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While actually paying for dining out may have become more challenging, daydreaming about food is just as cheap as ever. But you don't have to stick with dreaming. Isthmus readers share their extensive eating experience, so you'll never have to order a lousy meal again.
Madison's Favorite Breakfast
Our tendency to skimp on breakfast when we're at home plays into a desire for lavish breakfasts away from home. Lazy Jane's Cafe is a haven for scone lovers, with scrambles and pancakes and a homey no-fuss attitude, too. Runner-up Marigold Kitchen scores with its much-loved chili-poached eggs and a healthful yogurt with toasted nuts, fruit and luscious lavender honey.
Madison's Favorite Bakery
Did you see the size of that apple fritter? Consider sharing it with a loved one. The Greenbush Bakery is justly famed for its crispy fritters. But its doughnuts, too - available warm as late as 2 a.m. on weekends - make this a campus and citywide favorite.
Madison's Favorite Deli Counter
Madison's take on the deli counter is a little different from most places. We're into Italian. Fraboni's - with its original location in the old 'Bush and a Monona satellite - comes out on top. Gino's Italian Deli, in Middleton and on Verona Road, is third. Sandwiched in-between is the healthy, sustainable, often vegetarian- and vegan-friendly goodness of the Willy Street Co-op counter.
Madison's Favorite Sandwiches/Subs/Bagels
Not only does Gotham Bagels create the New Yorkiest hand-rolled bagels around, it makes them into highly desirable sandwiches, like the Long-Guy-Land and the Canarsie and even the vegan Manhasset. Now with a smart second location in the St. Mary's Hospital addition on South Park Street.
Madison's Favorite Food Cart
3. Ingrid's Lunch Box
No dirty-water boiled hot dogs or greasy knishes for Madisonians. Nope. Longtime number-one fave Buraka prepares feisty African stews and pairs them with a spicy onion-lentil salad, on rice or with a round of sourdough injera. Jamerica jerks up a storm with its Jamaican entrees, and Ingrid's Lunch Box cooks a sustainable heartland breakfast.
Madison's Favorite Pizza
1. Glass Nickel
3. Pizza Brutta
Never content to rest on its laurels, of which there are many, Glass Nickel continues to innovate beyond its #1 best-selling pie, the Fetalicious. GN recently introduced the "Lotta Enchilada" and a Chicken Alfredo white pie. Plus, there's always a "seasonal favorite" on hand.
Madison's Favorite Burgers
3. Harmony Bar
Dotty Dumpling's Dowry was offering buffalo burgers before it was trendy; it also serves ostrich, turkey and veggie patties. But when you vote D3 your favorite hamburger spot, it's probably for the 1/3-pound hamburgers made with fresh, lean ground chuck, hand-pattied fresh every day.
Madison's Favorite Vegetarian-Friendly Menu
2. Himal Chuli
Monty's Blue Plate does diner vegetarian up right, with entrees like the hefty, nutty, cheesy walnut burger; the "Sloppy Faux"; and the "Sheldon" meatless Reuben. There's even veggie hash for breakfast. Second-place Himal Chuli is known for tenderly spiced roti, takari and dal and the pretty vegetable dumplings known as momocha that even in the down economy are really worth whatever they'd like to charge for a plate full of them.
Madison's Favorite Barbecue
3. Fat Jack's
For a locale well north of the Mason-Dixon line, Madison does pretty well with barbecue. This year, Smoky Jon's #1 BBQ is indeed number one. A modest shrine to the barbecuing arts on Packers Avenue, Smoky Jon's serves up ribs, smoked chopped pork shoulder, smoked beef brisket and sandwich platters. In a nod to its Wisconsin locale, there's also a cheese brat platter, but go ahead and order barbecue.
Madison's Favorite Fish Fry
1. Avenue Bar
Winter or summer, good times and bad, you will find the Avenue Bar stuffed to the gills on Fridays. The crowds are there for the deep-fried cod, but also the popular fish boil and the clam chowder. Quivey's Grove adds to its serving space in summers by having its fry under a tent, but you can get the beer-battered cod any time of the year. The Old Fashioned goes all out with a choice of perch, walleye or cod, or a combo platter of all three.
Madison's Favorite Steak House
Top vote-getter the Tornado Steak House features organic grass-fed as well as corn-fed beef. That, along with its Saturday prime rib special and bone-in tenderloin, and sides like its hash browns, asparagus and even Yorkshire pudding, helped it outdistance the competition.
Madison's Favorite Italian Food
Lombardino's transcends the stereotypes of American Italian cooking even as its classic decor embraces them. Locally sourced is a key principle of the menu, which changes every two to three months. Downtown, Paisan's keeps readers happy with the time-honored Garibaldi sub and the pleasing Porta salad. The north side's Cafe La Bellitalia puts out a terrific pizza and a worthy chunky marinara.
Madison's Favorite Indian Restaurant
There was a time not so long ago when Madison had no Indian restaurants at all. Now we have plenty of choices for our chicken tikka masala, our pakora, our biriyani. Maharajah, with outposts east and west, still comes out in the lead, but Maharani, on West Washington Avenue, has a large and devoted following. Taj, on South Park Street, takes third.
Madison's Favorite Chinese Dining
While there are many reasons to enjoy Imperial Garden - the comfortable interior, the generous menu, the reliable food, the Peking Duck that can be ordered one day in advance - my favorite dish is the wheat gluten with double winter delight, a vegetarian dish that is a delight. Second-place Hong Kong Cafe has lunch specials for the south-campus crowd and for west-siders at its High Point Road location. And Wah Kee Noodle in the Gateway Mall offers some of the best noodle bowls in town.
Madison's Favorite Middle Eastern Cuisine
Kabul, on State Street, serves the cuisine of Afghanistan, with kebabs, chalows, curries and ashak (dumplings). Lulu's, Madison's oldest Middle Eastern restaurant, on old University Avenue, is justly known for its lentil soup and creamy hummus. And Mediterranean Cafe, also on State Street, cooks wonderful standards and specials all day until 4 p.m.
Madison's Favorite Southeast Asian Food
2. Sa-bai Thong
3. Sala Thai
Curries and more can be ordered as hot as they eat them in Laos at Lao Laan-Xang on Atwood Avenue and Willy Street. Spring for the sticky rice as an added treat. Runner up Sa-bai Thong serves Thai dishes at two west-side locations, while newcomer Sala Thai has brought Thai curries and more to Fair Oaks Avenue.
Madison's Favorite American Regional Cuisine
It's the Old Fashioned all the way, with its elevation of our own upper Midwest supper-club cuisine. That means good cheese and summer sausage, Braunschweiger, brats and an excellent fish fry, and 150 Wisconsin beers. Runner-up Liliana's celebrates the cooking of New Orleans. Harvest is devoted to the best of locally sourced meats and veggies.
Madison's Favorite Japanese Dining
Chef Shinji Muramoto should be proud. Not only does Restaurant Muramoto, his downtown flagship, own this category, but his Hilldale restaurant, Sushi Muramoto, tied for third. The sushi is fresh, the entrees are innovative - even the desserts are well beyond the norm.
Madison's Favorite Mexican Food
The generous combo platters and big-gulp drinks with plentiful refills at Laredo's (east, west and Fitchburg) have won your hearts. However, the tiny Taquería Guadalajara, shoehorned into the old American Lunch diner on South Park Street, muscles its way into second.
Madison's Favorite Dessert Menu
The Food Fight restaurant group must know that the way to Madison's heart is through a dessert menu, because all the top vote-getters in this tight race are Food Fighters. The original restaurant in the group, Monty's, still comes out on top with its pies and cookies.
Madison's Favorite Outdoor Dining
1. Great Dane
The outdoor garden at the Great Dane-Downtown, a sheltered oasis amid so much exhaust and noise, runs away with this category, even if a lot of you are still partial to the sunsets, brats and free music at the Memorial Union Terrace.
Madison's Favorite Innovative Menu
"Every restaurant has to reinvent itself at one time or another," said Magnus co-owner Prentice Berge, in reference to the popular restaurant's switch this June from South American to New Scandinavian cuisine. That transformation was enough to launch Magnus to the top of this category. It tied with Liliana's, Fitchburg's New Orleans-style restaurant that revamps its menu seasonally.
Madison's Favorite Cheap Eats
1. Ian's Pizza
Topping this category is Ian's Pizza By the Slice, where $3.50 gets diners a big taste of pies like Chicken Cordon Bleu, barbecue steak and fries, or other combos. Runner-up Mediterranean Cafe has cups of delicious homemade avgolemono soup for under $2 - and the entrees are seldom more than $7. You'll think you woke up in an Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel guide.
Madison's Favorite Late Night Menu
2. Great Dane
While Madison is still a sleepy town where it's difficult to find a greasy spoon open 24/7, you like Willy Street's Weary Traveler for its extensive, fun, late-night menu. The Great Dane likewise reserves some of its best entrees for late-night noshing. And Burrito Drive delivers contemporary twists on Mexican to your near-east-side door until 3 a.m.
Madison's Favorite New Restaurant
2. The Bayou
It was high time for Madison to get a cupcake bakery, and Daisy has fulfilled everyone's wishes for flavorful cake and luscious frostings that are pretty and never cloying. (Daisy has breakfast and lunch menus, too.) The Bayou makes a strong showing with its homage to New Orleans. The foray of west-side bakery La Brioche into a full-fledged restaurant nabbed third.
Madison's Favorite Small-Plate Dining
1. The Icon
2. Eno Vino
The beauty of small-plate dining is that you can taste a lot of flavors in one meal. State Street's the Icon just edged past the west side's Eno Vino for its take on tapas. King Street's Kushi Bar Muramoto, with its skewers, rice and noodle bowls and satsuma fries, also pleased a lot of voters.
Madison's Favorite Place to Dine in a Large Group
1. Great Dane
Buncha people dining together? It can be awkward. Nobody wants to take up the entire dining area with a half-dozen tables shoved together into a boardroom style rectangle. For those large-group occasions, you like the Great Dane, where large parties are handled with ease.
Madison's Favorite Place to Splurge
While L'Etoile wouldn't mind being seen as a more accessible restaurant (witness its once-a-month Family Style dinners), it's still a popular place to splurge. And diners are amply rewarded for the fling. So too at Harvest and Restaurant Muramoto.