-owner, Peter Sandroni, who is a huge fan of sourcing local, so much that the weekday breakfast and weekend brunch menus will not always be the same. It’s also tucked into a former firehouse (cue charming). Many dishes—which feature ingredients like plantains, Boerwors beef and pork, smoked salmon and duck confit--can be made gluten-free.
Mad Rooster Cafe
Everything at Mad Rooster Café is made from scratch—even the fresh-squeezed organic juice and fruit purees. Open only until 3 p.m. daily, the focus is always breakfast and the menu rotates with each season. Customer favorites and signature takes on breakfast include the crispy-crunchy cinnamon French toast, the breakfast burger (a meat patty topped with a sunny-side-up egg) and the MAD omelet (jack and cheddar cheeses, chicken chorizo and tons of vegetables).
The Milwaukee location is an urban sibling of the original Simple Café in Lake Geneva. With a colorful, quirky interior (including light fixtures born out of old coffee percolators), the all-day breakfast menu skews toward comfort foods with an ethnic bent, resulting in dishes like Chicken Tinga Tostada or Cubano omelet. All breakfast items come with Simple’s signature roasted potatoes. As a farm-to-table restaurant, the breakfast menu rotates often to reflect what’s fresh and in season.
Santa Monica, Calif.-born chef-owner Nell Benton took over The National in 2011 and it just keeps getting better. A word of warning: breakfast here is busy (read: popular), so the earlier you arrive, the better. Bridging comfort foods with farm-to-table ingredients, the breakfast menu includes just-like-home (but with a sweet twist!) eats like caramel-apple French toast and short rib sweet potato hash. The Hot Mess is a weekend favorite (actually it’s only served on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday): think sunny-side eggs, hollandaise sauce, bacon (or ham or veggies), sautéed peppers, grilled tomatoes, cheddar, caramelized onions and rosemary potatoes. Many dairy-free and gluten-free options available.
Brunch is served at Honeypie Café on Saturday and Sunday starting at 9 a.m., and breakfast daily at 10 a.m. Many of the ingredients are sourced from local farms, with quite a few vegan offerings in the pastry case. In fact, the pies and pastries are so highly regarded that pie classes are offered by the chef. Whether you spring for croque madame or brioche French toast topped with sea-salt butter and Wisconsin maple syrup, be sure to save room for dessert.
Canal Street Cafe
Inside the former Locavore on the hotel’s ground floor, this newcomer mimics an all-day diner—but with a gourmet, and farm-to-table twist. Breakfast items at Canal Street Café include classics like biscuits and gravy, eggs benedict and steak and eggs, as well as Belgian waffles, a build-your-own omelet and French toast stuffed with citrus cream cheese.
Original Pancake House
As the name Original Pancake House suggests, pancakes (buttermilk, Swedish, blueberry, buckwheat, and sourdough are just a few of your options) are the name of the game but the menu also dances into the unexpected with “three little pigs in a blanket” and a variety of crepes (such as Cherry Kijafa, topped with Montmorency cherries and simmered in Kijafa sauce before they’re dusted with powdered sugar). There are also seven specialty omelets on the menu, and waffles, too. This is the only Milwaukee-area location of the Portland, Ore., chain.