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Out of the drink

Once famous for its beer, Milwaukee has recast itself as a haven for foodies. Mary Novakovich invest

I met the Fonz, once, back in 1988. Nice chap, that Henry Winkler, quite short, very affable, a bit nervous because he was about to premiere the first feature film he had directed. Twenty years later, I was standing beside his newly commemorated statue in Milwaukee, the setting for the much-loved US 1970s sitcom Happy Days and proud "birthplace" of Arthur Fonzarelli, America's favourite short, leather-clad Fifties throwback.

The statue isn't quite life-size: it's shorter than I am and Winkler and I are the same height. What was also unexpected was the attractive riverside setting for the statue, which was officially unveiled last summer. Not in a Fifties-style burger bar, and not associated with any of the conventional images of a brewery town such as Milwaukee, where the lead ladies of the Happy Days offshoot Laverne and Shirley used to bottle some of America's weakest beer. So did my late uncle, at the Schlitz brewery, an establishment so mediocre that it deserved its nickname of Schitz. Its official slogan was "The beer that made Milwaukee famous". "Infamous" was my thought when I first tasted it years ago.

Schlitz was bought out in 1982, and its old brewery became a business park. Pabst, also founded in Milwaukee in the 19th century and maker of the official beer of American GIs during the Second World War, has been swallowed up by the brewing giant Miller. Its enormous derelict building is awaiting a very expensive transformation into shops, restaurants and offices. Now the only major brewery left is Miller, and although it produces beer that's just about palatable, it hardly compares to the high-quality stuff that Europeans are used to.

When the breweries started to disappear, this once-thriving city on the western shore of Lake Michigan began to lose its soul. Unemployment hit astonishing levels, surpassed only by Detroit, where a house recently sold for all of $1. Slowly, however, things started to perk up. Milwaukee's backbone had always been its German community, which gave the city its culinary focus: cheese, and lots of it. Followed by bratwurst. And knockwurst. And sauerkraut. And spätzle, those little dumplings Brits tuck in to when skiing in Austria. Along the Milwaukee River is the Old German Beer Hall, which offers a lunchtime special of bratwurst, sauerkraut, spätzle and a beer (brewed to a 400-year-old Bavarian recipe, apparently) for $5. Who needs McDonald's when you can eat like a kaiser?

With the loss of the major breweries, Milwaukee had to do something to keep its metropolitan population of 1.4 million going. A microbrewery, the Lakefront, opened on the lake shore in 1987, and its classy beers quickly found their way into many of Milwaukee's bars. The city fell back on its rich culinary heritage and unselfconsciously reinvented itself as a foodie town. It didn't have to work too hard in that regard: it already had the meat and cheese.

The lake front, where Lake Michigan is so vast that it resembles the sea, has become a waterside playground and less of the no-go area it used to be. Rebranding is everywhere: the riverside is now Riverwalk, where public art sits easily beside the renovated 19th-century industrial buildings. Third Street along the river is now Old World Third Street, home to restaurants and bars (including the Old German Beer Hall). Former warehouses converted into lofts typify the Historic Third Ward. It's a very pleasant downtown area in which to stroll, made more human by the scarcity of skyscrapers thanks to the city's sandy foundations. You can see the sky without craning your neck.

I headed down to the lake front to stare at the Milwaukee Art Museum with its audacious birdlike pavilion, a structure designed by the Valencian architect Santiago Calatrava which opened in 2001. Within minutes, a fanfare sounded on the hidden loudspeakers and the graceful "wings" slowly opened and closed. Nice touch, one that I wasn't quite expecting.

Yet what really took me by surprise was what Guinness World Records calls the world's biggest music festival. I thought I was familiar with all the major musical events, but Summerfest was news to me. It has been going since the 1960s and its 12 music and comedy stages take over the lake front for 11 days every late June/early July. The line-up, admittedly, is hardly edgy: American stalwarts such as Tom Petty, Cheap Trick and Kansas rub shoulders with stars of the UK revival scene (Eric Burdon, the Zombies) as well as artists actually from this century (Gnarls Barkley, Alicia Keys, Plain White T's). But the festival has been one of the major players in the rejuvenation of Milwaukee.

Summerfest's organiser, the then mayor, Henry W Maier, was inspired to create his festival after visiting Oktoberfest. His vision was to bring together and celebrate Milwaukee's many ethnic groups, but it hasn't quite turned out that way. The city's Germans, Italians, Poles, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans and Irish, among others, have their own festivals, most of which take their turn filling lakeside venues with the sounds and flavours of their respective mother countries.

If you want real unity in Milwaukee, you will need to experience a tradition many are convinced is unique to the city: the Friday fish fry. The Catholic ritual of not eating meat on a Friday has mushroomed into a weekly seafood binge. For less than $10, restaurants offer a menu consisting of cod, perch, pike or other local fare, plus generous side dishes. No wonder it's so popular with family groups.

You can find a Friday fish fry in most restaurants, regardless of the cuisine. One of the best in the city, I'm told by my less-than-objective Serbian-American cousins, is at the Serb Hall next door to St Sava Cathedral, handily located a stone's throw from my aunt's house. The queue going out the door showed that its popularity wasn't limited to the Serbian community. The fish was delicious, as were the goulash and cabbage rolls the carnivorous (and non-Catholic) Serbs couldn't help but include in the buffet.

It was the perfect back-to-basics way to deal with the gloomy financial situation, which was getting worse by the minute. Comforting peasant food had never tasted so good. Perhaps some clever person should market the fish that made Milwaukee famous.

This article first appeared in the 09 February 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Revolution 2009