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Madison WI for Graduation Weekend

I've looked through the various discussions on Madison here, such as:

http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/673960
http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/608266
http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/462929
http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/418838
http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/125180

and it seems like a lot of the recommended restaurants have closed. I hope nobody minds if I open this new discussion.

I'm planning on visiting on the graduation weekend for UW in May, and I know the town will be swamped with a bazillion visitors. For that reason, I'm trying to avoid places that don't take reservations and are likely to involve incredibly long waits to be seated (like the Old Fashioned and Marigold Kitchen, both of which I've been to in previous visits and liked).

What I'm looking for are three meals:

1. AN UPSCALE FINER DINING RESTAURANT FOR DINNER. I should note, I'd prefer not to go to a steakhouse, and I'm also not that big on Italian unless someone tells me it's different from, and WAY better than, typical big city Italian. And no bait... I mean, no sushi. :) I know L'Etoile is still there and still great. I've been to Harvest and Fresco and enjoyed both of them immensely. So those are three choices, all perfectly acceptable. Is there anyplace else I should also be considering? Anything new and compelling?

2. A MORE MODERATELY PRICED RESTAURANT FOR DINNER. This is where I'm having the most trouble coming up with ideas. This could be an ethnic place, or, well, just about anything. It doesn't have to be "cheap eats" like burgers and hot dogs; just not something with $30 entrees. What about Eno Vino, the wine bar and tapas place - is that any good? I've seen Sa-Bai Thong recommended for Thai food; I haven't been there, but that seems like a possibility. Do they take reservations? If not, are they likely to be slammed on graduation weekend (and is one location more likely than the other)? What about Mekong or Lao Laan Xang as alternatives for Thai? Are any (or all) these Thai places truly excellent, or just okay? Other than these, I need more recommendations for this meal, because I haven't seen anything else in the previous discussions that really grabs me. Part of the problem is that we have so much great Mexican food, Indian food, and deep-dish pizza at home in Chicago that I tend to avoid those foods when out of town. I know there's more to Madison than just these kinds of foods (and a thousand bars with bar/comfort food) but I just can't think of anything. I'm sure you 'hounds can help me here!

3. SUNDAY BRUNCH. I've had Sunday brunch at Sardine, sitting on the deck overlooking the lake, and I liked it a lot! So that's one possibility. I also read a recommendation for brunch at the Great Dane, so that's another. If there are any other really great brunches in town that should also be considered, please tell me!

Oh, and I'll be staying near the airport on the East Side. Madison isn't huge so I don't mind driving just about anywhere - heck, I'll probably hit Original Pancake House in Monona for breakfast another day I'm there - but I just wanted to note that, for example, places in Middleton will be less convenient for me than those on the east side or in Sun Prairie. But it's not a showstopper, just more of a "nice to have".

TIA!

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  1. I've been doing some research and I'm adding 43 North to the list of possibilities; their Sunday brunch sounds particularly appealing but they're also a candidate for the moderately-priced dinner. And Nostrano is in the mix for the moderately-priced dinner as well. Any feedback on either of these, or the places previously mentioned, or anyplace else you think deserves consideration, would be welcome and appreciated!

    9 Replies
    1. re: nsxtasy

      Not to sound snotty, but, you sound like you actually have more information than most!

      I will check with some friends in Madison and see whether there are other options that you have not yet considered......

      1. re: rjlebed

        >> Not to sound snotty, but, you sound like you actually have more information than most!

        Thanks! I actually have experience with my requests #1 and #3 from prior visits, and it's more a matter of whether to try somewhere new vs repeating places I've been. #2 is where I'm struggling most.

        1. re: rjlebed

          Spoke with a friend who knows madison well. Here is his response!

          Lao Laan-Xang gets very good reviews.
          Restaurant Muramoto is good Asian Fusion.
          I like Graze on the Capitol square.
          Sardine (French) is good (on Lake Monona).
          Brasserie V on Monroe Street (near Camp Randall) also gets great reviews.
          I’d make reservations at all places, especially during graduation.

          -----
          Restaurant Muramoto
          225 King St, Madison, WI 53703

          Lao Laan-Xang Restaurant
          1146 Williamson St, Madison, WI 53703

          Monroe Street Cafe
          561 Monroe St, Detroit, MI 48226

          Brasserie V
          1923 Monroe St, Madison, WI 53711

          1. re: rjlebed

            Another response from a friend.

            We like the Great Dane, Tutto Pasta and the Old Fashioned.

        2. re: nsxtasy

          Add to your list: Restaurant Muramoto for the upscale dinner. Graze for the moderate dinner. I would also suggest Osteria Papavero, except you don't want Italian. It's not red sauce Italian, though. 43 North is excellent.

          -----
          Osteria Papavero
          128 E Wilson St, Madison, WI 53703

          Restaurant Muramoto
          225 King St, Madison, WI 53703

          1. re: itsbubbles

            Thanks, that's very helpful.

            Isn't Muramoto primarily sushi, even at the downtown location? (I've looked at the menu on their website at www.muramoto.biz and I see some hot dishes too, but...) Or do you think this is a place that a non sushi eater could also enjoy?

            1. re: nsxtasy

              I wouldn't say it's mostly sushi...maybe half. There's a lot on the menu, including the amuse bouches that you can order a tableful of. If one doesn't eat fish or seafood at all, they probably wouldn't be into it.

              1. re: nsxtasy

                And I would make reservations ASAP. It's a nutty weekend.

            2. re: nsxtasy

              We recently dined at Nostrano and enjoyed the experience. The restaurant has a nice vibe. We had seen reviews complaining about how loud it is…but we had an early reservation and didn’t find that that to be an issue. Our food was interesting, delicious, and we felt it was a very good value for the price. Service was efficient, but we would have preferred a server that was a little more friendly, but that wasn’t really an issue that would keep me from going back.

              I have always liked the Sunroom Café for breakfast on State Street…just thought I would throw that out for a possible breakfast/brunch option.

            3. If you are staying near the airport, East Towne Mall has lots of the chains. But they also have Maharjah which is very good Indian and Cool Beans for breakfast and lunch. Near the airport is the Jet Room -- great breakfasts and great burgers with homemade potato chips (bkfst and lunch only). Also near the airport is the Ale Asylum. Sun Prairie has the Market Street Diner. Manna Cafe on N. Sherman Ave has wonderful breakfast and lunch options. Also check out Bunky's and Daisy Cafe, both on Atwood Avenue. Fine dining could include Otto's and Quivey's Grove, both on the west side.

              -----
              Quivey's Grove
              6261 Nesbitt Rd, Fitchburg, WI 53719

              Market Street Diner
              110 Market St, Sun Prairie, WI 53590

              Ale Asylum
              3698 Kinsman Blvd, Madison, WI 53704

              Bunky's Cafe
              2425 Atwood Ave, Madison, WI 53704

              1. >> What about Mekong or Lao Laan Xang as alternatives for Thai?

                Apparently Mekong has closed.

                I am seeing two different addresses for Lao Laan Xang, very close to each other, and I'm wondering whether they have two locations or only one is correct...? They're 1146 Williamson St and 2098 Atwood Ave.

                Thanks for all the replies! I'll let you know where we wind up.

                2 Replies
                1. re: nsxtasy

                  They have 2 locations, with slightly different menus. The one on Willy St. is smaller and a little more hippie. The one on Atwood is bigger and a little more polished feeling.

                  1. re: itsbubbles

                    Perfect, thanks for the information!

                2. Here's my follow-up report.

                  Friday night, we ate at Eno Vino. I gotta say, we absolutely LOVED it. The food was outstanding, and moderately priced too. They specialize in so-called "small plates", but they really weren't all that small. This is one of the very best menus I've seen anywhere, the kind of menu where there were so many things that sounded great, I wish I could go back again and again to try all the things I didn't get to try this time. Standouts? I loved the churros for dessert. The foie gras appetizer was excellent, and very reasonably priced for foie. I liked the braised short ribs, but what I especially liked was the squares of jalapeno polenta they were sitting on. The service was a bit on the slow side - not a surprise, on graduation weekend - and the room was rather loud - again, not a surprise. All in all, this was just a great choice, and a place I'd like to return to in future visits to Madison! (One other note, for those who haven't been there - Eno Vino is in the corner of a strip mall and its narrow entrance is not very visible; look for the Orange something-or-other next to it, colored like its name.)

                  Saturday dinner, was at 43 North just off the capitol square. The food was mostly pretty good. I thought the menu was a bit limiting; it was a special prix fixe for graduation weekend, with about four choices for each course. None of them sounded all that great to me, but that's really more of a personal preference type thing than a knock against the restaurant. Of more concern, the wine drinkers among us said that the wine list was really inadequate, lacking variety and especially quality. The service was friendly, and this was a very elegant type place. Oh, and here's a tip - 43 North has two entrances, one at their street address at 108 King Street, and a rear entrance on Main Street between Webster and King; they validate parking in the garage on Main, right across the street from the rear entrance.

                  I had made reservations in advance for both of the above. I reserved 43 North on Opentable; Eno Vino is on Opentable but there were no openings there; I had to call them, I assume this was a specific arrangement for graduation weekend. And I made that reservation a few months ago, which I would recommend doing as they were already starting to fill up at that point.

                  I did not make any reservations for Sunday brunch. I had thought we might go to Great Dane but was talked out of it. We called Sardine on Saturday night to see if we could make a brunch res but they said they were full. So we went without a reservation to the Original Pancake House... and honestly, it was PERFECT. There are two locations in Madison. I had previously been to the Monona location right off 12/18 and I knew it was good. I was also sort of guessing that the wait wouldn't be as long in Monona as at the University Ave location because of the latter's proximity to campus. So we went to the one in Monona. As I anticipated, there was indeed a wait, but it wasn't all that bad, around 15 minutes or so. I should mention too that the OPH is my "go to" place for breakfast when I'm on the road; I've been to their locations in ten different states, and some of them are better than others. The worst I've been to (in several visits, unfortunately) is in the Milwaukee suburb of Brookfield. Fortunately, the one in Monona is one of the better ones around. I had their wonderful, puffed-up, cinnamony apple pancake, and they did a great job with it. Everyone enjoyed their food and it was a big hit. Not surprising that they've won various surveys for best breakfast in Madison.

                  We had a great time and some great food. Thanks, everyone, for the helpful advice.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: nsxtasy

                    I'm late to the thread but your review of Eno & 43 N sum up my feelings as well. Eno Vino is among my favorites in the area; 43 N is enjoyable but not in my top 5, despite the fact that the head chef there used to be the head chef at Magnus, which was outstanding.

                  2. I was back in Madison this past weekend for another graduation, and I just wanted to post a brief report. This time I went to three restaurants that I had already been to:

                    1. AN UPSCALE FINER DINING RESTAURANT FOR DINNER.

                    We went to Fresco, on the roof of the Museum of Contemporary Art in downtown Madison, and it was absolutely OUTSTANDING. I don't know why they don't get written up more, because it has been wonderful for all of my several visits there. The only downside is that when it's busy, it can be VERY LOUD/NOISY - but if the weather is nice, you can eat outside to avoid that.

                    2. A MORE MODERATELY PRICED RESTAURANT FOR DINNER.

                    We went back to Eno Vino, and it was again excellent. Most of the dishes were really great, with one exception (we sent back the churros).

                    3. SUNDAY BRUNCH.

                    We went back to Sardine, and ate inside. It was very good and very pleasant. The food is pretty good - not amazing, but decent. And where else do they serve a beer chaser with your bloody mary? :)

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: nsxtasy

                      Also had the "Sardine" experience during wonderful "accepted students weekend" in April. Always observe a "Where there's good bread, there's great food." phenomenon and here was no exception. We bucked up against a full house with reservations, but were able to score a perfectly acceptable table (with a floral centerpiece) in the bar area without one. All the dishes were well-executed, but the plentiful mussels were an absolute standout.

                      For a more casual and quintessential Wisconsin experience - craft beers on draft, artisanal brats and cheese curds, we headed straight for The Old-Fashioned. You cannot do better. Portions bordered on the obscene. Even though it was the night before UW's big Friday festivities, the place was packed but the wait was relatively mild.

                      One more recommendation: find your way to Ale Asylum ("Hop-A-Licious") in Madison and the New Glarus Brewery ("Spotted Cow", "Moon Man", etc.) for some seriously good beer.