I'm a Madison native that now lives out east. Every time I come home (my parents still live here) I make a list of all of the food spots I want to try to hit. Inevitably I only make it to 10% of them, but I thought I'd share my list here.
This board is full of reviews of the standard Madison haute cuisine quartet (L'Etoile, Harvest,
Muramoto, and Sardine), and while I won't go into any more detail on them, I unsurprisingly add my strong recommendations.
One newcomer restaurant that I think deserves a place among these elite is Osteria Papavero on Wilson near King. This is the one place I visit with every trip home, no matter how short. Inventive central Italian cooking with an elegant yet unpretentious "neighborhood spot" feel. Chalkboard menu, hard-to-find amari at the bar, and outdoor seating when the weather's nice. The menu changes all the time, but the incredible butterscotch pudding is always on it.
Right next door is Restaurant Magnus--another place I always visit, although usually just for
drinks and dessert at what I think is the classiest cocktail bar in the city. Dark and vaguely
Lynchian, the bar is in a separate room with an enormous shaped counter, plenty of small
tables, and a tiny stage.
Other nice-dinner standouts for me include: the Icon at the top of State Street, a tapas place with a well-appointed top shelf and old movies playing on the walls; Peppino's, the high-end Italian place on the square (although Peppino himself is moving on, my parents tell me); and Blue Marlin, the seafood place that seems to have been around forever but continues to push the envelope.
Cafe Continental on King Street has a long menu that keeps me coming back. The Old Fashioned on the square is well-reviewed on this board and I add my recommendation, although it is about as far from healthy eating as you can get. Some of my favorite drinking places also serve great dinner food; I'll note that below.
I have to call out Lao Laan Xang with its own paragraph. We have a sizable Laotian population in Madison and, man, am I glad about that. Lao Laan Xang has two locations, Williamson Street and Atwood Ave, and their squash curry with tofu (order it "careful" on the spiciness index) is absolutely the best curry in town.
Top of this list has got to be the Cornish pasties at Myles Teddywedgers. Myles just passed away last week, but I was in there today and it appears that they will stay open. Get the "top-layer steak." Start with a half.
Taqueria El Pastor gets a lot of buzz, but in my opinion Taqueria Guadalajara, just down the street, deserves the crown. This place is tiny--a 4-seat lunch counter and maybe 2 small tables--but it is worth squeezing yourself in. The sopes, gorditas, and tortas are amazing.
Quickly: my favorite bagels are made out on University Avenue at Bagels Forever--but you can buy them, frozen, all over the city. Greenbush Bakery (not the Greenbush Bar down the street) on Regent makes Kosher donuts and is open late (all night?). It's out of the way, but Poppa Coronofoulos out on Buckeye (at Stoughton Rd.) of all places is the spot to get great hot dogs, complete with throwback interior. The recently-opened Opa on State Street has the best Gyro in town.
My favorite place to drink in Madison is Natt Spil, on King Street just down from the Great Dane. No sign, no phone, no credit cards. Gorgeous wood-fired oven churning out small crispy pizzas. Cheap dim sum any time of the day. An excellent cocktail menu. Beautiful people.
Genna's, especially when it spills outside during the warmer months, is a classic. The nearby Tornado Room is a study in atmosphere, nailing the supper-club aesthetic from the amazing neon sign to the booth upholstery to the drink menu. I haven't yet had one of their steaks but I drink there often.
Closer to home is Williamson Street's legendary Weary Traveler, owned by the same people who run Natt Spil. Walk by any night of the week and the place will be packed to the point of steaming up the windows. Everybody loves their Bad Breath Burger but I usually go for one of their more inventive options. Mickey's, down the street at the bridge (not to be confused with Mickies Dairy Bar on campus), is a classic neighborhood joint.
The Marigold Kitchen is owned by the Sardine people and is what you'd expect from them for breakfast. I love this place and go there several times when I'm home. Lazy Jane's on Williamson Street seems to be everybody's favorite breakfast spot, and it's hard to argue; the atmosphere is hard to beat. Cafe Soliel underneath L'Etoile is usually where my parents and I begin our Saturday farmers' market outings.
The Dane County Farmers Market is simply unbelievable. If you're planning a trip to Madison anytime but the winter you must include a Saturday morning in your stay. Plan at least a couple of hours to make the entire circuit around the square--more if you start later than, say, 8:30. When you're done, stop at Fromagination on the square, a new world-class cheese shop, possibly the best in the midwest (it certainly rivals the classic fromageries in NYC).
Everybody loves the Great Dane, but for some reason I have never been able to like the place.
I was so excited when I heard Gotham Bagels was opening, but alas they're just not up to snuff; I stick with Bagels Forever when I'm in Madison.
Places I keep meaning to go to and have never been: Johnny Delmonico's, Brasserie V, Pizza Brutta, and Greenbush Bar. Hope to report on these soon.
120 E Wilson St Ste 3, Madison, WI 53703
21 N Pinckney St, Madison, WI 53703
25 N Pinckney St, Madison, WI 53703
914 Regent St, Madison, WI 53715
128 E Wilson St, Madison, WI 53703
Myles Teddywedgers Cornish
101 State St, Madison, WI 53703
112 E Mifflin St, Madison, WI
118 S Pinckney St, Madison, WI 53703
25 N Pinckney St, Madison, WI 53703
211 King Street, Madison, WI
225 King St, Madison, WI 53703
Lao Laan Xang Restaurant
2098 Atwood Ave, Madison, WI 53704
12 S Carroll St, Madison, WI
130 S Pinckney, Madison, WI 53703
2947 University Ave, Madison, WI 53705
105 W Main St, Madison, WI 53703
108 King St, Madison, WI 53703
Mickies Dairy Bar
1511 Monroe St, Madison, WI 53711
Lazy Jane's Cafe and Bakery
1358 Williamson St, Madison, WI 53703
111 S Hamilton St, Madison, WI 53703
1201 Williamson St, Madison, WI 53703
101 N Hamilton St, Madison, WI 53703
617 Williamson St, Madison, WI 53703
206 State St, Madison, WI 53703
1805 Monroe St, Madison, WI 53711
Poppa Coronofoulos Gyros & Chicago Style Deli
4426 E Buckeye Rd, Madison, WI 53716
116 S Hamilton St, Madison, WI 53703
1923 Monroe St, Madison, WI 53711
Excellent post. I go to the WI Film Festival every year and I'm always looking for local tips on where to go. I'm afraid I really don't have anything to add. You covered all the places I normally go to.
Thanks for this.
A note about Magnus if you haven't been there for a while: they've completely changed their menu, switching from Nuevo Latino to Scandinavian fusion. It remains quite good but I can never convince myself to go there when Papavero's right next door.
Excellent post Ross.
I agree with pretty much everything you wrote. I’m going to kinda of ramble on and expand on some of your reviews as well as add my own personal favorites.
Muramoto now has a second location at Hilldale Mall. It is more of a traditional sushi joint than their downtown spot. The lychee martini is great at both locations. The roll with duck across the top is also excellent. Wasabi on State is my favorite normal sushi spot. The prices are reasonable and the fish is almost always fresh.
Café Continental and Jolly Bob’s have the best mussels in town. You’ll need to get extra bread to sop up all of the juices. Speaking of Jolly Bob’s . . . it’s my favorite outdoor dining spot in Madison. It’s a bit pricey (especially when sitting at plastic patio furniture inside), but the atmosphere in their courtyard along with their delicious Jerk, conch fritters and cocktails makes for a wonderful night.
Other Willy St thoughts: I second Lao Laan Xiang. Literally everything on the menu is delicious. Weary Traveler is a great bar and restaurant. They often have live music too. The bad breath burger is tasty, but the West of the Andes steak (or portabella mushroom) sandwich is otherworldly. Jamerica is excellent for cheap Jamaican food. Harmony Bar has a great Walnut burger (and I am a carnivore all the way). Bahn Thai is my go-to Thai place.
A slightly nicer place on Willy St is El Dorado. They serve a great brunch (spicy bloodies in a glass cowboy boot) as well as southwestern inspired dinners. The blazing saddle is a jalapeno-infused margarita that is not to be missed.
I have nothing to add about Sardine except that it’s excellent, but intentionally loud and bustling. I really enjoy the atmosphere, but some people have a hard time hearing there. They have great beers on tap.
Further east, past Willy St is the Atwood-Schenk Corners neighborhood. Alchemy’s sweet potato fries, hot ham and cheese sandwich and bacon cheeseburger are very good. Hubbard St. Diner is great for breakfast. Texas Tubbs Taco Palace has a huge variety of delicious tacos (westside location on University) and a salsa bar in a funky atmosphere.
Downtown thoughts: The Old Fashioned is a cool take on the traditional Wisconsin supper club/tavern. They have a bunch of different old fashions (a Wisconsin cocktail staple) on the menu. The walleye, #30 burger and cheese curds are great. I’ve also heard they have surprisingly good salads. Greenbush is my favorite Italian place. It’s in a basement with about 6’6” ceilings, Christmas lights and generally happy surroundings. Great, standard Italian fare with a good cheapish wine list.
I wasn’t overly impressed with Samba. It’s not bad, but the Brazilian steakhouses on Chicago are much better. I’d recommend eating at the Cabana Room, which is a casual sandwich place/bar downstairs from Samba. They have excellent lunch specials.
If you want steak then I have four recommendations (2 downtown, 2 westside):
Tornado Room is right on the capitol square. It has a very traditional Wisconsin atmosphere (animals on the wooden walls) and excellent cuts of meat. DelMonico’s is your typical big city, expense account steakhouse. Their meat is great, but it’s easily the most expensive steakhouse in town. Atmosphere is cool, slick, possibly even sterile. Smokey’s is one of my favorite places to take out of town friends. The waitresses are all 80 years old. The bartender is a true mater of the martini. He even teaches a class on it (their martini list is epic). The steak comes on a sizzling plate. The hash browns are great. Try to save room for the ice cream drinks at the end. Delaney’s is on the far Westside. A bit cheaper and very standard supper club atmosphere.
Back to downtown . . . State St is a good place to find ethnic food. Vientiane Palace is a cheap Vietnamese/Thai place. The spice gets spicy in a hurry. Buraka has great north Africa/Moroccan food. Mediterranean Café has very good greek/mediterranean lunch specials. Parthenon is a typical delicious greasy gryo place. There are probably 3-4 other places that I haven’t eaten at (Himalayan, middle eastern . . .). There are also many carts on library mall at the University end of State St. Myle’s Teddywedgers at the other end of State St serves great, huge pasties. I prefer the steak and potatoes or pizza pasties.
I second the Marigold Café recommendation for breakfast. It’s so good. Gotham Bagels makes a true, heavy NY bagel. Their breakfast sandwiches fill you up till dinner. My favorite breakfast spots are Mickey’s for counter service and the 2 pound scrambler (eggs, sausage, potatoes, cheese and gravy all piled up), Café Marigold for anything you can think of and El Dorado’s brunch. Hubbard St Diner in Middleton has great French toast.
Ancora is the best coffee in town, but I like the crowd at Ground Zero on Willy St.
Friday fish fries are obviously a Wisconsin staple. Avenue Bar is the tastiest (get the hash browns with cheese and onions, trust me), but the portions are not huge. Go there with light eaters so you can steal their leftovers. My personal favorite is The Oakcrest on Old Middleton Rd on the Westside. It is always jammed on Friday so get there early. Perch with double fries is my standard order. It comes on a double paper plate and weighs about 2 pounds. I’ve heard Big Ten pub does a surprisingly good fish fry.
Burgers are also great at a few places throughout Madison. My personal favorites are the Blue Moon Burger at the Blue Moon on University, the Melting Pot at Dotty Dumplings downtown, Brasserie V’s cheese burger on Monroe St and The Weary Traveler’s Bad Mouth Burger on Willy St.
Pizza Pit, Rocky Rococco (sausage and peppers on whole wheat crust) and Roman Candle are my favorite pizza joints. Others rave about Ian’s crazy pies like Mac n Cheese, Steak and Fry, and BBQ chicken.
My favorite sandwich places in Madison start with La Concha on Fish Hatchery Rd. It’s a Mexican bakery/sandwich counter in the middle of a strip mall (behind DQ and next to Shagnasty liquors). You will probably be the only English-speaker in there (assuming you haven’t translated all this to Spanish), but the tortas (sandwiches) are huge and delicious. Trust me on this one. My other favorite is The Otto sub at Fraboni’s Italian Deli on Regent. Huge, great cuts of Italian meats and tasty sweet peppers. I love that sub.
Natt Spiel is a very cool bar. I’ll recommend Le Tigre Lounge, another strip mall wonder. This one is located right on the highway in between a hardware store and Mexican grocery. There are literally hundreds of tiger decorations on the wall, a jukebox that plays 40’s and 50’s standards, and bartenders (father son duo) who are masters of their crafts. No swearing though, they will kick you out for that.
Two places I still miss: Pel Meni Russian dumplings and Radical Rye.
This got ridiculously long. Sorry about that. I just love the restaurants in Madison. I could probably go on for another 1000 words on them.
There are some great suggestions here but I really feel obligated to warn folks about Smokey's. I'm not sure if I went on off nights or if the place has just seriously gone downhill but the two times I visited, I was served the most grizzly steaks. The food was worse than mediocre but what really was offputting was the all of the religious paraphernalia. Is seemed that every inch of wall space was covered with evangelical posters, biblical quotes, etc. One of my dining companions was Jewish and she along with the rest of the group was VERY uncomfortable throughout the course of the meal.
I understand, Smokey's is a Madison institution. Unfortunately I think I waited too long to visit and must have missed out on its heyday. Hopefully it can turn things around because your description of their martini-master is really appealling.
Gotta get my two cents worth in on Smokey's. Been going for over ten years and work just across the street!
First of all, "Martini Bob" is a master. What a great guy. He's always plying me with his latest concoction or newest booze acquisition. Last time it was Bubble-Gum Vodka...didn't do anything for me. One of my favorite places, in all of Madison, to grab a gargle.
As to the steaks, I have had great ones and I've had not-so-great ones. Since Smokey died, the consistency of quality seems to have suffered. It is, however, MUCH more consistent than right after his passing. If I have ever looked at my steak with a cast eye, the staff have whisked it away and a piping hot replacement takes its place. I guess that, even with experienced kitchen staff, a "less-than-perfect" cut can find its way in front of a diner.
Finally, order their hash browns.....please, just do it!
Excellent recs, but Pizza PIt and Rocky's?? Pizza Brutta for "traditional italian" (wood fired, minimal toppings) and Pizza D'Roma on State for "traditional New York" style (heavy cheese), Ian's for innovative toppings.
I second La Concha-- they've slowly been turning into more of a full service restaurant. For Mexican, also check out Taqueria Guanajuato (next to Le Tigre Lounge)
1805 Monroe St, Madison, WI 53711
1318 S Midvale Blvd, Madison, WI 53711
Somehow I think I missed this original post. Amazing how much has changed in less than a year. And sadly, I didn't know Myles had passed away. I was in there this past weekend to take some pasties back to Milw. while we were at the farmers market. Unfortunately, not only did they not have any frozen, they had none at all. I worry they won't make it.