We have three favorite restaurants in Madison.
New Orleans Take-Out is small, just a counter and stools, but has authentic Creole food. (Don’t say “Cajun” to the owner; he makes a sharp distinction.) The shrimp poorboys are a must. Oyster poorboys are available in season. The Etoufée is very good, but very hot. The original east side location is at 1920 Fordem Ave. There is now a west side location near the stadium, at 1517 Monroe St. http://www.eatmobettah.com/New%20Orleans%20Take%20Out1/Menu.html
The best barbecue in Wisconsin is found at Smokey Jon’s, 2310 Packers Ave. This is on the far east side, near the entrance to the airport, but well worth the drive. www.smokyjons.com
We also love the Wah Kee Noodle House at 600 Williamson St. It is the type of authentic Asian noodle house found rarely in the Midwest. Its location is not too far east; it’s close to the Capitol. It is on the northeast corner of where Williamson, Wilson, Blair and John Nolan streets all meet.
These are all down-scale places. For something upscale, one must dine at the venerable and nationally-known L’Etoile, found on the east side of the Capitol Square, at 25 N. Pinckney St.
Now we must talk about drinking beer, a Madison essential. The Memorial Union on the UW campus has a wonderful German “Rathskeller” with muraled walls, where the students hang out. (Don’t miss the west wall mural “When Wine and Beer are at War”, written in German.) The Rathskeller leads out to the relaxing lakeside Terrace, a must-see during the summer months. (If you’re not a student, you must buy a one-day pass for a couple of bucks to drink beer there. The pass is not needed for food or non-alcoholic beverage purchases.)
A fine brewpub, The Great Dane, stands one block to the southeast of the Capitol Square at 123 E. Doty St. (at Doty & King streets). The Essenhaus is an atmospheric German beer hall and restaurant at 514 E. Wilson St., just across from the Wah Kee Noodle House.
Definately my favorite place to eat in Madison is Lombardino's. THe prices are resonable, the food is great, wines are amazing and atmoshpere is remeniscent of Italian restaurants in the 50's.
For a quick lunch or afternoon snack, check out Madelinne's Patisserie. Everyone there has great passion for what they do and can make a great sandwhich, quiche and soups. Don't forget dessert. I've never been dissapointed.
I've recently gone to Sardine and had a great meal. It quickly became another favorite dining spot.
Pavlov's Pizza, formerly Pagliai's Pizza, on Willy Street is the best pizzeria in the world. I say that without qualification. They make their crust with lard, their sausage has big bits of fennel and farm spices in it, their sauce is generously scented with garlic and whatever vegetables you put on top are of the highest quality. They are little geniuses over there.
(I say this having dutifully explored Grimaldi's in Brooklyn and Lombardy's and all the Rays in Manhattan,, all Chicago has to offer and joints in North Beach in San Francisco, and blah, blah, blah.)
I'm partial, but I've been a lot of places and the food in Madison is right up there.
"Local" place: everyone will have their favorite. Mine is "Greenbush Bar" on Regent Street - across from Meriter hospital. Unreal pizza. Better usually when it is less busy... but always good. You feel like you know some kind of secret - in the basement, bad lighting (or good depending on your point of view), cheap tables and chairs, big old air unit, eclectic crowd, barely a sign on the outside, etc...
Steak: Lots of options. I'd avoid Delmonicos - I feel it is overrated and there are better. Oddly, my vote for best Madison steak is "Capital Chophouse" in the Hilton - Monona Terrace. Others will sear me for that, but so be it. It is the best, imho, if you aren't looking for something unique.
Best seafood: it's Madison... WISCONSIN... in the midwest... there are options, but if you come to Madison for seafood you are being silly.
Ambiance: lots of pretty good options for this. I tend to like Ottos on the west-side, Paisan's new location downtown isn't bad, Greenbush (mentioned above), Old Fashioned on the square, or anything on State Street (pick an international cuisine and get a table on the street... people watch until you are full). The last one is a wild-card because I'm not nearly as geeked over it after 10 years in the city than seemingly everone else but that is Mickey's Dairy Bar near the stadium... for breakfasts, it's on a lot of "CAN'T MISS!" lists... but I can miss it on a regular basis.
The other posts mention some other good places... the best part of about Madison is that it is Madison. More than likely there is a neighborhood restaurant (and neighborhood) for you.
EDIT: I forgot about my favorite new(er) place: Fresco. Yes, it is a food-fight restaurant. But really neat location on top of the overture center complex. Reasonably unique menu - although it has been somewhat stale since the 2nd chef left. The new chef is very good and capable, but I see less variability in the menu month to month. Service is generally very competent and fun. To me, it has started to represent Madison... eclectic crowd, good food, reasonable (not necessarily cheap) prices, solid/fresh ingredients, very friendly, etc...
Plus, a unique view of state street.
Wah Kee noodles. Great stuff. home-style noodle dishes from China. It's in the strip-mall thing near the capitol that has the Indonesian restaurant. Sorry, I'm not a native, I just find my way to this place by coming in on 151 and turning left as I'm just about downtown. I don't know the proper pronounciation, but I favor "wacky noodles."
What about L'Ecole? Is it still open? I heard a long time ago that it's terrific and would like to go someday, but I'm never in the right place in the day or my attire when I'm going through Madison.
Went to the delicatessen on 151 when Wacky noodles was closed during a recent mid-day trip through Madison on the way back from some meetings in Chicago and Milwaukee. It's got a circus theme and looks very kid-friendly with all kinds of crazy stuff hanging from the ceiling. The corned beef on rye was a disappointment. Dry meat, not much of it either.
That would be Ella's Deli. It was never much of a deli (unless you had never eaten at virtually any other deli in the world), but their original location was on State St and that was marginally better (although never great). Now, and for the last 20 years or so, it has been the spiritual successor to Farrell's.
I actually wanted to nominate Ella's for the "weirdest place" category. That place always creeped me out with all those mechanic toys, animals, circus stuff hanging from the walls and ceilings and randomly starting operating. It looked like a bad childhood nightmare. And yeah, I agree the food wasn't very good. But one might want to step in, just for the scare factor.
One of the most underrated places in MSN is Sophia's bakery at E Johnson. It is a cafeteria style breakfast place / bakery with lots of old world cakes and good hearty breakfast. You share the tables with whomever is eating that day. They also do a dinner on Wednesdays, again cafeteria style. Real crampy space but lots of love.
I was recently in your lovely town (what a great place for used-book hunting!) and had two great meals, thanks to previous posts on this board.
Sardine for dinner. We were torn between Sardine and Cocoliquot, but finally chose the place with the dishes we felt like eating that night. I liked Sardine a lot - a nice casual-but-upscale atmosphere with a great view of the lake (too bad that diners can't sit by a window, though). It wasn't very busy, but we were there on a Monday night. I had a salad with grilled sardines followed by pan-seared skatewing, which was lovely. My husband had the duck confit salad and a pasta special that was fabulous. Only the fact that I love skate saved his dinner from my invading fork.
Cafe Soleil for croissants and juice the next morning. Yum! This place is now on our must-visit list every time we're here.
And, of course, we stopped for custard at Michael's. Ahhhh, custard!
I have only lived here 8 months or so (and I'm a poor grad student) so my recs are a bit less informed, but I'll try.
Breakfast: Cafe Soleil (beneath L'etoile) and Lazy Jane's (amazing scones)
Lunch: Mediterranean Cafe on State Street, Bluephie's (try the enchiladas)
Dinner: Tex Tubb's Taco Palace (cheap), The Old Fashioned (middling), Harvest or Restaurant Magnus (expensive)
I'm a big fan of Nattspil and the Weary Traveler for late-night eats. Firefly has wonderful pan-Asian food, and Chautara and Dobhan (owned by the same folks) have amazing Nepalese food. Himal Chuli is similar to those but cheaper, good for lunch. Ooh, just thinking about Chautara makes me want to leave work early and head over there...
If I had one day in Madison, I'd have Cleveland's (http://www.madisonatoz.com/2005/05/clevelands_dine.html) for breakfast, Fyfe's (http://www.foodspot.com/fyfes/) for lunch and Greenbush Bar (http://www.madisonatoz.com/2006/10/greenbush_bar.html) for dinner. And maybe Antojitos el Toril (http://www.madisonatoz.com/2007/03/an...) for an afternoon snack.
For weirdness, even though it's technically a few minutes southwest in Verona, you can't beat ChinMi. Three words: truck stop sushi.
There have been numerous Madtown threads on Chowhound, too - just search "madison wi" and thre are more recs than you can shake a stick at.