Lately it feels like locals are playing tour guide a lot more in Madison. We have a higher visitor count, thanks to the national attention our food scene is receiving and increasing business traffic. What used to be a town of supper clubs, fish fries and pickled herring is now a city interesting enough to be a draw for curious gourmets from neighboring culinary titans like Chicago. We still rock the steakhouses, burger joints and beer halls, but in 2014 Madison has more than that.
This hip, mellow space turns out stunning appetizers and often Wisco-themed entrees with a seasonally variable menu that matches a ski-lodge-type space. Catch the pork sausage over sauerkraut if you can, or check the ever-changing bread board.
Genna's Cocktail Lounge
A storied happy hour on the Square: cheddar cheese cubes and mini meatballs go nicely in a '50s way with some of the city's better martinis, lawyers, politicians and stray tourists.
After conquering Madison with L'Etoile, chef Tory Miller narrowed his ambitions for the more casual Graze, which mixes pork belly udon with a rock shrimp po' boy wrap on a playful menu in a light-filled space.
A rock-solid upscale menu centered on local organic ingredients is stuffed with steaks, scallops and salads. And how about a chocolate-cherry bread pudding?
Perhaps the most anticipated opening of 2013, this fine-dining anchor led by chef Dan Fox again raises the bar for downtown. Pistachio citrus-crusted grouper and wagyu short ribs are standouts.
High Noon Saloon
Hoist a pint to the historic lost-to-fire O'Cayz Corral (where Madison's Tar Babies once butted heads with Hüsker Dü, and Nirvana played). Cathy Dethmers re-created the storied O'Cayz dynamic at the High Noon Saloon, which hosts national and local acts. Live band karaoke by the Gomers goes nicely with good beer and choice Bloody Marys.
Le Tigre Lounge
There are three bars in Madison that visitors have to hit: Natt Spil, Mickey's and Le Tigre. Le Tigre seriously frowns on cursing (you might get kicked out) and instead invites patrons to sink into leopard-print upholstery to the songs of Dean Martin and Edith Piaf.
Bring beaucoup bucks and commit to a big spend for a world-class meal looking out at the Capitol. The menu changes daily and upon chef Tory Miller's whim, but might include braised Sylvan Meadows Farm lamb leg, baby bok choy, root vegetables and sesame-soy glaze.
Lombardino's Restaurant & Bar
Modern Italian food in an old Italian-American restaurant. Cider-brined pork loin chop and pan-seared walleye are paired with a thoughtful wine list. The trippy murals and plaster-encased statuary make for a hip combination.
The Malt House
A Madison institution of beer (it was once the Union House Tavern and boasts an antique, Civil War-era bar). Visitors will discover a range of local craft beers and a cast of characters rivaling those in a Bukowski tale.
Sampling braised osso buco pork shank with cheddar grits while listening to a DJ spin and maybe picking up a can of San Marzano crushed tomatoes to take home aren't usually activities that go together. At Merchant, they do.
For old-school east-side regulars, it's "the only bar that matters." Longtime Madison music connoisseur Elizabeth Granby has been developing the music side while owner Jane Capito has deployed an astoundingly good menu. Try the World's Greatest Sandwich, which tops sourdough slices with Swiss cheese, bacon, lettuce, tomato and a fried egg.
You won't see a sign on the front door, and there's no phone, so no calling for reservations. Pizzas from the wood-fired oven and dim sum with a DJ ensure that even the prickliest hipster visitors from Williamsburg or Silver Lake will just shut up about how superior they are.
Nile Mediterranean Cuisine
Zestiest hummus in the city. Look past the strip-mall setting and less-than-exotic decor to discover shawarma to die for, the result of nearly three decades of fine-tuning recipes at the Nile's former incarnation, LuLu's.
The tiny dining room and somewhat more capacious bar area are some of the most prized tables in town. Chef Tim Dahl and his wife, pastry chef Elizabeth Dahl, dazzle with dishes like pan-roasted quail and tagliatelle with zucchini pesto.
The Old Fashioned
Ground zero for the upscale burgers-and-beers concept that has since engulfed downtown Madison. Sitting up at the beautiful bar with a board of Wisconsin cheese and meats and a brandy old fashioned is a great way to kick off a night on the town.
Perfect for a rebalance before hitting a show at the Majestic. Small plates like sushi rolls, salt and pepper shrimp, and ahi tuna salad get backup from Velvet Underground-esque light displays.
Thrilling modern Italian cuisine, ranging from ricotta and spinach-stuffed crepes to tagliolini pasta with chili, garlic and a whole Maine lobster tail.
A Pig in a Fur Coat
This packed, convivial eatery was the kill-shot for the dominance of Willy Street as the best drag for a casual night of eating out. The focus is on heritage pig, but daring small plates like rabbit rillette with pistachio and pickled cherries and octopus with garbanzo and olives are making this spot's name.
State Street Brats
This Madison institution isn't actually all that much fun unless you are a wasted undergraduate, but the depravity and excess on a Friday night is an impressive look at a top party school in action.
Tempest Oyster Bar
Some of the finest seafood in Madison comes in a tricked-out space, including a boat and a giant seashell.
The filet mignon with hash browns is heaven on a plate. Lots of hard-hitting politicos frequent these retro wood-paneled rooms.
Umami Ramen & Dumpling Bar
Pork buns with mantou bread and thick slices of pickled cucumber are the must-order at this 1880s house-cum-Willy Street restaurant, and bowls of Japanese-style ramen are a cure for most ills.
Weary Traveler Free House
Between the Tom Ga Kha soup, Bob's Bad Breath burger, the West of the Andes sandwich and the weekend brunches, it can be hard to order at this Willy Street mainstay. The room is similarly eclectic and morphs between a coffee shop vibe (replete with board games) and a party zone on weekend nights.