Nachos are about sharing.
Even a 'Great City for Kids' like Madison, with its booster-seat- centric dining scene, needs to embrace its not-so-family-friendly side after dark. And while it may not be Vegas, Madison offers a diverse selection of late-night dining options, whether you're looking for an upscale post-theater nosh or just a little something to head off the bed-spins.
Ian's Pizza by the Slice
www.ianspizza.com; open until 3 am Fridays and Saturdays
'Jesus I feel old,' said my companion, looking around as we stood in line at bar time at the Frances Street location of Ian's Pizza. Even if your undergraduate days preceded the advent of Wi-Fi and MySpace, don't let that keep you away from Ian's two cheerfully painted, brightly lit locations, both of which feature a reasonably priced and creative selection of slices ($1.75-$2.75), including Barbecue Chicken Pineapple or the anti-Atkins Macaroni and Cheese, the perfect antidote to all those drink specials sloshing around in your stomach.
Should you prefer something lighter, opt for the mixed green salad ($4.75) sprinkled with pecans, feta and dried cranberries with a red wine vinaigrette (add grilled chicken for $1.50). For a bit of no-cost entertainment, take a seat at the large picture window at the Frances Street location and watch the passing parade of students as they attempt to make their way home ' or to somebody's home at least.
The Weary Traveler
Entire menu available until 1 am every night
'Heads-up, folks,' the server said as she passed our pints of Spotted Cow over a neighboring table. Still packing them in well into the post-primetime hours, the Weary Traveler's solid-yet-unique selection of sandwiches and salads, and hip-but-good-natured wait staff, make it feel like you stumbled on a really great party. With its tin ceilings and walls festooned with caricatures, philosophical musings and assorted musical bric-a-brac, the Weary's eclectic dÃcor feels distinctly reflective of Madison's scruffily fashionable near east side, as does its inspired though unpretentious menu. Try the popular West of the Andes Sandwich ($7.50, available with beef tenderloin, tuna or roasted veggies): a tasty combination of avocado, pico de gallo and chipotle mayo on a soft roll, or the aptly named Bob's Bad Breath Burger ($8.50): Angus beef topped with cream cheese, green goddess dressing, onions, garlic and tomatoes.
Serving food from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. daily
Perhaps the most strikingly stylish eatery in Madison, Natt Spil is the restaurant embodiment of that effortlessly chic person who throws together unexpected ensembles and always looks terrific. Its enveloping, cave-like space blends the rustic feel of wide plank floors with East Asian influences ' an esthetic reflected in its diverse, innovative menu. An outstanding brie, apple and shallot pizza ($9.50) arrives fresh from the wood-burning oven, while the Three Cup Chicken ($9.50, also available with tofu), a satisfyingly flavorful blend of chicken and vegetables with a spicy tomato cucumber salad and rice, showcases the kitchen's facility with pan-Asian flavors. A DJ on weekend nights makes conversation all but impossible, but no matter: at Natt Spil the food, drink and scene all but make up for it.
www.eno-vino.com; late-night menu available 10 pm-midnight weekdays and 11 pm-1 am Fridays and Saturdays
Situated in a strip mall between a Nedrebo's and a Panera, the glowing bull's-eye of Target a beacon in the distance, Eno Vino is a little corner o' cuisine-y sex appeal in the midst of far-west-side sprawl. Its sleekly attractive, crimson-hued dining room complements a thoughtful if somewhat bafflingly described ('terrorized baby carrots,' anyone?) selection of late-night fare that includes Sweet Chile Calamari fries ($9), tender batons of chopped squid coated in a well-spiced batter. The calamari and other small plates offered are perfect for sharing, as are their tender-crusted, free-form pizzas and flatbreads ($9-$18) with sophisticated toppings like lump crab, asparagus, andouille and grilled shrimp. An extensive menu of creative specialty cocktails makes a compelling argument for a nightcap, and for all you restaurant folks, every night in the lounge all service-industry employees are invited to enjoy two-for-one pizza/flatbreads from the late-night menu.
The Old Fashioned
www.theoldfashioned.com; late-night menu available until midnight Monday through Saturday
'Created to pay tribute to the foods and spirits that make Wisconsin famous,' the always-busy Madison newcomer The Old Fashioned is a welcome addition to the reinvigorated Capitol Square dining scene. Comfortable and well-designed, TOF features upholstered window-side banquettes with a view of the Capitol, while seating at the stately oak bar features a televised view of whatever sporting event happens to be in season. A late-night menu of reinterpreted Wisconsin favorites includes three cleverly presented Lazy Susans ($16), each of which offers a variety of tasting portions of upper Midwest delicacies like cured salmon and smoked trout or summer sausage and salami, ideal for sharing. Order up a basket of beer-battered Wisconsin cheese curds ($7) for the table and rest assured you've shown out-of-town guests the ultimate in Wisconsin dining.
For those who prefer to eat off their own plate, the kitchen also offers a wide selection of sandwiches and burgers ($8-$9), available with both expected (cheddar) and unexpected (braunschweiger) toppings. End your meal with Buttered Beer-Nut- or Old Fashioned-flavored ice cream and enjoy a stroll around the Square. You may very well need it.
The Great Dane
Three locations: downtown, Fitchburg and Hilldale; www.greatdanepub.com; late-night menu served until 1 am daily
Vats of beer, pool tables, loud music, friendly service, and tasty, reliable and generous portions of reasonably priced bar favorites help keep this wildly popular Madison chainlet, well, wildly popular. While each location is unique, all share a comfortable, gracious atmosphere. The back garden at the Doty Street location is particularly inviting during the warmer months, and a late-night menu of items is ideal for sharing while lining up your next shot at the bar or pool table. Try the colorful Nakoma Nachos ($7; add spiced beef or chicken for $2 extra) smothered with cheese, salsa, guacamole and sour cream, or Cheese and Artichoke Dip ($7.50) served in a bread bowl and accompanied by fresh veggies. The somewhat disconcertingly named Crazy Fingers ($7.25) are a deliciously grown-up version of that favorite of the under-8 set. Strips of white-meat chicken fried in a spicy batter and served with Szechwan honey, they're the perfect accompaniment to one of The Dane's handcrafted ales.
www.brocach.com; late-night menu served until midnight Fridays and Saturdays
While some consider the term 'Irish cuisine' to be an oxymoron, Brocach takes these skeptics to task with its tasty interpretations. Gaelic for 'Badger Den,' Brocach's charming 'pub-on-the-Emerald Isle' setting, two spacious levels and variety of seating both intimate and large-group-friendly (long tables, booths, intimate nooks and crannies) keep the vibe convivial as opposed to claustrophobic, even on exceptionally busy evenings. The late-night menu includes such fresh, innovative offerings as a smoked salmon platter ($10) of hickory smoked salmon, parmesan potato crisps, shaved red onion, avocado, orange segments and field greens; and a meze platter ($9), with hummus, eggplant dip, olives and artichoke hearts. For the more traditionally minded, Irish specialties like the battered and fried fish and chips ($12) or curry chips basket ($5) of thick-cut fries with curry sauce are also excellent choices. Add a pint of Guinness and a shot of Jameson's to round out your meal, and your eyes (Irish or otherwise) will surely be smiling.
Tornado Steak House
www.tornadosteakhouse.com; late-night menu from 10 pm to 1 am daily
Home to one of the best examples of neon signage in Madison, Tornado Steak House, with its authentically retro supper club atmosphere, feels like somewhere Sinatra (or your parents) would have gone for a swanky night out, circa 1963. Fittingly, all the supper-club favorites are available on their late-night menu, including Crab Louis ($9), made with Alaskan King crab, and a Steak Sandwich ($7) served au jus with sautÃed onion and horseradish cream. Order up a basket of thick-cut battered onion rings ($6.50) fried to a dark brown crunch, or get reacquainted with that old friend, iceberg lettuce, all dressed up in a salad ($4) with Roquefort dressing.