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Jan 6, 2008 07:11 PM

Help ... Madison dining scene

I'm headed to Madison, WI for a weekend in late February. Any suggestions for great food? We would probably want one "nice" restaurant and one more casual, maybe ethnic dining restaurant. A suggestion for Sunday brunch would be great too. I haven't eaten there in a long time... have been to the Tornado Room and L'Etoile so would like to try something other than those. I walked passed The Old Fashioned and I thought it looked interesting... anyone been there that can testify regarding the food? Sorry for the ramble... thanks for any help in advance!

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  1. There was a post regarding Madison in December, here's the link:

    Mr CF and I went to Sardine and loved it. Noisy, but the food was great.

    We were going to go The Old Fashioned, the menu looks great, but Madison had a heck of a snow storm that day and we chickened out and headed home instead.

    Have fun!

    1. I haven't had dinner at The Old Fashioned. We were going to, but no reservations and it was noisy (maybe not that bad perhaps, but we were in the mood for something quieter.) got good reviews from the departed Dennis Getto in the Milwaukee Journal.

      We did have brunch there and it was very nice. Lots of fresh stuff from the farmers market, which won't be available now. But good food, good service. (Sorry, it's been 6 months and I can't remember what we had.)

      1. Just had the Sunday brunch at El Dorado on Willy Street and it was really, really good. Also they had music, which was a nice touch -- DH kept remarking at all the different kinds of sounds one guy got out of a washboard. I had the Eldorado Eggs. Fantastic. A menu

        I like the Old Fashioned, food's pretty solid. For "nice" though, I'd totally go Magnus. Amazing steak, and I could eat their chimichurri all day, on everything. Great wine list, excellent cocktails -- I wouldn't necessarily save room for dessert, though; walk down the street one block and go to Cocoliquot for after-dinner chocolate. Disclaimer: I work at a wine shop that is co-owned by an owner of Magnus.

        I am also a big fan of Osteria Papavero, next to Magnus, for the best upscale Italian in Madison. (Madisonians: I have not yet been to Lombardino's


        Ethnic? Try Restaurant Muramoto off the square for Japanese fusion or Jolly Bob's, a Carribbean place on Willy that's doing half-price appetizers from 4-6 p.m. all winter. I also love the Weary Traveler -- inexpensive, lots of local flavor, and try the West of the Andes sandwich or their awesome chili. Lots of vegetarian options there too.

        I love Sardine. Excellent food, pretty pricey.

        1. Oh where do I start? I lived in Madison for 7 years, just left 7 months ago (short enough to make recommendations I believe) There are so many things I miss, especially late at night (or morning) sitting with a flu induced insomnia, congestion grumpiness and a pack of Kleenex in hand.

          For casual, Lao Laan Xang used to be my favorite when I lived there. It is not "fine" dining, but the original restaurant at Williamson Street is homey and comforting. The panang and their legendary squash curry are good bets. Sticky rice and mango is classic. The place is small, and there will be wait; but for me it was always worth it. The food could be made fiery if you wish, or you can ask them to tame it if you don't have a teflon tongue. Not many wine or beer choices, so might be a good bet for lunch if vino is an absolute must. They have a new outpost at Atwood, but the original is much better. Rumor says, mom cooks at the Williamson one. It is a little bit off the beaten track though, but might be a nice walk/drive on the newly gentrified parts of the once hippie parts of the town.

          Another casual lunch spot could be New Orleans Takeout. But warning: is is not even a restaurant. Just a counter and some stools, right across the stadium. But good food: fried oysters, sweet potato pecan pie, etouffee, jambalaya, dirty rice. Weird to see at the heart of Wisconsin, but food is not even tamed down. I guess it is not a destination spot for a visitor, but if you are especially craving for that type of food, my just out of a plane from NOLA bottom could heartily suggest it.

          Muramoto (downtown) would be another good bet for lunch, especially since they have decent lunch specials. They are not a sushi restaurant per se, but they do have pretty good rolls as well as other modernized home style dishes. They have another branch at the Hilldale mall, which have more raw fish offerings, less sake options. If you like to splurge and order almost everything in the menu, it is a good dinner spot as well. But their menu is limited, sort of Japanese modern small plates kind of deal with both raw and cooked items. Most importantly, you can get a mind blowing variety of sake by the glass (especially considering that you are in small town midwest), including a few unfiltered ones. Damn I hate the SAQ! (the liquor monopoly at my current residence)

          I was pretty disappointed with Old Fashioned, but then I only went there once. I didn't want to ruin another dinner by giving them another chance. The food was unmemorable (my hot sausages were served cold, yuck... that feeling of cold animal fat sticking on your tongue), the atmosphere could be explained as a slightly grown up fraternity bar with slightly grown up fraternity boys.

          Sardine could be good for brunch as well; and their dinner is good if you are into the faux French bistro thing. OK, I am kidding; they are good. However, my all time favorite brunch place is Marigold kitchen; unsurprisingly owned by the same folks. I think they are closed on Sundays, but if you get a chance to go I suggest the French toast with pastry cream, served with berries. (insert Rachel Ray gesture here). The atmosphere is fun too, albeit busy. Watching the bugaboo condo set and their designer baby yogawear could be amusing.

          My absolute favorite dinner recommendation is Lombardinos. It is not a high end resto like Tornado or L'Etoile, but it is a decent restaurant with casual service. The food is non-red-sauce Italian; but not purely authentic. They incorporate a lot of Wisconsin ingredients and elements into the recipes, use seasonal ingredients (ok not all the time, they have arugula all year round); however they never Americanize their pizza by dousing them in cheese. Someone has once said "they cook the way Italians would have cooked if they ever lived in WI". I am particularly fond of their pastry chef who tends his own bees for the honey they use at the restaurant. Ignore the "tourists favorite dining spot" sign on their mural; it is kept to remind us of its old red sauce days, when they were owned by someone else. The decor is also kitchy, I guess all is left from the old days. This is at an odd residential area, surrounded by hospitals and higher end student housing; but not far from downtown and easy to park if you have the car.

          Cocoliquot (downtown) is good if you are into wine; they have lots of offerings by the glass. Their menu is a parade of hit and miss; so trying to make a meal out of them might be stressful. But the frites are good. Chocolates are OK if you are into the sweeter stuff; for me they were too much candylike.

          And chocolate... I live in Montreal, supposedly a great food city; and I have yet to find something that equals Gail Ambrosius' chocolates here. I crave her deep dark chocolate concoctions every day. The salted nut caramels, and the earl grey infusions and curry truffles, oh my. You can visit the original store (actually right next to the Atwood location of Lao Laan if you decide to go there), or perhaps score a box at some retailers that stock it. I think she lists them at her web site.

          If you want even more upscale, Harvest might be another alternative to L'Etoile: seasonal upscale dining. Somewhat precious, too much service, too little food. But that is what some people like; to each his own.

          When I was about to leave town after finishing school, my friends asked what I would like to have for my last meal. Couldn't decide on just one, I picked Muramoto for lunch and Lombardinos for dinner.

          Hope you have fun. Please eat some on my behalf.

          1 Reply
          1. re: emerilcantcook

            Harvest is getting a new chef, and Cocoliquot is closing its doors next month, both according to the report at

          2. In regards to The Old Fashioned. The owners of The Old Fashioned also own Harvest and Lombardino's, and are committed to using fresh, locally grown ingredients, just as they do in their higher end establishments. Great place for a casual meal to experience some traditional Wisconsin fare. The mac & cheese and Sunday night special of a Scandinavian-style chicken dinner were both high points of our last meal there. All very reasonably priced and definitely worth the visit.