All the local restaurants Top Chef: Wisconsin judges raved about

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Top Chef’s 21st season is all about Wisconsin, celebrating our state’s farms, restaurants, and culinary producers. While the season is just underway, with the first episode aired on March 20, it’s already apparent that the judges can’t stop gushing about Wisconsin’s restaurants. 

While filming in the state last summer and fall, judges Kristen Kish, Tom Colicchio, and Gail Simmons spent a lot of off-hours eating frozen custard, honing in on breakfast spots, and sampling niche global cuisine. This, combined with where “cheftestants” are cooking in each episode, has created a must-dine list for any serious foodie.

Birch, Milwaukee

Open since 2021, this airy restaurant is on the ground floor of a contemporary apartment building along Water Street just north of downtown Milwaukee. It’s been named to the New York Times’ list of the top 50 restaurants in the U.S. Chef-owner Kyle Knall — twice nominated as a James Beard Award semi-finalist — appeared as a guest judge on episode two at a dinner hosted inside Miller Brewing Company’s caves.

Anchored by an open-fire hearth, the contemporary American menu sources from farms that include Stone Bank Farm — resulting in entrees like ember-roasted walleye and wood-roasted pork chop, plus starters such as wood-roasted cabbage and wood-roasted maitake. Last August, Gail Simmons raved on her Instagram account about the watermelon starter and Stone Bank Farm tomato salad, in perfect pitch with summer.

photo courtesy of Birch via Facebook.

The Harvey House, Madison

In the show’s fifth episode (airing April 17), cheftestants visit Joe and Shaina Papach’s Harvey House, where the couple will serve as guest judges. Eating here is serious eye candy as the restaurant is located within a former train car just under a mile south of the State Capitol Building. On the menu are Midwest classics like Lake Superior whitefish and wild rice harvested from Minnesota.

Prior to opening The Harvey House, Joe was sous chef at Gramercy Tavern in New York City and The French Laundry in Napa, California. Shaina, a Madison native, has cooked at Gramercy Tavern as well as Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, whose founder Alice Waters is considered the founder of America’s farm-to-table movement. They opened The Harvey House in 2021.

Photo courtesy of The Harvey House via Facebook.

Kopp’s Frozen Custard, Three locations near Milwaukee

This frozen-custard stand — with locations in Greendale, Glendale, and Brookfield — was founded by Elsa Kopp in 1950 and is now owned by her son, Karl Kopps. The flavors of frozen custard (which is like ice cream but with egg yolks folded in) run the gamut but are always unique, and often feature cake recipes, such as Edna Lewis’ Peach Cobbler, Imperial Torte, and German Apple Streusel.

In August, Kish posted an Instagram photo of her and Simmons posing with frozen custard treats in front of the Brookfield location, with an up-close shot of their burgers, onion rings, and fries too. She declared frozen custard to be “simply delicious.” Then, in September, the trio of judges were photographed at the Greendale location. Simmons’ Instagram post says, “Last licks #wisconsin. You’ve been generous beyond reason and we are leaving happy and satiated. This just about sums it all up.”

Photo courtesy of Kristen Kish via Instagram.

Leon’s Frozen Custard, Milwaukee

This South Side of Milwaukee staple for frozen custard is a fun throwback to 1950s-era sock hops with its drive-in vibe. And no wonder: It’s been in business since 1942, was remodeled to its current state in the early-1950s, and continues to be family-owned. Three flavors are offered daily: vanilla, chocolate, and butter pecan.

In August, Simmons posted on Instagram a photo of her and Kish licking vanilla frozen custard in cones, with the following caption: “Ok Milwaukee, I get it now. First, of what I hope to be many life-changing frozen custards, with @kristenlkisch. It’s a real thing.” Kish also posted the same photo on her Instagram page.

Photo courtesy of Kristen Kish via Instagram.

Lupi & Iris, Milwaukee

In the season’s premiere, all 15 cheftestants were put to task in this Mediterranean-themed restaurant in downtown Milwaukee. Among the guest judges was chef-owner Adam Siegel, who debuted the restaurant in 2022, and chef Paul Bartolotta, who worked with Siegel at The Bartolotta Restaurants.

Dishes at Lupi & Iris are inspired by the French and Italian Rivieras, such as soupe au pistou (Provencal vegetable soup), pulpo a la Parrilla (grilled octopus), and trofie al Limone (a pesto-pasta specialty in Genoa, Italy), along with Mediterranean sea bass, whole roasted chicken, grilled swordfish, roasted duck and more. In that first episode, chefs were split into teams challenged to make soup, roast a chicken, and create stuffed pasta, all nods to this restaurant.

Photo courtesy of Lupi & Iris via Facebook.

Michael’s Frozen Custard, Madison

On Madison’s East Side is the lone Michael’s Frozen Custard stand as the Monroe Street location closed in 2019, and was open since 1986 in a former gas station. Known for its sundaes, these incorporate frozen custard and are a mix of classics and innovation, such as White Rabbit (vanilla custard, white-chocolate sauce, raspberry puree, and cookie dough) and Michael’s Famous Turtle (vanilla custard, caramel, hot fudge, and pecans). Also on the menu are malts, shakes, chicken sandwiches, and burgers.

In September, Simmons posted a photo of her son biting into a waffle cone with two frozen-custard flavors (a classic vanilla on top), with the caption: “Brain freeze. Worth it. Wisconsin frozen custard tour continues.”

Photo courtesy of Gail Simmons via Instagram.

Three Brothers, Milwaukee

Tucked into Milwaukee’s Bay View neighborhood since 1956, this restaurant is owned by the second generation of the founding family, who emigrated from Belgrade, Serbia, to Milwaukee in 1949. Kish has been outspoken about her love for this restaurant, including in an interview with Milwaukee Magazine at the “Top Chef” premiere party in Milwaukee last month.

One of the first restaurants we went to was Three Brothers, and I didn’t know there was a top-notch Serbian restaurant in Milwaukee,” she said. “My wife is half-Serbian so we always seek a Serbian restaurant out.”

On the menu are burek (filo dough stuffed with beef, cheese, spinach, or potato), sarma (stuffed cabbage), pork shish-kabob, stuffed grape leaves, and — for dessert — apple and cherry strudel. Kish told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel she enjoyed the burek, stuffed peppers, sarma, and chevapchichi.

Photo courtesy of Three Brothers Restaurant via Facebook.

Uncle Wolfie’s Breakfast Tavern, Milwaukee

According to Simmons, in an interview with Milwaukee Magazine, this breakfast spot in Brewers Hill was the judges’ “hangout spot” while in town. It’s been open since 2018 and serves breakfast and lunch only.

On a visit in late August, Simmons and Kish ordered several dishes, including the Latke Waffle Chop Cheese, and posted photos to Instagram, according to OnMilwaukee. It’s a sour cream and chives waffle sandwich stuffed with chopped pastrami, pickled chiles, lettuce, tomato jam, caramelized onions, charred allium aioli, and cheese.

Photo courtesy of Uncle Wolfie’s Breakfast Tavern via Instagram.

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Author

  • Kristine Hansen

    Based in Milwaukee, Kristine Hansen has written about wonders around Wisconsin for TravelandLeisure.com, Fodors.com, NationalGeographic.com and Milwaukee Magazine. She’s also the author of books about Wisconsin’s cheese, agritourism and Frank Lloyd Wright sites.

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