I'm a Madison native that now lives out east. Every time I come home (my parents still live here) I make a list of all of the food spots I want to try to hit. Inevitably I only make it to 10% of them, but I thought I'd share my list here.
This board is full of reviews of the standard Madison haute cuisine quartet (L'Etoile, Harvest,
Muramoto, and Sardine), and while I won't go into any more detail on them, I unsurprisingly add my strong recommendations.
One newcomer restaurant that I think deserves a place among these elite is Osteria Papavero on Wilson near King. This is the one place I visit with every trip home, no matter how short. Inventive central Italian cooking with an elegant yet unpretentious "neighborhood spot" feel. Chalkboard menu, hard-to-find amari at the bar, and outdoor seating when the weather's nice. The menu changes all the time, but the incredible butterscotch pudding is always on it.
Right next door is Restaurant Magnus--another place I always visit, although usually just for
drinks and dessert at what I think is the classiest cocktail bar in the city. Dark and vaguely
Lynchian, the bar is in a separate room with an enormous shaped counter, plenty of small
tables, and a tiny stage.
Other nice-dinner standouts for me include: the Icon at the top of State Street, a tapas place with a well-appointed top shelf and old movies playing on the walls; Peppino's, the high-end Italian place on the square (although Peppino himself is moving on, my parents tell me); and Blue Marlin, the seafood place that seems to have been around forever but continues to push the envelope.
Cafe Continental on King Street has a long menu that keeps me coming back. The Old Fashioned on the square is well-reviewed on this board and I add my recommendation, although it is about as far from healthy eating as you can get. Some of my favorite drinking places also serve great dinner food; I'll note that below.
I have to call out Lao Laan Xang with its own paragraph. We have a sizable Laotian population in Madison and, man, am I glad about that. Lao Laan Xang has two locations, Williamson Street and Atwood Ave, and their squash curry with tofu (order it "careful" on the spiciness index) is absolutely the best curry in town.
Top of this list has got to be the Cornish pasties at Myles Teddywedgers. Myles just passed away last week, but I was in there today and it appears that they will stay open. Get the "top-layer steak." Start with a half.
Taqueria El Pastor gets a lot of buzz, but in my opinion Taqueria Guadalajara, just down the street, deserves the crown. This place is tiny--a 4-seat lunch counter and maybe 2 small tables--but it is worth squeezing yourself in. The sopes, gorditas, and tortas are amazing.
Quickly: my favorite bagels are made out on University Avenue at Bagels Forever--but you can buy them, frozen, all over the city. Greenbush Bakery (not the Greenbush Bar down the street) on Regent makes Kosher donuts and is open late (all night?). It's out of the way, but Poppa Coronofoulos out on Buckeye (at Stoughton Rd.) of all places is the spot to get great hot dogs, complete with throwback interior. The recently-opened Opa on State Street has the best Gyro in town.
My favorite place to drink in Madison is Natt Spil, on King Street just down from the Great Dane. No sign, no phone, no credit cards. Gorgeous wood-fired oven churning out small crispy pizzas. Cheap dim sum any time of the day. An excellent cocktail menu. Beautiful people.
Genna's, especially when it spills outside during the warmer months, is a classic. The nearby Tornado Room is a study in atmosphere, nailing the supper-club aesthetic from the amazing neon sign to the booth upholstery to the drink menu. I haven't yet had one of their steaks but I drink there often.
Closer to home is Williamson Street's legendary Weary Traveler, owned by the same people who run Natt Spil. Walk by any night of the week and the place will be packed to the point of steaming up the windows. Everybody loves their Bad Breath Burger but I usually go for one of their more inventive options. Mickey's, down the street at the bridge (not to be confused with Mickies Dairy Bar on campus), is a classic neighborhood joint.
The Marigold Kitchen is owned by the Sardine people and is what you'd expect from them for breakfast. I love this place and go there several times when I'm home. Lazy Jane's on Williamson Street seems to be everybody's favorite breakfast spot, and it's hard to argue; the atmosphere is hard to beat. Cafe Soliel underneath L'Etoile is usually where my parents and I begin our Saturday farmers' market outings.
The Dane County Farmers Market is simply unbelievable. If you're planning a trip to Madison anytime but the winter you must include a Saturday morning in your stay. Plan at least a couple of hours to make the entire circuit around the square--more if you start later than, say, 8:30. When you're done, stop at Fromagination on the square, a new world-class cheese shop, possibly the best in the midwest (it certainly rivals the classic fromageries in NYC).
Everybody loves the Great Dane, but for some reason I have never been able to like the place.
I was so excited when I heard Gotham Bagels was opening, but alas they're just not up to snuff; I stick with Bagels Forever when I'm in Madison.
Places I keep meaning to go to and have never been: Johnny Delmonico's, Brasserie V, Pizza Brutta, and Greenbush Bar. Hope to report on these soon.
120 E Wilson St Ste 3, Madison, WI 53703
21 N Pinckney St, Madison, WI 53703
25 N Pinckney St, Madison, WI 53703
914 Regent St, Madison, WI 53715
128 E Wilson St, Madison, WI 53703
Myles Teddywedgers Cornish
101 State St, Madison, WI 53703
112 E Mifflin St, Madison, WI
118 S Pinckney St, Madison, WI 53703
25 N Pinckney St, Madison, WI 53703
211 King Street, Madison, WI
225 King St, Madison, WI 53703
Lao Laan Xang Restaurant
2098 Atwood Ave, Madison, WI 53704
12 S Carroll St, Madison, WI
130 S Pinckney, Madison, WI 53703
2947 University Ave, Madison, WI 53705
105 W Main St, Madison, WI 53703
108 King St, Madison, WI 53703
Mickies Dairy Bar
1511 Monroe St, Madison, WI 53711
Lazy Jane's Cafe and Bakery
1358 Williamson St, Madison, WI 53703
111 S Hamilton St, Madison, WI 53703
1201 Williamson St, Madison, WI 53703
101 N Hamilton St, Madison, WI 53703
617 Williamson St, Madison, WI 53703
206 State St, Madison, WI 53703
1805 Monroe St, Madison, WI 53711
Poppa Coronofoulos Gyros & Chicago Style Deli
4426 E Buckeye Rd, Madison, WI 53716
116 S Hamilton St, Madison, WI 53703
1923 Monroe St, Madison, WI 53711
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