Taste of the Great Lakes: The changing food scenes of Milwaukee, Detroit, and Toronto

The Detroit Vegan Soul Breakfast Sandwich with pan fried tofu "egg," veggie sausage, veganaise, spinach and tomato on multi-grain bread which is served with a side salad // Photo courtesy Adwater Media

The Detroit Vegan Soul Breakfast Sandwich with pan fried tofu “egg,” veggie sausage, veganaise, spinach and tomato on multi-grain bread which is served with a side salad // Photo courtesy Adwater Media

The Great Lakes are home to some of the largest metropolises in the Upper Midwest, and it’s no surprise why. The shipping industry helped build port cities like Detroit, Milwaukee, and Toronto into the towering urban landscapes they are today. But while they are linked in their industrial origins, each city’s identity is as unique as the lake they border. 

There’s no better way to truly know a city than through its food. We checked in with food writers in Milwaukee, Detroit, and Toronto to ask what’s fresh in their city’s food scene and what’s on the horizon. 

Milwaukee’s dining scene melds new wave trends and nostalgic tradition

The Milwaukee skyline // Photo by Olsonj, <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/olsonj/18448805340" target="_blank" rel="noopener">Flickr</a>

The Milwaukee skyline // Photo by Olsonj, Flickr

Milwaukee is a vibrant food city grounded in tradition. In a city with a history of immigrant brewers, manufacturing, and metalworking, blue collar tastes will always be prevalent. Corner taverns, Friday fish fries, frozen custard, and Sunday hot ham and rolls are all traditions that generations of Milwaukeeans have grown up with, and are still an important part of the city’s cultural identity.

But despite the reverence for historical foodways, restaurateurs are responding to young Milwaukeeans demanding something more inventive. Restaurants have been opening at a steady clip of four to five per month for at least the last year, leading to an abundance of varied choices. National food trends, like Hawaiian poke, Nashville-style hot chicken, and ramen bars are all alive and well in MKE, even if they came to the city a little later than other areas of the country.

A selection of cocktail offerings at SnackBoys in Milwaukee, Wisconsin // Photo courtesy SnackBoys

A selection of cocktail offerings at Snack Boys in Milwaukee, Wisconsin // Photo courtesy SnackBoys

The most successful new restaurants are finding ways to combine tradition with newfangled ideas. Snack Boys, a bar and restaurant opened early this year by seasoned restaurateurs Shay Linkus, Mitch Ciohon, and John Revord, has quickly made a name for itself by combining nostalgic comfort foods with a chaotic, neon-lit atmosphere. The menu of ever evolving snack-sized dishes is an homage to dishes that kids of the ‘80s and ‘90s grew up with, elevated to meet discerning hipster standards. Take for instance the fried bologna slider topped with Taleggio and giardiniera aioli, or the homemade potato chips served in a gratin dish of thick, tangy onion dip. Booze-filled sour slushies and color-changing, Pop Rocks-dusted cocktails probably weren’t part of your after school snack as a kid, but nonetheless taste inexplicably familiar when sipped under the watchful eye of the mural-sized Burt Reynolds reclining nude on a rug. 

While MKE is not immune to fickle trends, the restaurants that succeed strike a balance between old and new. As long as a restaurant concept is grounded in shared cultural experience, it’s going to resonate with Milwaukee diners.  Lacey Muszynski


Detroit’s Good Food Movement is on a mission to feed the whole community

Detroit's skyline // Photo by Mike Boening Photography, <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/memoriesbymike/16148951265/in/album-72157667329216910/" target="_blank" rel="noopener">Flickr</a>

Detroit’s skyline // Photo by Mike Boening Photography, Flickr

While the last decade has marked a “dining renaissance” in Detroit, drawing the attention of national publications, celebrity chefs, and big-name restaurateurs, there’s also a much more substantial movement happening simultaneously, focused on connecting Detroiters with real, healthy foods. Enter, the Good Food Movement.

The movement itself isn’t new. Founded in the 1950s, the trend aimed to address the growing fast food diet by connecting eaters to locally grown foods. Over the last decade, however, the movement has gained rapid traction in Detroit, especially in relation to its growing restaurant scene. 

With the rapid emergence of pricey, high-end restaurants in the city, it has become more important than ever before to ensure every Detroiter has access to high-quality, nutritious meals. Leading the movement on a business level is FoodLab Detroit. Based in historic Eastern Market, the organization was founded in 2011, around the same time the term “food desert” was first coined, with a goal of connecting and assisting good food businesses.

The Eastern Market in Detroit, Michigan // Photo courtesy Eastern Market Corporation

The Eastern Market in Detroit, Michigan // Photo courtesy Eastern Market Corporation

Today, FoodLab is growing the next generation of inclusive food entrepreneurs. The organization has cultivated 198 member businesses, including restaurants, food brands, and urban farms. Members include big names in the local food scene, like Sister Pie (a two-time James Beard Award nominee), Detroit Vegan Soul, and Bandhu Gardens. Earlier this year, FoodLab hosted the Good Food Accelerator, offering young, mission-driven businesses hands-on training and advice on how to scale their businesses. It’s the first accelerator of its kind in the city. 

Much like its flourishing high-end dining counterpart, Detroit’s good food movement shows no signs of slowing—which is good. While five-star restaurants are certainly great for the city (and its reputation), so is feeding its community. The whole community.  –Lexi Trimpe


Toronto’s multicultural mixing bowl brings global variety to the table

Toronto's skyline // Photo by Chris Lyn, <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/therealchrislyn/19108076643/" target="_blank" rel="noopener">Flickr</a>

Toronto’s skyline // Photo by Chris Lyn, Flickr

Toronto is a famously multicultural place. One of the areas where the city’s diversity shines brightest is in its restaurants.

Since November 2015, Toronto has welcomed more than 5,000 refugees from Syria into its neighborhoods. These newcomers have brought their culinary traditions with them and many have opened restaurants.

“With the first wave, it was all about pastries and cafes, like Crown Pastries in Scarborough and Soufi’s on Queen West,” says Suresh Doss. Doss is a Toronto-based writer and culinary tour guide. His weekly column on CBC Radio takes listeners to delicious, unexplored corners of the city.

Looking ahead, Doss says: “In 2018 and into 2019, we’ll see more regional Syrian cuisine, such as dishes specifically from Damascus or other parts of Syria.” He thinks “we’re getting into the second and third wave of cuisine at a faster pace than with previous groups from other parts of the world.”

A dish of Red Prawns, which is served with fried Calamari, Paprika Aioli, Piparra Pepper, and lemon at Campo // Photo by Chuck Ortiz—Back Of House

Another trend on the rise this year bringing a wide range of cuisines to diners’ plates are food halls. 

Campo, a 3,500-square-foot project run by chef Rob Bragagnolo, is an Italian- and Spanish-inspired food hall, which makes sense given his experience cooking in those countries. There are dining options for any time of day—from the Italian bomboloni and Spanish croissant sandwiches in the panadería to tapas and pintxos in the sit-down restaurant Labora—though they are all expressions of these two countries’ cuisines.  

Assembly Chef’s Hall, on the other hand, offers a wider range of cuisines in a much larger space. For all 17 chefs at Assembly, their food hall restaurant is their second restaurant. Together, their food covers the globe with stops for Nova Scotia lobster, Texas-style brisket, and beef khao soi, to name a few.  –David Ort