Madison, Wisconsin

This summer Lottie + Doof is hitting the road and exploring the Midwest. Like too many Chicagoans, I don’t leave the city often enough to visit the surrounding area. This summer I’m in search of good food and good times and I’ll be taking you along for the ride. Next Stop: Madison, Wisconsin.

I never knew Madison was so cool. The capital of Wisconsin and home of the University of Wisconsin, Madison is a vibrant town that manages to feel both like a small town and a city and seems to offer the best of both worlds. It is situated on an isthmus in the middle of a few lakes (Bryan would like me to point out that the only other U.S. city located on an isthmus is Seattle). Being surrounded by water means there are pretty views and plenty of water-based recreational activities. Madison is an easy breezy drive from Chicago through rolling farmland and a great destination for a summer road trip.
We arrived before lunch to met our friend Deb at The Old Fashioned and enjoyed a pretty fantastic meal of fried cheese curds, beer and cheese soup, and brats. This is the Wisconsin I know and love. The meal was a perfect start to our time in Madison.

Next stop was Fromagination, which is a silly name for the best cheese shop I have been to in the Midwest. An incredibly well-stocked and curated cheese selection was complimented by an equally impressive selection of prepared foods and kitchen goods. We spent over an hour sampling cheeses and learning more about cheese production in Wisconsin. We also had our lives forever changed by the cheeses of Willi Lerner from Bleu Mont Dairy. Willi Lerner’s bandaged cheddar is nothing short of extraordinary and one of the most wonderful things I have ever eaten. Seriously people, if you have access to this cheese you need to be eating it right now.

We managed to stop eating for a few hours to explore other parts of the city. Context is a men’s clothing store that I had heard good things about. I wasn’t prepared for it to be as wonderful as it was. A really excellent selection of clothes that was much closer to what I would expect to find in Los Angeles or New York than in Wisconsin—there certainly isn’t anything like it in Chicago. More than the merchandise, the staff was really welcoming and ready to discuss clothing with you—and not in a stupid way. I loved this place.
We also visited the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art which was hosting its Triennial of Art, a collection of significant contemporary art from across the state. Although the quality of the work varied a great deal, it was overall an impressive showing and a nice way to spend part of the afternoon.

L’Etoile is probably Madison’s best known restaurant. It has been around since the 1970s and is often referred to as the Chez Panisse of the Midwest. It is dedicated to using the highest quality, local, organic ingredients.  It was a pretty incredible meal and I recommend saving your dough to give this place a try.

The main reason we wanted to visit Madison was for the legendary Dane County Farmer’s Market which takes place on the square around the capital every Saturday morning. This is the largest producer-only market in the states and features a huge selection of vendors selling a really nice range of goods. I was impressed by the crowds of people shopping at the market as well as the diversity of products.  I found oddities like sumac, grape leaves, hickory nuts (more on them soon!), and elder flowers as well as all of the expected early summer fruits and vegetables. We  spent a couple of hours at the market, sampling foods and talking to vendors. Madison residents are  lucky to have this amazing source for food.

We were both impressed by Madison and are anxious to return for more fun. I hope to get to the market on a more regular basis and I look forward to further adventures in Wisconsin cheese, which might actually be the best thing in the world.

[Above, our haul.]


The Old Fashioned



Madison Museum of Contemporary Art


Dane County Farmers’ Market

Bleu Mont Dairy

27 comments to “Madison, Wisconsin”

  1. Ooh, I’ve always wanted to go to Madison. It seems like such a great little town. After seeing these photos, and thinking about all the cheese there is to taste, it’s just been pushed higher on my gotta-get-there list. As a NYer, I’m loving your peak into the Midwest, a strange and distant land to me.

  2. So glad you had a great time in Madison Tim!! Next time you’re at the market try the 10-year-old cheddar from Hook’s and the ash-covered goat cheese from Fantome…so good.

  3. Hi Kira! I did try the Hook’s (which was amazing, but honestly the Bleu Mont spoiled me for other cheddars) and will look out for the goat. Thanks!

  4. Oh, I’m so glad you enjoyed Madison! I lived there for 6 years before moving to Chicago, and after 7 years in Chicago, I still miss it terribly. In fact, my old boss is the owner of Fromagination!

    Next time you’re there you should try Himal Chuli for Nepali food, Michael’s for frozen custard, and see how the cheese curds at Blue Moon stack up against the ones from the Old Fashioned. Also, cocktails at Genna’s and dinner at Harvest (L’Etoile’s main competition).

  5. Thanks, Jodi! Glad to have more recommendations for return visits. I have heard good things about Himal Chuli and it is definitely on the list.

  6. I, too, visited Madison briefly for the first time in June, and came away with a little crush on the place. If it weren’t for those freezing winters!! We had a terrific friend-guided tour of the capitol, the Frank Loyd Wright Menona Terrace, and downtown area. Charming and cool all at once. And those cheeses are pretty incredible.

    My favorite thing about Madison, though, was roasting marshmallows and making s’mores amid fireflies in in the back yard of My Baby’s grad-school friends, whom I was meeting for the first time. THAT was fun!

    Thanks for the suggestions for exploring when we are able to return there from the west coast.

  7. Glad you loved Madison. I lived there for 2 years during grad school and there’s no where else like it. Next time I would suggest renting bikes and trying out the fantastic bike paths. I also highly recommend The Weary Traveler on Williamson St. (Bob’s bad breath burger is the best) and some chocolates from Gail Ambrosius over in the Atwood neighborhood!

  8. Grew up 25 miles south of Madison and graduated from UW-Madison. You are so right, Madison has much to offer … one visit will just whet your appetite for more. Definitely a cool city even in the heat of July and August. Thanks for the trip down memory lane … I don’t get back there often enough!

  9. Love these travel posts. I must know – what variety are those beautiful peachy-pink mushrooms? The color is amazing, I’ve never seen anything like them.

  10. Never been to Madison or the state of Wisconson. Thank you for sharing your adventures – you put a whole new spin on the city. Looks like a cool city with great amenities . Look forward to hearing about the hickory nuts!

  11. Oh! Glad you got a tub of the Driftless sheep’s milk cheese (did you get to try the lavender/honey?)! So glad you came! I’m a server at L’Etoile and wanted you to hit Madison as soon as I saw you were doing a Midwestern tour…you can come back anytime, and I’m happy to be a tour guide, if need be! (or, just buy you a refreshing cocktail, somewhere!) Agreed on Bandaged Cheddar, Himal Chuli and the Weary Traveler, too. Lots of fun to be had. And also, if you like Willi’s cheese, check out Jeanne Carpenter’s blog: There is a Wisconsin Originals Cheese Festival in November; maybe another road trip? Thanks for coming!

  12. Hi Dawn, I unfortunately don’t remember anything about the mushrooms. Maybe someone else will know. They sure are pretty….

    Nancy- Yes, I tried a bunch of the Driftless varieties, they are wonderful. Fun that you are a server at L’Etoile! How is the new space? I’ll be curious to check it out when I return. Thanks for sending that blog, and yes I’ll be in touch for more recommendations when I plan a return visit. Thanks so much for writing.

  13. If you’d been a few weeks earlier, you would have hit the market during sour cherry season – and I know how you like your sour cherries.

    It looks like you got a lot of my favorites at the market – Bleu Mont Dairy is wonderful! I’m guessing you’ve tried Pleasant Ridge Reserve? They have a pretty wide distribution, so you may have stumbled upon that fabulous WI cheese in Chicago.

    Hmmm…other delights from our fair city? Enjoying a beer on the Memorial Terrace on a Saturday evening, jerk salmon from David’s Jamaican, a cinnamon roll from Renaissance Farms (at the market), pie at Monty’s Blue Plate, breakfast at Lazy Jane’s, and anything from Lao Laan Xang. Hope you come back soon!

  14. A very favorite restaurant is L’Etoile!!! Always ate there when Minnesota was playing Wisconsin in Madison. Many happy memories. Especially the hand muddled Old Fashions.

  15. Its ridiculous that I’ve never even thought about traveling to Wisconsin before. Silly me, they’re home to cheese and gorgeous streetscapes. Looks like a fantastic trip thus far!

  16. Madison is pretty cool (my husband went to school there). Milwaukee (I went to school there!) is equally cool and has great farmer’s markets! Both cities are underrated foodie destinations.

  17. I am so inspired to visit Madison! I live about 45 minutes from the Wisconsin state line, have in-laws who live maybe 45 minutes from there, and spend lots of time in Wisco, and yet I’ve never been to its capital. For shame! I’m hoping to convince my husband that a trip is in order. Thanks for such a wonderful post!

  18. I lived in Madison for 3 years and loved it—the pies at the Blue Plate are fantastic! I miss it so much, but am only a couple hours away. I’d like to get to the Farmer’s market in the fall.

  19. I’m glad you enjoyed your trip to Madison, I’ve lived here for 6 years and in Wisconsin most of my life and it is definitely a great place to live to enjoy really fresh local ingredients, although we are known for our cheeses we also have some great meat and produce suppliers and an abundance of organic farmers in the area, so I definitely recommend a repeat visit. Some other restaurant suggestions are Natt Spil, for a great bar atmosphere a block off the square, Magnus which recently changed their menu to specialize in Scandinavian modern cuisine, which personally I’m a huge fan of, the wild boar and duck are highly recommended. Madison is also known for a variety of great south east asian restaurants because of a substantial Hmong community, some of my personal favorites are Ha Long Bay on Willy Street, and Lao Laan Zang in the Atwood neighborhood. We also have some great breakfast spots such as Sophia’s which is only open on the weekends and is always packed to the brim but you never mind waiting because of the amazing home made pastries and waffles. Sardine and Marigold are a couple more great brunch spots, owned by the same 2 guys they have brunch down and always have special quiche and omelet options, Sardine is also open for dinner which is another great meal, but more of a spendy option. Ok I think I’m getting a little carried away but I get pretty excited about eating out in my hometown.

  20. Are you on your way to Minneapolis now? Because, well, you HAVE to go to Bar La Grassa. And send me an email if you do and I’d love to meet you there. As ever, love your site. Have a great road trip! You continue to inspire me. I’ve never been to Madison and I’ve lived just a day’s drive away from it for 8 years now. L’Etoile and authentic cheese curds might just have sealed the deal for me.

  21. my boyfriend’s sister married an american and is now living in chicago. hope we can visit them soon and hopefully make a trip to madison then :)!

  22. While on a road trip with a friend about 10 years ago,my husband visited Madison. He hasn’t stopped talking about it since. It’s become the benchmark for great towns of that size. We’re Canadians so unfortunately it’s not really possible for us to make it our home.
    There’s a dearth of similar sized places with as much to offer here, no Madison of our own.
    Just for the record, we’ve made it our mission to travel from one end of the country (Canada) to the other looking for great places (and I havn’t really met anywhere I hate), so fellow Canucks, don’t think I’m down on home.

  23. Is Milwaukee on the list? Surprisingly satisfying cute town. La Perla has some tasty Mexican food, if I recall correctly. And don’t miss the art museum! There’s also a wonderful lunch place (arg, can’t remember the name) with delish coleslaw sans mayo, more of an Asian flair, a local will know the name of the place!

  24. I just discovered your blog (which I will definitely be coming back to!), and I was so excited to see this post! I am a student in Madison, and I have fallen in love with the wonderful food scene here. Thanks for offering such a great portrait of my city!

  25. I’m so glad that you had a good time! Your photos capture Madison in such a lovely way. As a native, I am so lucky to live in Madison and thankful that I live in a city that continuously works to improve itself. One of our weekly food-eating staples is the Ironworks Cafe in the Goodman Community Center. Fresh, local ingredients cooked by teenagers as part of a work/study program. It’s top-notch, affordable, and smile enducing.

    I agree with the recommendations above – Madison is a great place to eat your way around. In addition to the Wisconsin Original Cheese Festival, coming back during the Wisconsin Film Festival is always a great time. 5 days and 200+ films = thousands of dreamy film-goers.

  26. michael_ames says:

    October 25th, 2010 at 9:29 pm

    It looks like you have lots of suggestions for a future visit, but I have to recommend one more:
    The Greenbush Bar is a magical place.
    Squirreled away under an Italian social club, this restaurant serves some of the best pizza in town and has wonderful pasta dishes as well. And it’s not the typical red-sauce joint (though I hold those dear as well) – the restaurant has a real focus on quality, local ingredients and it shows in the food.

    I actually find Madison a little too perfect to actually live there.

  27. Just saw this – I’ve lived in Madison for the past four years, and we’re trying to figure out a way to never leave. I second the recommendations for Gail Ambrosia’s chocolates, and the Weary Traveler. You also must spend a summer evening at the Union Terrace, enjoying a pitcher of WI brew and the gorgeous view of the lake, while listening to a free show. It’s a summertime tradition.

What do you think?