I’m a Chicago transplant that has been living in Madison for 11 years. I think you pretty much nailed it, although you left out the entire Monroe Street neighboorhood which has lots of amazing things to do. First, let’s talk about the food: Brassarie V, Gates and Brovi, Pizza Brutta, Jaqs. There’s Vilas Park and the Zoo, the Arboretum, Orange Tree Imports…
Next time you’re in Madison, I recommend you head to this neighborhood. I’ll even buy you a drink (I don’t consider them too sweet…or is it that they’ve just grown on me?).
Hi Vicky! I will take you up on that offer. I’ve been to Monroe Street and liked it but would love a local tour. Also, maybe I order the wrong drinks?! Although, in my defense, several times I have asked for the least sweet drink on the menu and still been surprised by the sweetness. Wisconsin residency changes the palate? (Also (!): Jenny and Matt built your site! Nice!)
You make me want to visit Madison. Sure Venice is nice, Paris, Tokyo – but there’s so much PRESSURE to DO when you tour the hot spots! The laid back 5 lake front charm of liberal Madison you describe here is mighty appealing to me. Who can argue with the best farmers market in the country!
It’s been awhile since my grad school days there, but I would also add Alchemy, Batch bakery, Glass Nickel, Sophia’s and Mickey’s (East side) for brunch, mostly because of there Bloody Mary. Excited to try your faves, Tim! I reread your honeymoon post every time I go to London. :)
Yes! We’ve been living in Madison for almost five years now, though we will be moving back to MN soon. Besides our friends, the biggest thing we will miss here is the food and the culture surrounding it (and, of course, the beer). I agree with Vicky on Monroe Street-some great restaurants and little shops. Bluephies has our favorite brunch in the area. The New Glarus brewery isn’t far from here either, and worth a stop for a tasting in their amazing (and extensive) outdoor space.
Totally fell in love with Madison the one time I visited. The farmer’s market in front of the Capitol building was amazing. I had some bakery’s famous cheese bread, which is one of the best things I’ve ever eaten.
Oh no! How dare you share the best kept secret with the masses? ;)
A few things missed, in my humble former-Milwaukeean-turned-Chicagoan opinion (though, my husband and I did “honeymoon” in Madison…) I’m all for the Chocolate Shoppe, but I think Babcock Hall ice cream from the union while sitting on the terrace is just the best thing ever. And, the Mansion Hill B&B is pretty $$$ but its super lovely and breakfast is from Madison Sourdough, so, win win!
Yes! Love this list. It makes me want to hop on a plane now. My husband is from not-far Iowa City and almost went to school in Madison. This city has been on our list of places to visit for some time, and now we know where to go once we’re there! Long live cheese curds and beer.
I moved to Madison for grad school 9 years ago…it’s really easy to drag out the process with such a nice place to live.
The first thing I’d add to this list is MEDITERRANEAN CAFE. I’ve had the spinach cheese pie twice a week for years. And the guy who runs the place is so nice.
I’d also second Brasserie V.
I’m less enthusiastic about many of the major foodie establishments in the area (all the Underground businesses, Graze, Heritage Tavern, Pig in a Fur Coat, etc.) because they’re so incredibly meat-heavy. For the “classic Wisconsin” stuff, I actually prefer the bigger menus at the Old Fashioned and The Great Dane. There are also tons of ethnic restaurants worth checking out, including several solid Lao places.
There are several good taquerias on the west side, including Guadalajara, La Mestiza (cheap cactus tacos!), and a constantly-under-new-managements place at Midvale and the Beltline. This last place is right by Le Tigre, a dive bar that must be experienced to be believed (it’s completely stuffed with tiger decor and doodads). Guadalajara is not far from a new-ish and very good Chinese bakery. There’s a brand-new Mexican place (El Sabor de Puebla) on Willy Street that’s pretty good.
New Seoul Korean recently moved way out West, almost to Middleton, but they’re worth a trip.
David’s Jamaican, which I think is actually in Monona, has an extensive and reliable Friday dinner buffet.
Ichiban (which is, confusingly, Chinese) is not my cup of tea, but it’s definitely the place to go for Sichuan cuisine. Wah Kee is good and has homemade noodles.
Also: Lombardino’s, Sophia’s, 4 & 20 (it now has New Orleans-style iced coffee w/chicory), Banzo, Manna Cafe, Mermaid Cafe (banh meatless = sandwich of the century!), The Weary Traveler.
And for cheap late-night pizza on State Street, I actually like Pizza di Roma.
If you want a wonderful little country drive, take Highway 18 to Jefferson and go to Wedl’s Hamburger Stand & Ice Cream Shop. (It’s also near a drive-in movie theater.)
AMC- Thanks for all of those recs. I’ve been to a lot of them, and considered including a couple on this list. I’m always disappointed in the Old Fashioned, though I know it is well-loved. I hate the space and crowds and just think the food is OK. I like Weary Traveler, but again I think the food is average. But you know, it was just a list of my favorite places so there will be limits anyway. I never found Forequarter to be meat-heavy, though I agree that it can be a focus at some of the other places you mentioned…though that isn’t a problem for me in either case. And coming from Chicago, I might be spoiled by access to great Mexican food. Anyway, thanks for taking the time to share. I look forward to trying!
I wish I had known you were here. Did you forget Granpa’s Pizzeria nextdoor to Gib’s? They do magical things there and grow much of the produce for the restaurant in raised beds in the back yard. I’m so glad you included mention of the Solidarity Singalong. I hope you let us know you were there that day and got a welcome shout-out!
Thank you! We lived outside Madison for 6 years and have been in Massachusetts for 7. Boy, do we miss the amazing food, beer, and atmosphere in and around Madison. Gail Ambrosius chocolate is so amazing, we order it for special occasions. I concur with others regarding Himal Chuli. Your review indicates how much the city and its dining has evolved over these last years, which is exciting. Though I imagine I could go there this Saturday and see many of the same vendors at the Market. And I would feel at home. That was one of our very favorite things to do–go to the Saturday Market. Again, thank you.
Great post, thank you! My boyfriend and I loved Madison when we visited last March. We found a bakery called Batch Bakehouse that you might want to add to your list of places to try. I’m keeping your list handy for next time we’re there too!
I hate to break it to you, but “Burn”ie’s isn’t really a rock shop. It is a front for essentially a marijuana boutique, hence the name, the crystals laid out in a marijuana shape, and the dozens of teenagers in pajamas and hoodies who need to buy crystals from 7:30am to 10:30pm…
Good roundup! I’ve been in Madison for three years and have been in love every second of that time. I have to second some nods to Brasserie V for their beer selection (their menu needs to change though) and would encourage you to visit Oliver’s Public House for excellent drinks and brunch. It’s relatively new (opened in the fall) but my husband and I are there almost every weekend. We’ve never had a bad thing.
Bluephie’s is okay but I think you can do better in Madison (e.g., Sardine). I did have a killer shishito pepper and chorizo pizza at Grampa’s the last time I went to Gibs. If you haven’t been, definitely go. Or maybe their pizza is always good because it comes after a drink or two at Gibs … ? If you and Vicky want a tagalong to eat your scraps as you roll your way from restaurant to restaurant the next time you’re in town, I’m your girl.
I’ve recently become convinced that Wisconsin has one of the strongest regional food cultures in the country. I can’t say I’m a fan of all of it (not such a huge fan of brandy Manhattans but their beer is tops) but I respect the hell out of it. Love that farmers market around the capitol. As a Chicagoan I’m jealous.
You should check out Old Sugar Distillery on the near east side! They make yummy cocktails with house made spirits crafted from local ingredients. The cocktails are very reasonably priced, and they have great outdoor seating!
Shannon- thanks! I am looking forward to our food tour. ; )
Courtney- Ah, yes, it is totally on our list. We were at Fete de Marquette a couple of weeks ago and almost walked over. Will go next time for sure.
We moved to Madison 6 years ago and I think you nailed it. Loved your opening photo, I’m a reader of bumper stickers (yes, I’m the crazy lady who gets just a bit too close so I can read the back of your car) and Madison never fails to amuse. As an East Coast transplant I thank Salvatore’s Tomato Pies for rescuing me from the mundane. Have you seen their motto, All Wisco No Sysco? And I have to agree, whoever first thought to put Korbel Brandy in an Old Fashioned needs to be punished. Sweet is one word for it. There are others…
Love it! Great write up. I suggest you make it up for Yum Yum Fest in August if you can, it seems like it would be right up your alley! Now off to convince my husband we need a night out to try Layla’s…
I second the recommendation for Mansion Hill Inn – although it is expensive, it is really lovely, and is in walking distance to the farmer’s market (unless you’re three, and then I recommend a stroller).
Folks recommending the Mansion Hill Inn: I’d love to hear more. Is it really worth the $100-$200 a night MORE than you would spend at other hotels in town? The prices have always made me skeptical. I’ve stayed at some pretty spectacular hotels for $380 a night. I want to be convinced…..; )
Tim, did you know that there is a Chocolate Shoppe outpost in Edgebrook (on Devon, between Pulaski and Central)??? I haven’t seen the blueberry flavor that you mention, but the lemon meringue is summer encapsulated!
Another Chicago native turned Madison transplant – 13 years and counting for me!
While I have a soft spot for New Glarus, if you want beer that runs a little bit hoppier, there are a ton of Madison locals that have tastier beer than Spotted Cow (sacrilegious!): Ale Asylum, Karben4, One Barrel and Next Door to name a few!
+1 for Sardine, Batch Bakehouse, Mickey’s and Alchemy, and Mermaid Cafe in the Atwood neighborhood is a great little shop in my hood.
VOM FASS, an oil and vinegar (and barrel aged whiskey) shop is great, and they’ve just added a State Street location. It is a chain, but a chain without a Chicago (or hardly any major city, it appears) location.
Also want to second Vicky’s reco on Orange Tree Imports – Madison’s original (and crammed to the gills with good stuff) kitchen store!
Love Madison and will jot some of these ideas down for our next visit.
Nostrano’s and Grampas (connected with Gibs) was a hit when we visited last weekend.
Lombardino’s for old school vibe, but terrific Italian food. Ready for another road trip!
We tend to overlook small cities as destinations, but I have found some great things happening in towns like Lexington, KY- Des Moines-etc.
Keri- That is so funny. I have been to that ice cream shop and never realized it is the same, though I always enjoyed their ice cream.
Kim- I need to go back to Nostrano. I enjoyed my meal there, but wanted to enjoy it more. I’ll try again next time I am there.
Allison- I definitely don’t want hoppier! Yikes. I think we have different beer palates. ; ) But I have liked Ale Asylum and Karben4 for sure. Sardine is another place I maybe need to try again. But mostly, Allison, I want to talk about VOM FASS. Are Bryan and I the only people who think that sounds like cutesy talk for “Vomit Fast”?! As in “OMG, I gotta vom fas”. We were so horrified by the name that we just couldn’t.
Thanks for all of the recommendations! I’m looking forward to my next visit.
On the Mansion Hill Inn, I think we’ve paid about $260 a night staying in the fall. I think it’s worth the extra $100-$150, but I really dislike the chain hotel experience, so I might be biased. If you’re really just going for the food and you don’t mind generic hotels, then it’s probably not worth it, but for me, the place I’m staying tends to greatly impact my enjoyment of a vacation (even if it’s just a weekend), so I think it’s worth the splurge.
Thanks, Mindy! I am usually in agreement and seek out nice hotels. Last time we looked the only rooms available were $300+, which seemed sort of crazy to me for anywhere in the Midwest (including Chicago)…but maybe it was a popular time. We’ll try it at some point.
Love the first “cover” photo on this post because it says so much about Madison. People are passionate there! I lived in Madison for three years for graduate school, and then came here to Chicago. I miss it, and there’s a few places on your list I haven’t gone to that I will be sure to check out the next time I visit. Lastly, I am 100% with all you Weary Traveler fans.
Hi. I’m a little late, but really enjoyed the post. I have lived in Madison twice (long ago and for the last few years) and do enjoy so many of the places you mentioned. I also loved the first photo. This is the only place I have lived where people go so crazy with bumper stickers!
I would add that the Old Fashioned has an amazing special on Mondays, 2 for 1 burgers a la carte. Get an order of cheese curds and some beer and you are set on a budget!
A great little Thai place on the far east side is Sala Thai on Fair Oaks has lovely ambiance and is run by a sweet family. Cash only, but the best seasoning and heat that I have had in Madison. (I got hooked on amazing Thai food after many years in California and this gets really close).
Fun diner breakfasts (nothing fancy) at the Curve on Park St. with a pancake bigger than a dinner plate.
If you want a nice toasted bagel for 48 cents or something crazy like that, go to the Bagels Forever factory store on University near UW hospital.
Near there across the street is La Brioche that has delicious pastries to go, as well as a sit-down section with great quiche.
But if I can offer one place you didn’t mention (maybe you were trying to keep the secret!), it’s the Italian Workmen’s Club (aka Greenbush Bar) on Regent Street. You might ask if you are at the right place, but just head downstairs. You feel like you might be in a restaurant in the Village or in some kind of converted basement with Christmas lights on the ceiling. Great pizzas and nice vibe.
For your store sections, thanks for giving so much love in your post to Johnson St! The Cork and Bottle wine shop has wine tastings on Saturdays from 3pm-6pm, a great selection of wines and local beers, as well as great owners and employees who are very friendly. Worth checking out if you are in town for the weekend.
And I marvel at Woodman’s every week when I go there for groceries. God forbid you forget something at the other end of the store!!!
How timely! I’ve just moved back to Wisco (where I am from) after a 15 year hiatus. I live in a small town about 2 hours away and plan to use Madison as my city-fix with great frequency. Headed there this weekend and I am very much looking forward to scoping out a few of these spots. I’ll have a rambunctious toddler in tow so the fancy spots will have to wait but the pizza, coffee, beer, outdoor time and coolers of food to go is happening. Thank you!
Most of my family now lives in Madison so we visit a couple times of year. My husband and I have fallen in love with Madison and can’t wait to go back to eat and drink our way around town. Madison has so many awesome restaurants and of course craft beer!!
Came to your site circuitously and immediately found your Madison post. A native of the Southwest, I spent a wonderful 3 years in my twenties in Madison and grew to love everything about that city and state. Came back frequently to visit really great in-laws.
Woodmans is in IL as well…but without the New Glarus, unfortunately. Also, the coolest thing (I think) about Madison’s farmer’s market is you MUST produce/make/grow etc what you sell. It’s all direct, which probably accounts for the lower prices compared to those in Chicago. I hate when I get to a market and see oranges. Ain’t no way they were grown in the midwest (although they are generally marked grown in FL, so it’s somewhat transparent). And the best is when they have the grocery store stickers on them. Le sigh.
Hi Jess- Chicago’s largest farmers market is also producer-only, but much more expensive. I think the lower cost is due to a variety of reasons. And yes, for me, Woodmans just isn’t the same without New Glarus. ; )
Hi Tim! I just stumbled across your website (found the link thanks to Smitten Kitchen’s ‘Good Reads’ link (thanks Deb!) and then promptly found myself reading this article on my favorite town in the US. I’m a Wisconsin transplant and self-proclaimed ‘Madisonian’ and I love this land. Your article has hit the nail on the head! The restaurant scene in Madison has changed me into a foodie, and you’ve listed most of my favorite spots. May I suggest a new addition to the downtown area? Tory Miller (of Graze, L’Etoile, Sujeo) has opened a new Spanish tapas restaurant close to State Street called Estrellon. I would highly recommend dinner here on your next trip…the food is lovely. Also, one of my favorite spots is Grampa’s Pizzaria; it’s very close to home and one of my favorite places to eat (although Sal’s is about to win my heart over with their pizza pies and outdoor seating right next to Johnson Public House). Regardless, Grampa’s is worth a try if you’ve never been. Thanks for the glowing review of our beautiful city!
My husband was born and raised in Madison. We visit his family (with our 3 children) every summer for at least 2 weeks! If we were to move anywhere, it would be there! I loved all of your suggestions and also you hit a few I haven’t been to yet. A few I would add are Lombardino’s – an institution in Madison which has fantastic Italian food – and Colectivo Coffee on Monroe St. One of the finest lattes in the city! Yum! Can’t wait to get back to Madison!!