Looking for authentic travel, local experiences, and food and drink that you can’t find anywhere else?
Visit a U.S. Main Street town or city.
The linchpin of a strong community is usually its downtown core, from a small town’s one or two streets lined with historic buildings, shops, and restaurants to the vibrant urban core in a large city. Unfortunately, in the 20th-century rush to build car-friendly suburbs and strip malls anchored by “big box” brand stores, too many towns forgot to take care of the places that made them truly unique.
In the 1970’s the U.S. National Trust for Historic Preservation launched the Main Street America program; a national network of over 2,000 historic downtowns and neighborhood commercial districts that works to revitalize the ones that aren’t doing so well, and support the ones that are thriving.
What this means for travelers is that this list and map of all Main Street communities can help you find the wonderful times, special memories, and fabulous food that you seek, plus they are almost always quite affordable as well.
For an example of a thriving, fun-to-visit Main Street town, I heartily recommend Kenosha, Wisconsin, located right on the waters of Lake Michigan in the northern U.S. Midwest, between Milwaukee and Chicago. The elements that make Kenosha special can be found in many, many other Main Street communities.
Local Restaurants & Eateries
Not every Main Street town can boast everything from historic diners to multiple scratch bakeries to farm-to-fork fancy, but they can aspire to the offerings available in Kenosha. I just about tipped over from trying ALL OF THE FOOD.
From my first meal in town – seasonal pumpkin ravioli at Mangia Wine Bar (surprisingly busy on a random Tuesday night in winter) – to fresh strawberry shortcake at Sazzy B’s, to delicious Frank’s Diner breakfast pancakes and sausage in a restored
railroad O’Mahoney dining car, to the “Apple of My Eye” panini sandwich at The Buzz (ham, cheddar, arugula, apples, red onion, and cranberry-honey mustard, plus fresh root beer on draft,) I went from one meal to another continuously surprised by the quality of food, enjoyable waitstaff, and efforts to include and highlight Wisconsin ingredients whenever possible.
In just one shop, Elsie Mae’s Canning and Pies, I found not only pies – holy smokes, try the Chocolate Bourbon Pecan – but also pot pies like Chicken, Wisconsin Beer Cheese, Pork ‘n Apple, & Shepherds, plus their homemade jams, jellies, sauces, and drink mixes.
Midwest people do not like pretension, or people who take themselves too seriously.
You see that spirit in everything from the labels at Scoops Ice Cream shop next door to Elsie Mae’s….
….to a local hangout called Mike’s Donuts and Chicken that also serves pub food and excellent beer in a bar attached to the donut joint.
If you simply want a good cup of coffee plus WiFi, you’ll find that most Main Street towns have at least one coffee shop that has moved well beyond burnt Folger’s/Maxwell House brew congealing for hours on a Bunn hotplate.
In Kenosha, head for Harborside Common Grounds and try to snag this table in the back that overlooks the harbor and Lake Michigan.
On weekends, especially during Second Saturdays downtown festivities each month, take a look around the Kenosha Farmers Markets.
The HarborMarket, for example, is outdoors by the water mid-May to mid-October, and in winter months it’s housed in the lobby of a beautifully restored downtown theater, the Rhode Center for the Arts.
Cheese and Beer. Duh.
Successful Main Street towns learn to revel in that which makes them one-of-a-kind, and for a traveler, that includes one-of-a-kind food and drink.
Yes, Kenosha is in Wisconsin and so there is, indeed, beer and cheese. For a ridiculous selection of both, don’t miss Mars Cheese Castle right out on Highway 94/41, the Interstate that runs between Chicago and Milwaukee. It is built like a castle, with a fun retro sign out front.
Plenty of kinds of cheese you might recognize….
Plenty of versions of cheese that may be new to you….
Plenty of beer, especially those brewed in Wisconsin and the Midwest….
Even better, visit local craft breweries in Main Street towns, to get the good stuff on draft.
I spent a delightful couple of hours at Rustic Road Brewing Company trying their Belgian Tripel (brewed on site) and gabbing with friendly locals who had brought in pizza from a nearby Italian place. The boxes were casually stacked on the bar as people helped themselves while waiting for Friday Trivia Night to begin.
I never quite figured out whether Rustic doesn’t serve food and is a BYOP place (bring your own pizza) but if a nice local person offers you pizza from their box like they did for me, take it and enjoy!
For more of a “Cheers”-like neighborhood pub atmosphere, try TG’s a few long blocks from downtown; they’ve been in business since 1889.
Lots of politicians have stopped by to schmooze at TG’s over the years, so walk around and look at the memorabilia, perhaps while carrying a Rebel Kent The First from 3 Sheeps Brewing out of Sheboygan, Wisconsin.
The Last To Know
Word of warning: sometimes the last people in town to truly appreciate what they have are the locals.
They are busy living their daily lives, and “authentic travel experiences” may be the last thing they think about, or they never consider what that means within their own community.
If they grew up going to certain community festivals, have “always eaten lunch at that diner,” and walk past a striking Art Deco historic building every day, they may not recognize the treasures all around them. They may not even know about that cool new bakery or restaurant that you found as a visitor, because “they never go to that part of town” even if it is three blocks from where they work.
We all get into ruts – it may take an excited traveler to help them see their town’s offerings through fresh eyes.
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