Happy hour is a big draw for people who have to return to a nest within a reasonable amount of time after work. This explains why, as 9-to-5ers head home on the Beltline, the area is a bonanza of stops.
The most alluring of these is Bonfyre American Grille, a restaurant so popular it's spawned its own mini-me right next door called the Beacon Lounge. Bonfyre is filled to the rafters with lobbyists, dental hygienists and business types looking for some happy-hour nooky.
This is the meat market, if you like your meat wood-fyred. It's an über-sceney spot with nothing to prove, and it's a trick just getting a seat at the packed but oddly slow-service bar.
The margaritas, Long Islands and Bloody Marys are light on booze, but that's okay since everyone is driving afterwards anyway -- presumably to someone else's house.
A little further south into Fitchburg proper, Liliana's sports a decidedly quieter vibe. The restaurant's spicy Louisiana soul translates well to the front of the house. There is friendly, knowledgeable staff in a hushed atmosphere with live jazz music.
The wine menu is a big draw, a didactic tome that offers gobs of information and boasts some surprising highlights. There are too many by-the-glass pours on the list to ensure reliably fresh bottles, but just politely ask for a splash from a new bottle. A well-curated list of New Orleans-inspired cocktails like the Sazerac (Old Overholt rye whiskey, Peychaud's Bitters, absinthe) rounds out the appeal.
Veranda Restaurant & Wine Bar is serving some of the best locally sourced beef carpaccio around for a mere $11 -- and then there's the incredibly fresh hand-made burrata. It's as if the owners, longtime Madison restaurant family the Schiavos, don't realize they've left King Street, site of their previous restaurant, the Continental. Better than the majority of similar offerings downtown, Veranda upends preconceived notions about Fitchburg. You may even get a little envious.
Veranda boasts a lengthy wine list, heavy on Italian varietals. There is also a full cocktail menu, with well-made classics like Manhattans as well as a few house-infused vodka drinks. During the summer, sangria flows seemingly by the bucket -- full out to the restaurant's sizable veranda. Look for the addictive, classic Italian strawberry-basil cocktail, the only one of its kind in the area, come spring.
Funk's will be offering free gigabit ethernet soon, and proprietor Jeff Funk is reportedly encouraging customers to come in and try the download speed. It's blazing fast -- the equivalent of gobbling a DVD in fewer than three minutes. So it's...a download bar. But since it channels Jeff Funk's gregarious, easygoing ex-IT-guy spirit, the spot feels soulful.
The bar offers great tap beer pours and has a sense of humor about its drink specials. During the Olympics, Funk's has been offering a "Russian ice water," three shots of vodka on ice. Gummy worms soaked in vodka may also be available, and they're boozier than you might imagine.
Speaking of soulful, Atomic Koi boasts a funky interior that belies its deep Fitchburg location. This is a hideout for the cool kids. Cocktails are fast and efficient, although some choices seem dated. The list of flavored martinis is balanced by a fun tropical drinks menu. The Golden Colada (Barcadi, Malibu, Amaretto and pineapple) will whisk you away to the set of an '80s tropical sitcom. In a good way.
Tony Frank's also feels like a hideout. A Victorian house with a Cheers vibe just off the Beltline at Seminole Highway, this burger bar in a house has a convivial atmosphere and a serious Reuben sandwich. Cocktails are of the straightforward variety, and if you ask for a wine list you risk...just don't. Hark back to the days when establishments needed no frills.
No roundup of the Fitchburg fringe would be complete without mentioning Schneid's, a bar with a rough-and-tumble reputation. Just think of Schneid's as the closest Madison comes to having a bar like the one in Star Wars: Folks from all sorts of planets collide. Also, the "hot dog" is one of the better Maxwell Street Polish-style franks you'll ever eat. This Chicago dog is almost too legit.
The friendly bartenders make feeling comfortable here easy, and while there's nothing necessarily special about the drinks, it's an ideal spot for a shot and a beer in an honest-to-God dive.