Madison garners praise for its farmers’ markets and forward-thinking food community. We have farm-to-table bistros and eateries that embrace a world’s worth of cuisines. Each year, the names of Madison chefs pop up on the nominations for the prestigious James Beard Awards. But even so, Madison doesn’t quite have the up-and-coming national food reputation for hot restaurants that cities like Asheville, North Carolina, and Portland, Maine, have. Is that our fault, or short-sightedness on the part of national foodie magazines? That’s one question. But ask yourself another: What’s more important — hot press or delicious food?
Visitors seeking “the real Madison” might be looking for a bratwurst, really good fried cheese curds, craft beers and a Friday fish fry. They are right to want these things. But eating in Madison is about so much more. Take a trip around town.
While L’Etoile is the spot for fine dining in town (and this year is a semifinalist for “Outstanding Restaurant” in the James Beard competition), heading to its more relaxed neighbor, Graze, is less of a commitment. Diners are still assured of ingredients sourced “From Local Pastures” — and in most seasons of the year, from the Dane County Farmers’ Market. Local farms and products are recognized on a big chalkboard at the rear of the modern, high-ceilinged space.
Graze’s beet and walnut burger puts all other veggie burgers — in fact, most beef-based burgers — to shame. It’s decadent and rich, even somewhat meaty, while retaining the earthy sweetness of beets. But the local Highland beef in the more traditional pub burger is also top-notch. A side of either the mixed greens or the frites are both wholly satisfying, but the cheese curds are a worthwhile upgrade.
Graze’s menu has another side, featuring several Asian-inflected bowls that don’t disappoint. Try the Thai crispy rice or the bi bim bap for a global approach to the local pasture.
The meat board at Forequarter.
This neighborhood restaurant represents the more DIY, Brooklyn-inspired version of the local-sourcing ethos. Forequarter feels both inspirational and improvisational, and its menus might change daily. Man at the helm Jonny Hunter has been nominated for two James Beard best chef-Midwest awards. Indulge in what the kitchen does with seasonal veggies; even at the end of winter, a beet and bulgar risotto sparkles with the help of Meyer lemon. The charcuterie board shows off the old world cured meats this place is famous for. Or take advantage of the crispy cheeseburgers during happy hour. The craft cocktail menu, also seasonal, is inspired.
The Tornado is the perfect blend of Madison’s restaurant past and its present. The building, long home to Crandall’s supper club, retains a rustic, knotty cedar frontier charm, but the sophisticated menu belies the retro-chic of the surroundings. Top-notch steaks are joined by rabbit and venison, duck and walleye. Or check out the late-night menu downstairs at the Corral Room, where you might indulge in a bacon blue cheese burger, the smoked muenster burger (both made from local Knoche’s beef) or the steak sandwich. Pairing cheese curds with the Tornado’s excellent cocktails is also an option.
Casual French bistro dining works here on the shore of Lake Monona (Sardine’s patio is a good spot to relax on a summer’s evening). During happy hour, East Coast oysters are half-price. They’re great, though hardly what comes to mind when you think of the Midwest. Wisconsin touches include Montchevre goat cheese from Belmont, Wisconsin, served warm with crostini, and toasts spread with chicken liver from Nami Moon Farm of Custer, Wisconsin, set off with Door County cherry compote.
Frites and a beer here are just as good as a full dinner, but remember that the Sardine kitchen has a special touch with fish, so if you see Lake Superior whitefish on the menu, don’t pass it by.
Old Fashioned's Tuna Sandwich
The Old Fashioned
The Old Fashioned is no secret. Its contemporary interpretation of an old-style Wisconsin bar is in the end neither kitschy nor campy. The Old Fashioned has somehow embraced, transformed and improved every culinary cliché of the state of Wisconsin. Dining there is a chummy can’t-miss experience. The wide-ranging Wisconsin craft beer tap list may be daunting, but ask the bartender for recommendations (or a sample). The fish fry, the bratwurst, Wisconsin’s Best Wurst platter or the artisanal cheese plate — virtually anything you order is like a sampler plate of greater Wisconsin.
You might say that the Plaza is the real version of the bar that the Old Fashioned is designed to resemble. But it is still definitely a bar with food, not a restaurant. All you need is a Plazaburger with cheese, a Point and a trip to the foosball table. Not enamored of Point? Locals like Capital and Ale Asylum are also reliably on tap.
A decade ago, Madison’s State Street was the place to find foods from around the world, cooked by newcomers to the United States. There are fewer businesses there now where this is still true, as more chains make their way to the campus area. Himal Chuli, however, remains, and how fortunate we are.
This small, plainly decorated space even has a screen door that stays open in good weather, eschewing air conditioning and pretension. This could be a small cafe somewhere in Nepal. The Himalyan/Nepalese restaurant features home cooking from Krishna and Bishnu Pradhan. Bishnu can often be seen in the small kitchen, ladling stews. The two daily tarkari (savory vegetable stews), which come with either rice, roti or dal (don’t skip the mild yet complexly satisfying dal), are never a bad choice, but the beautiful samosa, house momocha (vegetarian momos with a tomato cilantro sauce you will find yourself trying to replicate at home), tart kadi (onion dumplings) in yogurt sauce, and chili chicken — a hot and spicy dish that is served cold — are just the start of the revelatory dishes on the menu.
In a narrow train-car of a space, Faycal Belakhdar and a crowd of college-age assistants produce outstanding meals Monday through Saturday until 4:30 — that’s right, it’s either lunch or early early dinner if you want to eat here, but it’s well worth making the effort to come by before the doors close.
Rich chicken apricot pie with bechamel-yogurt topping and more than a hint of rosewater is one regularly appearing special not to miss; others, from African-inflected French dishes like ratatouille Provencale to Greek standards like moussaka, are just as good. Rock-bottom bargains are the excellent soups, just $1.50, including a creamy, tart chicken avgolemono. Along with Himal Chuli, Med Cafe is one of the last outposts of an independent, multicultural campus restaurant scene more indicative of Montreal than the Midwest.
While the most truly Madison of Madison pizzas may be the thin-crust pies at Buck’s Pizza, a no-frills takeout business that’s been in business since 1960, the most flavorful Italian-inspired pies are coming these days from the oven at Pizza Brutta. The rustic booths at the Monroe Street cubby speak to Pizza Brutta’s family-friendliness, but there’s nothing juvenile about the pizzas, Neapolitan-style pies with sauce made from crushed San Marzano tomatoes. Try the simple but perfect margherita, with fresh bufala mozzarella, olive oil, sea salt and basil; or the rossoverde, with basil, crisped prosciutto and a ruffle of arugula. Flavor speaks louder than trends. A second location opened in Middleton Hills in 2016.
Babcock Hall Ice Cream
Before you head out to the Memorial Union Terrace to soak in the view of sailboats on Lake Mendota, drop by the Daily Scoop ice cream counter for a cone or dish of ice cream made right on the ag campus. Orange custard chocolate chip is a longtime fan favorite, made with milk, cream, sugar and egg custard. Ice cream is also sold at Union South. Or head to the source, Babcock Hall Dairy Store, for sundaes and floats made with the same ice cream. You may even catch sight of a cow.
Monty’s — built in a rehabbed gas station — still brings an impressive near-east-side vibe to a classic diner menu. Several vegetarian entrees have made the unofficial list of distinctly Madison fare, including the vegetarian Reuben known as the Sheldon and the delectable Meatless Loaf of the Gods. Stop by before a show at the Barrymore Theatre, right across the street.
Take a bag of Batch Bakehouse croissants to go.
You can’t beat the selection at Batch, which ranges from the chewy, salty fougasse twists to familiar breads like challah to sweet coffee cakes studded with Door County cherries. Don’t leave without a vanilla morning bun or an orange swirl. Wait, don’t forget the ham and gruyere croissants. Leave with a bag of anything, really.
Order at the counter and find yourself a sofa or a chair at the mix-and-match tables, either upstairs or downstairs, inside this charming old house. Wait for your buzzer to sound. Bakery fiends, take note — this is this is the place in Madison to order a sweet scone (lemon blueberry is a particular standout). Here, they’re more moist than traditional scones and there’s no need to augment them with jam for flavor. Vegans are well served by the seitan hash and the tofu scramble, and those who are on gluten-free diets can find the GF-version of said scones.
There’s plenty of great local beer being brewed, and taphouses abound, so it can be hard to know where to direct a visitor. But Ale Asylum is a natural choice for anyone heading to or from the airport (you can’t miss it), and at the source, visitors can find the “spawn series,” special one-time-only beers that are trying out different hops, malts and yeasts. The large sandwich and salad menu features a number of Madison-style touches, like the option for gluten-free buns, a barbecue tofu sandwich and a quinoa veggie burger. Tours ($5 includes a pint and a special sampling) take place Sundays on the hour, between noon and 5 p.m., and are limited to 15 people.
Ale Asylum is a big operation. Check out what a smaller beer maker, one step up from homebrewing, is producing locally. The modest Parched Eagle, a nanobrewery in the town of Westport, showcases the brews of Jim Goronson. Try a flight of the house beers on tap, hoping for Verily, a Belgian dubbel; Geronimo imperial stout; or the standout Crane Ale APA. You might even see some of the namesake cranes crossing Highway M heading for the nearby Jackson Landing natural area.