People pick a restaurant to go to for many reasons. Buzz. Proximity. Familiarity. Novelty. Cost. Sheer impulse.
Sometimes there are more specific criteria diners have to follow, though. These can be dietary: One or more of the party need vegetarian or vegan dishes, or gluten-free options over and above leaving the bun off a burger. Maybe your beer-geek buddy is coming to town, so you want to show off a Wisconsin tavern with a great tap list. Possibly what you're looking for is something kid-friendly, without descending to the drive-through.
When inspiration is at a minimum, one resource is the Isthmus restaurant database at TheDailyPage.com/eats. Restaurants are listed alphabetically, but can be searched for various criteria -- side of town, or type of cuisine, or if the place is open for breakfast, or on Monday. So you could look for a Thai restaurant on the near east side that's open for breakfast (and discover there are none).
Or you could search for other options, like tap lists, gluten-free-friendly, vegetarian-friendly and kid-friendly. Here's just some of what you might discover.
Search: Extensive tap list
If you're going out, take advantage of that fact -- opt for beer on draught, rather than in a bottle.
Obviously brewery taprooms and brew pubs, where beer is made on-site, will have great, fresh and innovative beers on hand.
Less obviously, some restaurants and bars fly under the radar with extra-special tap lists.
Brasserie V, on Monroe Street, has 26 taps, with enough Belgian beers that you could imagine you were in Brussels. Throw in a handful of taps from other European countries (Denmark, the Netherlands and Italy) and a few less obvious craft beer picks from around the U.S. and you have a lineup unique in the Madison area.
Unassuming Dexter's Pub, at the corner of North and East Johnson Streets, has 24 taps that highlight many Wisconsin craft breweries but also delve deep into craft beers nationwide. Currently, for instance, Dexter's is featuring four beers from the Anderson Valley Brewing Co. of Boonville, Calif., seldom seen in these parts. Selections are updated on Dexter's website.
Of the taps at the Coopers Tavern, on the Capitol Square, there's likely to be representatives from Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown, N.Y., and Goose Island, out of Chicago. You might stumble across the charmingly named Morland Old Speckled Hen, an English pale ale from Bury, England, among outstanding Wisconsin picks.
You're likely to find a few surprises at jacs as well, like a recent N'Ice Chouffe, from Belgium; an Innis & Gunn, from Edinburgh; and representatives of U.S. craft beers from Delaware (Dogfish Head) to Oregon (Bridgeport Imperial Red).
The Tipsy Cow doesn't have the largest number of taps in town, but its intimate bar area and thoughtfully curated beer list makes it a good place to stop for a pint. The beer of the day is a good deal at $3.50, as is Thursday's $3 PBR-battered fish or avocado taco special.
Jacs makes available gluten-free pastas and flatbread pizzas, as well as buns, for a $3 charge, and has a gluten-free fryer. In the reverse of most restaurants, jacs marks the dishes that can't be made gluten-free -- but that's a small number from a wide-ranging menu. Even better, the Friday fish fry -- beer-battered cod with slaw and potato pancakes or frites -- is G-F. Jacs has several gluten-free or gluten-reduced beers available, too.
The Coopers Tavern specifies which food items on the menu are gluten-free, and, good news, the poutine benedict makes the cut. The Coopers has several gluten-free beers available as well as hard ciders.
Most of the Tex Tubb's Taco Palace menu is gluten-free. Tacos are made in corn tortillas (from Mercado Marimar on South Park Street), and only a few fillings that have breading (like the crispy tilapia) contain gluten. But the house-smoked chicken or the chorizo and black bean are all yours.
The Food Fight group of restaurants all have gluten-free options clearly marked on the menus. This is, of course, true of the first of the group, Monty's Blue Plate Diner. There, dive in to the G.B.L.T. (guacamole, bacon, lettuce and tomato) sandwich, which naturally comes on Silly Yak bakery jalapeño cheddar bread, among other options.
Brickhouse Barbecue has many gluten-free barbecue plates, or plates that can be made so by skipping the Texas Toast or switching out a sauce. Head for the dry-rubbed Texas beef brisket.
If dessert's what you're after, pop in to Chocolaterian, where the handmade macaroons, flourless chocolate cake, chocolate almond horns and flourless chocolate cookies are all gluten-free.
Currently, Madison is home to one vegetarian restaurant, the Green Owl; one vegan coffee shop, Mother Fool's; and one vegan food cart, Ladonia Cafe. The Green Owl is the place to find meals based on proteins including seitan, Gardein and jackfruit, as well as vegetable-only entrees like eggplant meatballs and the ever-popular basics plate. Mother Fool's concentrates on soups and baked goods. And Ladonia Cafe's tamale platter (also gluten-free) should please any fan of Tex-Mex.
If you're looking to non-vegetarian restaurants for vegetarian fare, Graze is very helpful about labeling its dishes with an easy-to-follow code (DF: dairy-free, GF: gluten-free, VN: vegan, V: vegetarian, M: modifiable, P: pescatarian, N: contain nuts, S: contains soy sauce). The restaurant's beet and walnut burger alone could preclude any need to eat an actual hamburger ever again.
Manna Cafe features a good number of vegetarian sandwiches and salads that echo Madison's hippie heyday, including the Lysistrata salad, named after the long-gone feminist collective restaurant (with greens, alfalfa sprouts, raisins, dried cranberries, sunflower seeds, cucumbers, apple slices and avocado); and the Monte Python sandwich (with seared spinach, roasted asparagus, sweet potatoes, romesco sauce and fontina cheese, on wheat bread dipped in egg batter and grilled).
No list of vegetarian-friendly restaurants would be complete without mentioning Himal Chuli, the Nepali restaurant with the much-venerated momocha (vegetable dumplings with tomato coriander dipping sauce); tarkari of the day, an always-comforting vegetarian stew; and tart, spicy kadi (onion dumplings in a yogurt-based sauce). And that's just a glimpse of the vegetarian part of the menu.
One of my near-west picks is Fuzzy's Tacos on University Avenue. Fuzzy's kids' menu is not dissimilar to its adult menu -- tacos! (plus a cheese enchilada or quesadilla option). But the Fuzzy's fish logo is reproduced as a coloring page, and crayons are provided throughout the casual dining area.
There isn't too long a wait for the food, which is ordered and picked up at the counter. Yet the food is put together with more care than the standard fast-food joint. The kid taco plates come as beef or chicken, but if your slightly more adventuresome eater is interested, the tempura fish tacos, fresh out of the fryer, should please fish-stick lovers.
On the east side, Crema Cafe is cheerfully kid-friendly. While you're waiting for the food to come out, the cafe has pretend food for the kids to play with, and organic lollipops to tide over the fussy. The real food puts the usual chicken tender option to shame, with a cornmeal pancake and Wisconsin maple syrup on the breakfast menu, along with toad-in-a-hole. For lunch, a grilled cheddar cheese and a natural turkey sandwich are the centerpieces, though there's also a peanut butter and strawberry preserves on whole wheat and, for the young gourmet, turkey with goat cheese and Door County cherry relish. For the adults, the coffee is from Colectivo, and refills are just 50 cents.
Daisy Cafe and Cupcakery has an area in the front where kids can do some low-key playing. The cupcakes are an obvious draw, but the kids' menu also caters to the fussy. The grilled cheese sandwich is available with the crusts cut off; the ubiquitous "chicken fingers" here are a healthier grilled chicken strip. House-made mac-and-cheese, with a side of sautÃ©ed veggies, is another dinner option. Pasta with butter and cheese and pasta with Italian sausage and tomato sauce are also on the menu, paired with the veggies.
Near the entrance to the zoo, the Zu Zu Cafe features five sandwiches -- PB & J, turkey, grilled cheese, Nutella and hummus -- all named after Sesame Street characters.
Luigi's serves what most kids have no trouble trying -- pizza -- but also offers a special kids' menu that features for $2 each a small plain cheese pizza, buttered noodles, noodles and red sauce, and noodles with a meatball. Best, the bambino menu features a word search, riddles, a missing letter puzzle and a maze.
The Coliseum Bar is perhaps not one's first thought of a place to take the kids, but hiding on its four-item kids' menu is a legend of Madison comfort food, Kipp's mac-and-cheese (formerly served at Kipp's Down Home Cookin' on Monroe Street). Kipp now cooks at the Coliseum, and therefore this kid-menu standby is given the deluxe treatment.