Just as we look for a romantic partner whose traits and desires dovetail with our own, we choose our restaurant for the evening based on our relationship with food - all those experiences, idiosyncrasies and habits we bring to each meal. Where we go and what we eat depends on what we want out of the act of eating. Do we want quiet contentment or a transcendent experience? To remain unthreatened or to be taken out of our comfort zone? To proclaim our principles or just dissolve with pleasure? Matching up your desires with your dinner plate can be easy if you know what kind of eater you are. Moreover, if you want to take someone out, knowing where to go can sweeten a first date or make a lunch with a finicky relative pleasant instead of a hassle. Here's a guide to common types of "eaters" and where to hit the sweet spot in Madison when eating with them.
The critic is an analyzer, an essentially curious person who loves to deconstruct a meal. Discussing what's on the table is simply an integral part of the experience, an act that brings a level of satisfaction to the meal in addition to whatever the food provides. Critics are more appreciative than many of a great meal, yet can salvage a bad meal for themselves by ruminating aloud. I realized that I was this type of eater when, at a Southern-style wedding reception, I found myself unable to stop rhapsodizing about the apple butter. Thrilling for my tablemates, I'm sure.
One place that's sure to please a critic is Restaurant Magnus, because how often do you run into an upscale Scandinavian joint (in Madison, at least)? Whether the critic likes or dislikes it, it'll give him something to talk about. Chef Nicholas Johnson was recently nominated for a James Beard Award, so the critic is sure to be intrigued. Critics also like new places and dishes, so you might choose the Coopers Tavern, where they can wax poetic on poutine and "Sconnie" eggs. If you really want to tickle a critic's fancy, take him on an investigative roundup where he can compare dishes to his heart's content. Here's an idea to start you off: Find the best pommes frites in town. Start with Opa, then Brasserie V, and for the wild card, Lake Vista Cafe atop Monona Terrace.
A scaredy-cat's relationship to food revolves around the poles of security and fear. She feels strong affection for food she knows and likes and distrusts what she doesn't know. Consequently, she almost always chooses restaurants and dishes that she's enjoyed before. That doesn't mean she'll never try anything new, but she rarely does so without someone else urging her along. "Ethnic" restaurants are often a difficult sell.
Out of sympathy, I'd like to mention that I used to be a scaredy-cat. In fact, as a teenager I loved TGI Friday's so much that one of my friends threatened to de-friend me for always wanting to go there - and that was before Facebook.
Broadening an apprehensive eater's horizons hinges on trust. The experience has to be mostly familiar, and then you can start moving the scaredy-cat out on her limb. Daisy Café has several varieties of meatloaf. Chicken and Gorgonzola is a good one, with a fun swirl of mashed potatoes on top, which might persuade Scaredy to branch out.
Down the street, the Green Owl offers a "meatball" sub made of eggplant that's better than the real thing, while Alchemy has delicious sweet potato fries and wasabi sesame seed green beans. A scaredy-cat will almost always love grilled cheese, and Lazy Jane's makes a great one, with Havarti, avocado and red onion.
Many scaredy-cats eat at big-box versions of an ethnic restaurant, so build from there. Does she enjoy Mexican food? Bring her to Antojitos el Toril for an authentic Mexican experience. Does she buy Tribe of Two Sheiks hummus at the grocery store? Get her a taste of the real thing at Shish Café. If Chinese is a favorite, branch out to Laotian, with the mushroom basil fried rice at Lao Laan-Xang, or Thai, with a mild chicken pad Thai at Bahn Thai. ("Mild" can be a golden ticket with scaredy-cats.) These baby steps can help timid eaters have more cuisines to enjoy.
Adventurers like to experience a bit of danger in a meal. No matter how gnarly it sounds, they'll try it. (If you have a scaredy-cat in the party, don't seat her next to an adventurer. They will ruin the evening for each other.) Some adventurers are quiet, merely ready to eat whatever, and some are the loudly boastful type. The nice thing about having an adventurer along is that you can live vicariously through him. He'll try the sea cucumber or the durian with nary a shrug, letting you reap the benefits (or avoid the consequences). Adventurers are up for high-end restaurants where chefs bring out artistry, technique and less-common ingredients, but they're also down for whatever corner joint you think is a good eat.
The white trash burrito at Burrito Drive throws a lot of lowbrow fare - Spam, tater tots, baked beans, Velveeta and salsa - into one tortilla. If your adventurer is the braggier, "look at me" type, there's pig bung at Asia Express, roasted bone marrow at the Coopers Tavern and whelk (sea snail) with garlic miso butter at Restaurant Muramoto.
Sensualists love to eat in restaurants, but not just any restaurant. Every part of the experience is important: the food's presentation, the ambiance, the music and the other people in the room. The sensualist will dress for dinner (even in this town!) and probably make some appreciative noises during dinner. You've been warned. And watch out for that dangerous combination, the critic-sensualist - don't take him to a nice place unless you want to share in the oohing and aahing all night.
Grab your sensualist by the hand and proceed directly to L'Etoile. The food is creative and delicious, but a sensualist will appreciate the intimate room, the attentive service and the inventive drink menu. If you can't get a table by the window, sit at the bar, where you'll eat off copper trays that reflect the candlelight.
If you want a sensualist to feel like a VIP, a tearoom at Ginza of Tokyo offers a private, shoe-free space in which to enjoy your meal (sensualists don't mind showing a little skin, even if that means bare feet).
Finally, La Brioche TrueFood was made for sensualists. The space is divided into three zones according to rules of feng shui, ranging from "fast chi" (the front of the restaurant) to slow (the back, where the boudoir-feel rococo wallpaper and tall booths invite you to sink in and stay a while). Choose your zone and let the chi take over.
Sharers overlap with adventurers in that both enjoy trying new foods, but a sharer's primary motivation is to taste as many new things as possible. They're the ones who sit down with a party of 10 at a Thai place and say, "Why don't we all order something different and then we can share?" with an expression of pure delight. In fact, sharers often like ethnic restaurants because there are a large number of unfamiliar dishes - all the better to share with you! In my experience, you either are a sharer or you hate sharers. (I'm not going to say which one I am, just that some of us choose our food carefully and expect you to keep your mitts off.)
A good solution for sharers and non-sharers alike is to go with small plates; that way the sharer gets to try more than one thing even if others hoard. Tapas Rias or the Icon would be obvious choices, and Restaurant Muramoto also has a list of bite-sized and appetizer-sized delicacies.
Fresco's late-night menu of low-priced small plates features yummy stuff like a midnight breakfast sandwich with gruyere and Parmesan mornay sauce, pulled pork sliders, and dark chocolate soup with peanut butter mousse.
Michael Pollan's exhortations to "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants" and consume only things that "your grandmother would recognize as food" have resonated with many eaters. This is generally a good thing; he champions quality food, local ingredients and less processing and additives. Pollanators come in a number of stripes, however. There's the dutiful soul who trudges along trying to redeem a weakness for pizza with equal helpings of leafy greens; there's the vigorous advocate who looks for the "local" label on menus and grocery store tags. On the extreme end of the spectrum are those folks who turn up their nose at any restaurant that gives off even a whiff of Sysco.
Fortunately, pleasing a Pollanator in Madison is easy. There are scores of restaurants using local producers' wares. You can hardly throw a rock on the Square without hitting one. Further afield, Lombardino's, Crema Café, Roman Candle, jacs and more all transform Wisconsin's bounty into great meals in a range of prices.
His grandmother may or may not be Nepali, but Pollan would no doubt approve of the food at Himal Chuli, where you can get a bowl of soul-warming dal and an order of hot-off-the-griddle whole-wheat roti for about five bucks. Few meals are as satisfying. If you're a little hungrier, order the tarkari as well. It's a vegetable curry dish that changes daily. The "cauli" tarkari, which combines cauliflower, potatoes, carrots and peas, is tasty, popular, and nearly always available.
The Sweet Tooth
These folks look for comfort and reassurance from their food, and they'd gladly eat dessert for every meal. But while a sweet tooth might be content with a Little Debbie treat or a bag of Nutter Butters, why not escort her directly to nirvana with some of Madison's best sweets?
Bradbury's makes knockout crepes, whether filled with melty Nutella, bananas and almonds, or lemon curd and cream. Batch Bakehouse's pastries are gorgeous - their scones are flaky, light and sweet, and their monkey bread tastes like a dead ringer for Ovens of Brittany's much-missed morning buns. The apple fritter at Greenbush Bakery is plate-sized, flecked with juicy bits of apple, and perfectly glazed. Go late at night to claim a fresh one and watch the sweet tooth bliss out in a dreamy sugar haze.