Here are a few of my favorite restaurants in Madison:
Breakfast: Marigold Kitchen (118 S. Pickney St.), Mickie's Dairy Bar (1511 Monroe St., near Camp Randal),
Mid-price - Great Dane, Tutto Pasta, Husnu's, Kabul,
Higher-price - Cafe Continental, Harvest, L'Etoile Restaurant
Bar/Pub: Great Dane, State Stree Brats, Essen Haus
I would place Tutto Pasta on a must-avoid list, as would everyone else I've spoken to that's dined there. But, I'm overly picky with all Italian food.
Marigold Kitchen- breakfast/lunch. closed Sunday
Muramoto- great lunch specials (asian fusion)
Cafe Soleil- breakfast/lunch. closed Sunday
Old Fashioned- lunch/dinner. brunch not great. Wonderful, dressed up WI classics in casual atmosphere
Great Dane- good beer, OK food, and beautiful outdoor garden dining
Dotty Dumpling's Dowry for burgers
Brocach Irish Pub
Rararachel, this looks like a great list! I'm adding them all to my "must try" list for my next trip.
I went to Sardine and Cafe Soleil on my last visit, and loved them both. Full as we were, we almost went to Himal Chuli right after breakfast, because it smelled so wonderful as we were walking by.
How about Sa Bai Thong for Thai food? I've seen it on a lot of best lists (like in this thread: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/125180 ). Have you been here? Would you recommend it?
I've been-- I think it's very good, but I haven't eaten a lot of Thai food.
Himal Chuli is my absolute favorite in Madison.
Muramoto is excellent, very interesting Asian fusion.
I like the Great Dane brunch (at least the new one at Hilldale)
Lombardino's has very good Italian, but it's not right downtown, if that's important to you.
I like Sa Bai Thong. Firefly is good too- Asian fusion- it is in a strip mall on University, west of downtown. Husnus is great too for Turkish food. I would also suggest getting ice cream or frozen custard while you are in town- the Chocolate Shoppe and Michael's Frozen Custard are two of my favorites- both have multiple locations.
This might be a late reply, but at least it might be helpful for future reference. I lived in Madison for 7 years, and I have seen Sa Bai's decline every year. Perhaps they grew too fast, but the quality of food is much worse than when I first moved to WI. This especially applies to their takeout. Although it is not the same, (it is Lao-Thai food), I very much recommend Lao Laan Xang instead. If you can, try to go to the original location at Williamson, where the mom cooks, not the fancier/ faster Atwood one. I moved far away from WI, and just thinking about their squash curry makes me drool.
As a Madison native and frequent re-visitor, I just wanted to say two thumbs up -- way up -- for Rararachel's list. The Old Fashioned is particularly worth a visit, as is Muramoto and Sardine. Try the Original Pancake House (on the West side, on University Ave.) for breakfast if you've got a car, and you haven't been to this chain before. Really excellent. But not a Madison-only experience.
I'd just add: make sure you have a brat and beer out on the Union Terrace. That's a Madison, WI experience par excellence... particularly when finished with Babcock Hall ice cream from inside the Union. Be forewarned... you need a Union membership or university ID to get beer on the Terrace.
And my one Tutto Pasta dinner was a disaster. I won't get into specifics -- it's a 500-word story, minimum, and the place ain't worth it -- but avoid.
Himal Chuli boasts the best bad service story I've had the pleasure to be part of. The waiter brought out soup for me and my friend, Aimee. In the process, he spills soup on her -- a fair bit of it, in fact. He comes back a minute or two later, and says (speaking in a thick Eastern European accent): "Oh, I'm sorry -- I spill soup on you. I pay for your laundry."
He waits just a second or two, and then adds: "JUST KIDDING!"
And then he leaves. We didn't see him again for the remainder of the meal. As far as we know, he deserted the restaurant, and we wound up just leaving cash on the counter with our bill. That said, the food was good if you like that Tibetan stuff. I'm not wild about it. That and Korean are pretty much the only cuisines I've yet to try and not like some (or most) aspects of.)
I third Muramoto. Their Hilldale location has amazing lunch specials, and it might be worth the trek if you are into raw fish. Their downtown location offer more cooked stuff in their menu, but is still excellent. Muramoto is one of the things I get to miss about Madison, WI. Amazingly fresh fish, especially considering that you are hours away from the ocean.
However, after giving multiple chances to Himal Chuli, I gave up trying to like the place. Perhaps there is something that I don't get about their food, but I cannot understand why it ever got in the best of lists.
I also recommend Kabul, although it could be crampy and slow depending on the time. I would pass Husnu though.
For breakfast, again another vote for Marigold kitchen. Their french toast with pastry creme is divine.
In addition to this, if you are going to go to the Union for lunch, try getting food from some of the carts and enjoy a lakeside meal. If the beer stand is open, you are even luckier. This is such a rare experience you can get in North America. Cheap, waterside dining.
My favorite food carts at the terrace (they do not necessarily serve every day):
Ingrid's Lunchbox (glorified home style food) http://ingslunchbox.com/
Jamerica (good jerk chicken
)Buraka (much better than their sit down resto)
Lastly, another vote for Lombardinos. They have wood oven pizzas and fantastic desserts like brown butter or olive oil gelatos.
I agree with most of the comments already. Tutto is definitely underwhelming, especially when there's other great Italian (Bellini's!). I highly recommend Cafe Continental for their brunch! They have a bananas foster french toast that's to die for and really yummy cheese grits!
I second jrnorton23 on the Terrace - there's nothing like it, especially with a cold beer and a hot dog (or brat). Bring cards, board games, spend the day in the sun. :)
Other favorites on State Street and in the area:
Ian's Pizza (best late at night, go for the Mac & Cheese)
Blue Marlin (great seafood)
and.. the Thai cart in Library Mall (I'm blanking on the name... can anyone help?)
I was just there this past weekend - enjoy!! :)