Cottage cheese and berry pancakes from Sophia's.
Madison is a brunching town. Every weekend, all over the city, eager diners queue up with friends and family to partake of what is often the most gratifying meal of the week. Whether you're in the mood for a simple coffee and a pastry or want to chase your duck confit with a glass of champagne, Madison's brunch options vary almost as wildly as your imagination. Here are a few of my favorites, in alphabetical order.
Miss those thrilling breakfast spots abroad where the food is as eclectic and worldly as the clientele? Go to Atwood Avenue's Dobhan, where you can feel as though you are somewhere on the Indian subcontinent.
The space is gorgeous, with light streaming in the enormous front windows and radiating off the golden woodwork. Equally beautiful is the Himalayan-fusion food. There are good waffles and pancakes along with a few Benedicts and omelets, but the real rewards come from the international-inflected items like the huevos rancheros or pull mumari, poached eggs over mung bean patties. Also try the enormous dosas, which are similar to crepes but impossibly thin and crispy. I particularly enjoy the keema dosa, filled with rich cardamom-flavored ground lamb.
Dobhan will liberate your senses and inspire you to plan your next trip overseas.
Raise your hand if you wake up some mornings and crave black beans, soft eggs and chili verde over something crunchy. With tequila. Exactly, and Eldorado provides Madison with its Tex-Mex fix.
There are little touches like cumin-lime dressing on the greens, and there's French toast with pineapple and red chili butter. The menu is thick with enchiladas, burritos and chilaquiles, as well as multiple vegetarian options. I like the Eldorado Eggs, which have changed some over the years but still feature the essential blue corn pancakes, smoked bacon and scallion-lime cream sauce. This dish goes well with the Killer Bloody Maria, made with Eldorado's own house-infused chili tequila.
Prepare to wait just to lasso a bar stool at this always-popular spot.
The Graze space is dramatic at night, but even more magnificent by day. Glass cube plus sun equals ideal brunch spot. Even when it's cloudy, the space is uplifting.
Food here isn't just tasty and local (in summer, you can see staff returning from the Farmers' Market with a wagon loaded with produce), but well crafted and a sight to behold. The Nutella-stuffed French toast still awaits its glossy food-porn centerfold debut. There are exquisite Bloody Marys and white wine on tap to go with those decadent oysters. Who doesn't like fried chicken and waffles or a loaded breakfast sandwich? Simpler items such as the Croque Madame with Pleasant Ridge Reserve cheese never disappoint, and there's a tofu scrambler for vegetarians.
If you eat meat, however, the smoky corned beef hash is so good that it has a little cult following of people who never order anything else.
Eating brunch at La Brioche is to transport yourself back to a simpler, quieter, Madison - before the city made any top 10 lists. Back then, the Square didn't have much in the way of food, and the neighborhoods were graced with quirky restaurants like the Dardanelles and Coyote Capers. La Brioche is heir to the empire that was the Ovens of Brittany, the restaurant of record that predated Odessa Piper's L'Etoile (in fact, where she got her start here).
With a busy interior, wingback chairs and floral couches, La Brioche feels like the kind of place that might serve high tea. Instead, it serves great baked goods and a charming brunch. This is the place for quiche with mother or delectable omelets with old friends. One crunchy bite of the egg-washed bread spread with rich butter from a little white ramekin, and you taste the delicious and untrendy flavors of another age.
Don't miss the adorable windows all the way in the back of the restaurant where the baking magic happens.
Marigold is as lively as the name suggests. It feels urban and civilized, yet still warm and comfortable - something that could be said about Madison, which maybe explains how this restaurant became such an institution so fast.
Start with the baked goods, in the case where patrons line up to order. Above the ordering station, there is always a quiche and scrambler of the day written on the chalkboard; either are excellent choices. The duck confit hash is a favorite, and if you don't mind waking up to greens, so is the grilled chicken salad. The breakfast potatoes here are not crispy, but quite spicy - a perfect way to rouse yourself.
Here the French toast is better than its name: brioche with berries, almonds and pastry cream. But it is a testament to the kitchen that among all the divine sweets options, even the yogurt stands out. It arrives with heaps of fresh fruit, toasted walnuts and pecans, all drizzled with fragrant lavender honey. It may be one of the few times yogurt is worth ordering out, and will leave you wondering why more restaurants don't do things Marigold's way.
Something happened at Mickey's, the bar on Willy Street, late last spring. Since then, it's been banging out some of the best, most reasonably priced brunch food in this city. One recent special was eggs and a big juicy pork chop with greens and perfectly crispy breakfast potatoes, all for $8.
Then there's the great bread courtesy of sister restaurant Lazy Jane's. Nearly every weekend now, a few foodies arrive, text-message out the specials from the chalkboard, and the place sells out. There are iconic Bloody Marys and an outdoor patio. There's a pool table if you or your kids get bored. It's low-key and unpretentious. I might even go so far as to describe the place as authentic.
Mickey's has always been more a state of mind than a bar, and now it is a state of mind with shockingly good food, all served out of a tiny kitchen that used to be a closet. Shut the front door. And get your own damn coffee.
Brunch at Sardine feels like a grand occasion. The interior sparkles; the staff bustle about in white shirts. There is also a heaping pile of irresistible powdered sugar-flecked pastries beckoning from the gleaming bar. Order a Bloody Mary or, better yet, a Greyhound - freshly squeezed grapefruit and vodka, with a salt rim. Of course there is the famed warm duck confit salad, but there are also hearty sandwiches, juicy grilled pork sausages over risotto, fennel-icious mussels, and some of the best crab cakes found anywhere.
For something simple, try the fines herbes omelet with Gruyere. Or go decadent, share a few bottles of wine, order one of just about everything, and make an afternoon of it. Sardine can be so bright that you need sunglasses to ward off the glare from the napkins, but what a glamorous problem to have.
An adorably cramped hole-in-the-wall on East Johnson with semi-communal seating, Sophia's continues to provide Madison with some of the city's most scrumptious baked goods. The croissants are stellar, the muffins divine, and the coffee cake is a legend.
But everything here is somehow iconic and more than the sum of its parts. The cottage cheese and berry pancakes have been known to convert pancake haters, and the omelets are large, consistent and magnificent. Even the black bean tacos arrive as peculiarly perfect corn tortillas with little more than avocado, onion and cilantro - but which just aren't the same when attempted at home. Breakfast potatoes here are mixed with squash and have the necessary toothy nuttiness as well as nicely caramelized crunch. They are arguably Madison's best.
Go early or late and in very, very small groups.