Should You Find Yourself in Madison, Wisconsin

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Madison, Wisconsin is an easy four-hour drive down 90/94, a well-maintained highway studded with some of the finest cheese, liquor, and German food depots in the Upper Midwest. Yet for many locals, it may as well be Ohio. The Twin Cities keeps company with the Dakotas, Iowa, and Western Wisconsin, but Madison runs in a different pack: It orbits Chicago along with its slightly bigger and considerably scruffier sister city, Milwaukee.

The disconnect is our loss because, thanks to the cosmopolitan influence of the university and their location smack dab in the middle of cheese and farm country, Madisonians eat as well as anyone in the United States. The city periodically takes first place for most restaurants per capita, and it has long had access to Afghan, Tibetan, and other cuisines esoteric to our region.

If you keep your wits about you (see below) you will not merely dine well in Madison — you’ll dine fabulously. From bratwurst and kraut to high-end Scandinavian fare to some well executed farm-to-table offerings, this isthmus is one big, enormously diverse smorgasbord.

Wisconsin-First and / or Fine Dining

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

The Old Fashioned is an Upper Midwestern wonder that cannot be overly praised. The state’s best cheesemakers contribute to its peerless cheese plates; it offers 150 different local beers; and it does bratwurst ($6, $8 for a double) with such fierce authenticity that its only serious competition outside of Germany is the city of Sheboygan, long considered bratwurst ground zero in the United States.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

The beer battered fried walleye ($9) is light and flavorful, the sandwiches ($6-9) are well balanced and hearty, and the Lazy Susans ($16) — groaning with local sausages, deviled eggs, pickled vegetables, and cheese spreads — are as beautiful a modern interpretation of Wisconsin soul food as you’ll ever find. Oh, and it’s always busy — that’s what happens when you open a restaurant that appeals equally to hip twenty-somethings, their parents, and their parents’ parents.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Restaurant Magnus eked out a marginal existence in Madison for a number of years, serving South American steakhouse-style fare that was rarely more than the sum of its parts. Now reinvented as a Scandinavian small plates eatery, Magnus is wowing palates with dishes such as salmon roe and lox served on a natural rock plate, served with a side of sour cream custard and a shot of dill aquavit ($14). In terms of imagination and execution both, it’s one of the city’s lesser-known gems. [EDITOR’S NOTE: Apparently the daring new approach didn’t cut it with local diners; Magnus announced its closing in September, 2010.]

L’Etoile is the grand dame of Madison restaurants, made famous by Beard Award winner Odessa Piper. Piper’s philosophy, carried down to the restaurant’s current incarnation, was to build her high-end, French-inspired menu based on the freshest and most interesting offerings available at the city’s weekly farmers market. If you’re on an expense account or looking for a special meal to remember, L’Etoile is still the go-to destination. This summer, the almost-35-year-old restaurant is moving to a new location and opening a gastropub called Graze — not a bad move in an economy that has squeezed fine dining joints from New York to San Francisco.

The Old Fashioned
23 N. Pinckney St
Madison, WI 53703
tel. 608.310.4545

Restaurant Magnus
120 East Wilson St
Madison, WI 53703
608.258.8787

L’Etoile
25 N. Pinckney St
Madison, WI 53703
608.251.0500

A People’s Republic of Food

One of Madison’s most charming facets is the quality and quantity of its public spaces, starting with the extremely accessible and drop-dead gorgeous capitol building (top), extending through its numerous parks and lakes, and ending with its downtown outdoor gathering places.

The Terrace at the Memorial Union (800 Langdon Street) has long been Madison’s de facto community patio — and on a warm summer night, there may be no closer approximation of what the Christians call “heaven.” Live music is performed on a gazebo-like stage with Lake Mendota as its backdrop; families and students mingle and sit at comfortable and brightly colored patio tables and chairs; students, professors, and visitors nosh on a broad selection of beers and bratwurst. Inside, in the Memorial Union, ice cream (including the locally beloved Blue Moon) is served. Think “beer garden with a lake view.” One minor catch: If you want to buy a pitcher of beer (and I bet you do) you need to have a Union membership or one-day guest pass.

Becca Dilley Photography

Nearly every Saturday from April to November, the producer-only Dane County Farmers’ Market brings together one of the country’s largest gatherings of vegetable farmers, ranchers, cheesemakers, bakers, coffee brewers, and other food artisans. Sprawling around and slightly off the Capitol Square, the Farmers’ Market is an institution that has been bringing farm to table  since its founding in 1972. It’s also a gathering place for political agitators of all stripes — like the Minnesota State Fair, it’s a crossroads between food and politics.

Madison’s prime downtown gathering place is State Street, which runs from government at its head (the Capitol building) through a body of commerce (State Street) to the University of Wisconsin-Madison at its feet (the Library Mall). In contrast to the national chains that crowd State Street, the food at the Library Mall is simple, local, and served out of small carts and trailers. Ranging from Thai to Jamaican to Greek (and so on), there’s no particular dominant theme to gathered vendors, but they all specialize in providing a cheap, flavorful lunch for students on the go.

Fancy, Unfancy, and Pancake Breakfasts

Ignore the bluster of La Brioche True Food‘s name. An old Madison favorite, the Brittany Bun, is still served in this restaurant, a descendant of the original Ovens of Brittany chain. A chewy, restrained, unfrosted version of a cinnamon roll, the Brittany Bun (now called a plain old Morning Bun, $2.35) is an unroll-as-you-go affair, with a crunchy exterior that tapers down to a soft, delicate core. This is a sweet, coffee-complementary breakfast pasty aimed at people with mature palates, the inverse of the ooey-gooey (and ultimately disgusting) pile of excess that is the Cinnabon. Other breakfast options at La Brioche are reliably good, and the quiet, dignified atmosphere is perfect for a convivial chat.

Mickies Dairy Bar is not perfect for a convivial chat. This often raucous, usually crowded Madison institution sits kitty corner to Camp Randall on Monroe Street, and is a favorite of both college athletes and nostalgic alums. The Heavy Table contributor Becca Dilley, who spent a few years waitressing at Mickies, recommends the following:

“The Scrambler is the headliner — three eggs scrambled with an omelet ingredient of your choice, served over a bed of yanks (homefries) with cheddar cheese and gravy on top, if you would like. Plan on eating about half, and then splitting a homemade chocolate malt — the thickest and most delicious malt you will ever have. The homemade coffee cake’s also pretty good.”

Becca Dilley Photography

I tend to get a bagel breakfast sandwich, which is a little less intimidating.

The Original Pancake House is a chain, albeit an excellent one. The locations in Milwaukee and the Twin Cities are both top notch breakfast joints, among others. So why waste your time eating breakfast at the Madison incarnation of OPH? Because it may be the best sweet, classic Midwestern pancake-driven breakfast you may ever eat. (They’re competitive on the savory front, too — particularly the thick-cut bacon.) Try (and share) the Dutch Delight (a volcano caldera of pancake filled with fruit) or the massive and wondrously executed caramelized Apple Pancake. Although there’s a Monona location, both food quality and service are superior at the University Avenue location.

La Brioche True Food
2862 University Ave
Madison, WI 53705
608.233.3388

Mickies Dairy Bar
1511 Monroe St
Madison, WI 53711
608.256.9476

The Original Pancake House
5518 University Ave
Madison, WI 53705
608.231.3666

Casual Eats

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Monroe Street’s relatively newly opened Brasserie V boasts a terrific selection of Belgian beers, cheeseboards ($16), and small bistro-style noshes like moules et frites ($11) that make killing an afternoon as easy as “un, deux, trois.” The food is simple, straightforward (even if the croque monsieur uses Nueske’s Applewood Smoked Ham – $9), and reliable, and the atmosphere civilized without being posh.

The best tropical drinks I’ve ever had were made at Jolly Bob’s Jerk Joint on Madison’s Near East side. The sheer variety of rums, the kicky and well-balanced use of fruit juice, the brutal but stealthy alcoholic punch of each perfectly calibrated libation — it’s all awe-inspiring. An outdoor deck makes for good warm-weather dining, and the food is tolerable. But the drinks, man. The drinks. Seek out the old-school and disciplined caipirinha ($6.50) and the deadly deceptive Sea Foam ($5.50), which goes down like sweet blue fruit juice and kicks like a donkey.

Madison’s a college town, so pizza’s a way of life. One of the best local makers is also one of the newest: The Roman Candle makes a New York-style thin-crust pizza with an emphasis on fresh locally sourced ingredients. Like most of the best pizza out there, it’s not complicated stuff — the Margherita ($14 for a 12-inch) is bright and classic, and the BBQ Chicken ($16.50 for a 12-inch) is well balanced and tangy-sweet without being sickly. The East Side location has the best reputation; the Fitchburg location is still reputedly coming up to speed.

Brasserie V
1923 Monroe St
Madison, WI 53711
608.255.8500

Jolly Bob’s Jerk Joint
1210 Williamson St
Madison WI
608.251.3902

The Roman Candle
East | 1054 Williamson St | 608.258.2000
West | 1920 Parmenter St | 608.831.7777
Fitchburg | 2685 Research Park Dr | 608.278.1111

Stores With Gastronomic Chops

What’s the point of visiting America’s Dairyland if you’re not going to return with a few sizable chunks of mind-blowingly good cheese? Get thee to Fromagination on the Capitol Square, where cheesemonger Ken Monteleone and his talented staff will tend to your needs. Talk to them. They know cheese, they know flavor profiles, and they’re eager to sample and share. And while they’ve got a formidable and uniformly excellent selection of cheese (local and imported) on site, they’ve also got crackers, chocolates, kitchen goods, and other charming knick knacks, making this a great spot to kill 30 minutes and do some gift shopping.

Becca Dilley Photography

And while you’re on the Square, get over to Candinas Chocolatier. Named one of the country’s 10 best spots to buy chocolate by the editor of Chocolatier magazine (writing in USA Today), Candinas makes thin-shelled truffles of extraordinary balance and quality. They’re not cheap — a 9-piece box costs $14.20. They’re still a good value, however — you’ll savor every bite.

Finally, if you find yourself on Monroe Street, pop in to Orange Tree Imports, a gourmet-worthy kitchen store equal to that of Kitchen Window or Cooks of Crocus Hill (if a bit smaller than either).

Fromagination
12 South Carroll
Madison, WI 53703
608.255.2430

Candinas Chocolatier
Retail Boutique
11 W. Main St
Madison, WI 53703
608.845.1545

Orange Tree Imports
1721 Monroe St
Madison, WI 53711
608.255.8211

Oh, Yeah, and…

Nick’s is a dive bar with soul — ask what pie is homemade, get a cup of coffee and / or Grasshopper ($8), grab a padded booth and settle in. There’s a solid jukebox and a menu of reliable Greek favorites. Oh, and take note of the crazy “Ah, Wasn’t Life in the Old South Dreamy, Back When Slaves Still Toted Stuff Around” mural on the wall.

Nick’s Restaurant
226 State St
Madison, WI 53703
608.255.5450

Michael’s Frozen Custard is to Madison what Kopp’s is to Milwaukee — it’s the purveyor of the area’s best frozen dessert, and a gathering place for families on warm summer days. The location on Monroe Street is convenient to Lake Wingra, so grab a double scoop waffle cone ($5) and walk over to the lake for some relaxation and pleasant vistas. After the Terrace and Farmers’ Market, it’s one of the things that ex-pat Madisonians most miss.

Michael’s Frozen Custard
2531 Monroe St
Madison, WI 53711
608.231.3500

Lombardino’s Restaurant, near Madison West High School, used to be exactly the sort of overpriced tourist dump that you’d specifically warn people away from. Under new ownership for a few years now, the place has been reinvented as the sort of thoughtful, modern, high-end Italian place that’s good for just about any special gathering. And they serve pasta by the half order, so you don’t necessarily have to explode.

Lombardino’s Restaurant
2500 University Ave
Madison, WI 53705
608.238.1922

So, Fromagination wasn’t enough cheese for you. That’s understandable; cheese is the world’s best food, and Wisconsin makes the finest cheese. Head out to the Carr Valley Cheese retail outlet store in Middleton, which offers some great interpretations of classic cheeses and a number of mixed milk and otherwise exotic Wisconsin original cheeses, made via the genius of Master Cheesemakers Sid Cook and Tom Jenny.

Carr Valley Cheese
2831 Parmenter St
Middleton, WI 53562
608.824.2277

The Kang Gai at Lao Laan-Xang is enough to warrant a visit — this perfectly balanced lemon grass / coconut milk / citrus / galanga soup comes in a candle-heated metal contraption of a size fit for two ($6.75) or four ($12.50). Be prepared for some locally famous incompetent service, however.

Lao Laan-Xang

2098 Atwood Ave
Madison, WI 53704
608.819.0140

The mashawa soup and Afghan flatbread ($4.25) at Kabul got me through many a cold, lonely winter night as an undergrad at UW. Cheap, filling, exotic, comforting.

Kabul
541 State St
Madison, WI 53703
608.256.6322

Take it from this former short-time New Yorker of Jewish heritage: Bagels Forever makes some of the most reliable and authentic tasting bagels outside of the City. Sometimes found frozen in Twin Cities Rainbow grocery stores, they’re best bought fresh at the source on University Avenue. Right behind New Glarus beer and blocks of Wisconsin cheese, these bagels are the item most commonly found in my car trunk on the drive from Madison back home to Longfellow. Value’s good, too, both on location and remotely — a baker’s dozen is $4.80 on site, and if you order online, it’s $10.50 + shipping for 24 bagels.

Bagels Forever

2947 University Ave
Madison, WI 53705
608.231.2427

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James Norton

James Norton is editor and co-founder of the Heavy Table. He is also the co-author of Lake Superior Flavors, the co-author of a book about Wisconsin’s master cheesemakers, and a regular on-air contributor to Minnesota Public Radio.

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34 Comments

  1. Wow, nice and thorough. I’m going to be in need of a trip to the homeland soon.

  2. rational54 04/05/2010

    Lucky my daughter lives there , going to the Brat Fest in May.

  3. Now I’m homesick and totally craving some Babcock ice cream, preferably in sandwich form.

  4. You mean there is more to Madison food than State Street Brats, La Bamba, and Parthenon?

  5. …and should you be interested in drinking beer in Madison, I’d throw my hat in for a visit to Great Dane, Ale Asylum and Maduro. And should you find a means to get tickets, Great Taste of the Midwest is one of the best beer fests around.

  6. Stuart Borken 04/05/2010

    Magnus is a wonderful restaurant. It’s layout is odd untill you find out what it was in it’s earlier life.

  7. Have you made it to Natt Spil yet James? I know it was forever ago that I mentioned it to you.

  8. alexinmadison 04/05/2010

    I’m impressed! As a 14-year Madison resident who’s still in the honeymoon phase, there was very little to disagree with here. The overall impression of Madison in the opening paragraph is spot-on and, knowing that one couldn’t possibly review EVERY worthy restaurant within a category, the choices were, mostly, good ones. The one area that I will take exception to is in the choice of Candinas Chocolatier as the featured chocolate make in town. While they may have the distinction of being named “something, in some magazine”, they are beaten in quality by two, very different Madison chocolate makers – Gail Ambrosius and David Bacco. Gail works exclusively in top-quality dark chocolate and specializes in sort of traditional-style truffles and solid chocolates. David Bacco specializes in gorgeously shaped (often geometric) chocolate truffles with daring and unusual flavor combinations. Both are far and away better and more interesting chocolates than Candinas which are good but not exceptional, in my opinion. Thank you for a really lovely article. I hope many visitors to Madison will see this and use it as a guide. They won’t be disappointed!!

  9. Author

    Dear Alex,

    Thanks for the thoughtful note! I’ve had the chocolates of both Gail Ambrosius and David Bacco, and agree that they’re exceptional… but personally speaking, I prefer those of Candinas, which always struck me (overall) as simpler, better balanced, and more reliable. I think you’re correct that Bacco and Ambrosius are more ambitious and daring, but for my money I’d rather go with the uniformly scrumptious options over at Candinas. Plenty of room for disagreement on this one, though. I guess the only way for a reader to be sure is to try all three, a hardship that I suspect some will be willing to endure…

    James

  10. Kathy 04/05/2010

    GREAT write-up. I’ve been here for 3.5 years, and my boyfriend and I call the Old Fashioned our other home, more or less.

    My sole disagreement is with Michael’s as the best frozen dessert. I’ve had Babcock ice cream and Chocolate Shoppe ice cream, too, and my favorite of the three is the Shopppe. To me, it’s the highest-quality and best-tasting, and their combinations show the most creativity.

    CS has locations in East Towne Mall, on South Park street, on State street, and… I think there’s one on the west side somewhere.

  11. Kathy 04/05/2010

    OH! And the DCFM runs year-’round! In November and December, it’s in Monona Terrace; January through April (roughly), it’s at the Madison Senior Center. Both locations are downtown.

    http://www.dcfm.org

  12. Jason Walker 04/05/2010

    The Lazy Susan at The Old Fashioned looks like it’s worth the drive by itself.

  13. Great summary!

  14. Great Dane Black’n’Tan Cheddarburger…the best burger on the planet.

  15. Kathy 04/06/2010

    Frank, I think you misspelled something:

    “Great Dane brat & bacon pretzelburger… the best burger you’ll ever want to eat when under the influence.”

    ;-)

  16. As someone who has lived in Southern WI all my life & has gone to Madison often. I have to say this is one of the BEST out of town reviews I have seen of Madison restaurants. My only complaint is you start off by talking about how Madison has lots of ethnic restaurants, but other than the typical French / Italian, you don’t really mention any.

    My favorite food is Indian food and I would highly recommend Maharajah [west side] or Maharani [a couple blocks from the capitol].

    Also a bit disappointed you didn’t mention the other two chocolate shops in passing. Frankly I think all three chocolatier’s should always be mentioned together. Each is great with a different specialty.
    David Bacco [chocolate as works of art]
    Gail Ambrosius [unique flavors]

    Also, Culvers Frozen Custard & Butterburgers which is a regional chain based out of Prairie du Sac, WI makes some of THE best frozen custard anywhere [and as a chain you can find restaurants a LOT closer to the Twin Cities than Madison.]
    Michael’s is to custard what Hagan Daz is to super premium ice cream.
    Culvers is to custard what Ben & Jerry’s is to super premium ice cream. I prefer Culvers / Ben & Jerry’s. Reese’s Peanut butter cup, S’mores [crazy good], Carmel Cashew, and Chocolate Eclair are my favorite flavors.

  17. Wonderful post about dining options in Madison. Joe, Maharajah is actually my favorite Indian food place! For chocolates I think Gail Ambrosius has the best tasting ones followed by Candinas then Bacco. Also, Culver’s is a must for Wisconsin visitors :) I love their chocolate malt shake. Yum!

  18. Having lived in Madison for years now, I’d have to say you missed the best burger in town, which is easily Bob’s Bad Breath Burger over at the Weary Traveler on Williamson Street; otherwise, fantastic write up!