I think my editor loves me and likes to see me suffer, by giving me some of the most taste-tempting culinary writing assignments imaginable: The flavors of Finland, Barbecue, and the Caribbean, among others. This time, though, I can’t blame him, because it was me who recently visited and absolutely fell in love with Madison, Wisconsin, and practically begged him for the chance to extol the virtues of this amazing gastronomic town.
Trust me, this goes far beyond merely telling you which are the best restaurants, what the locals eat and where you can get the most bang for your dining buck. Madison – and in many respects the whole state of Wisconsin – has been utilizing the farm-to-table concept long before it garnered its own celebrated following in nearly every major city across the U.S.
From “homegrown” heroes to James Beard award winners, amazing niche food producers, Mom ‘n pop proprietors and everything in between, you’ll find that Madison is a must for any foodophile.
A Winning Recipe
Who knows if there ever was a winning recipe that started Madison’s food genesis, or if timing really is everything? Long-time Madison food connoisseurs will tell you that it goes back to the famed but now defunct Ovens of Brittany restaurant that was ahead of its time. Co-founded by Joanna Guthrie and Odessa Piper in 1972, this landmark restaurant is credited with birthing numerous well regarded Madison area chefs, found all over the dining scene here, each one serving up their own unique menus and flavors.
Take chef and co-proprietor Tory Miller of L’Etoile (formerly started by Piper), acclaimed for creating French inspired multi-course menus. Then there’s Tami Lax who founded Harvest Restaurant, lauded as one of America’s best farm-to-table restaurants by Gourmet and The Old Fashioned, inspired by the traditions of Wisconsin taverns and supper clubs. Since my visit I haven’t stopped raving about Graze, where the wide array of comfort food classics raised the bar on gastropub fare by focusing on meats from grass-fed animals.
At Cooper’s Tavern I salivated over their outstanding Canadian and European inspired entrees with a Wisconsin twist. Think Poutine, Irish rashers, bangers, black and white pudding and Dubliner cheddar mac and cheese all of which paired wonderfully with their over 200 beers, pilsners, ales, wines and scotches.
And for those who follow James Beard award winners and nominees, there’s Sardine with John Gadau and Phillip Hurley, A Pig in a Fur Coat with Dan Bonanno and Nostrano with pastry chef Elizabeth Dahl, all sure to make your “Best of” list.
My own “Best of” list now includes Captain Bill’s, voted locally as “Best Seafood Restaurant” and nationally as one of the best casual restaurants in America by The Food Network. The out of this world clam chowder, pan-seared Walleye, stuffed tilapia, broiled haddock and fresh oysters here are not to be missed.
For a listing of over a dozen of Madison’s “who’s who” of favorite eateries, check out Food Fight Restaurant Group, which highlights establishments with unique menus and ambience.
In the Beginning
Where it all began is the thread that holds the gastronomic terrain together here – on the farm. That’s where Dane County Farmers’ Market – a well-established tradition and an integral player in the Madison foodie culture since 1972 – really shines. The market is one of the largest and finest farmers markets in the country with 18,000 visitors every week, as well as the largest producer-only farmer’s market in the U.S. This means that the grower is also the seller, and everything here must be grown or produced within the state of Wisconsin. You can’t get more local than that.
The passion that goes into every one of the 160+ vendor booths every week really shows – from the grass-fed meats to the fresh fruit and vegetables, herbs and spices, breads and pastries, honeys and marinades, jellies and jams and of course, the staggering number of specialty cheeses – a Wisconsin staple .
And speaking of cheese, both passing fans and aficionados will find oodles of varieties to suit their fancy at several noteworthy purveyors. Fromagination—a play on fromage, the French word for cheese, is a specialty cheese shop featuring 60 Wisconsin artisanal cheeses as well as cheeses from around the world. And The Wisconsin Cheeseman sells quality cheese, cheese spreads, chocolates, meats, pastries and more using recipes passed down for generations.
I enjoyed a superb cheese plate at The Wise Restaurant and Bar inside Hotel Red, Madison’s first truly stylish boutique hotel and restaurant whose classic shared and small plates feature more than two dozen local food suppliers and more than 45 local farms. And while we’re still talking about the “Dairy State,” we have to mention two of Madison’s long standing ice cream shops—Babcock Hall Dairy Store and Sassy Cow Creamery.
Babcock Hall Dairy Store, located on the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus, is primarily known for ice creams, sherbets and frozen yogurts. But their plant also produces award winning cheeses and bottled milk. Sassy Cow Creamery is a farmstead milk bottling business with its own store where fans can purchase ice cream, milk, and other dairy products.
And we all know that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Some of the most popular places to kick your body engine into gear are Marigold Kitchen with their Berkshire ham, artichoke and spinach breakfast sandwich, Mickies Dairy Bar with their French toast flotilla, Daisy Café and Cupcakery, known for signature egg Stratas and the Batch Bakehouse specializing in made-from-scratch breads and pastries.
One Delicious Bite at a Time
Can’t decide where to go or what to try? Madison Food Explorers has you covered. They offer culinary walking tours of the city’s savory neighborhoods where visitors “discover hidden Madison restaurants, taste local, fresh Madison food and learn about Madison’s history, architecture and culture.”
Some of their stops, which offer meal size portions, include Brocach on Monroe (Wisconsin is the Badger State and Brocach is Gaelic for “badger den”), a cozy and authentic Irish restaurant and pub; Ian’s Pizza, popular for unusual variations like lasagna marinara, chicken cordon bleu and sausage penne Alfredo; and Brasserie V, a neighborhood eatery and tap room.
I’ve gonna have to put down my knife and fork, ‘cause I’m bursting at the seams, worse than after the Thanksgiving meal when everyone’s belly-up on the floor with their waistbands unclasped. But Madison was so worth the indulgence and any extra pounds I may have put on “in the spirit.” It’s one of the best American culinary cities that you have to explore for yourself.
Where to Find the Goods:
A Pig in a Fur Coat- 608-316-3300, www.apiginafurcoat.com
Babcock Hall Dairy Store – 608-262-3045, www.babcockhalldairystore.wisc.edu
Batch Bakehouse – 608-257-1652, www.batchbakehouse.com
Brasserie V – 608-255-8500, www.brasseriev.com
Brocach on Monroe – 608-819-8653, www.brocach.com/mmonroe/home.html
Captain Bill’s – 608-831-7327, www.capbills.com
Daisy Café and Cupcakery – 608-241-2200, www.daisycafeandcupcakery.com
Dane County Farmers’ Market – 608-455-1999, www.dcfm.org
Food Fight Restaurant Group – 608-246-2719, www.foodfightinc.com
Fromagination – 608-255-2430, www.fromagination.com
Graze – 608-251-2700, www.grazemadison.com
Harvest Restaurant – 608-255-6075, www.harvest-restaurant.com
Ian’s Pizza - 608-257-9248, www.ianspizza.com
L’Etoile Restaurant – 608-251-0500, www.letoile-restaurant.com
Madison Food Explorers – 608-444-3050, www.madisonfoodexplorers.com
Marigold Kitchen – 608-661-5559, www.marigoldkitchen.com
Mickie’s Dairy Barn – 608-256-9476
Nostrano – 608-395-3295, www.nostranomadison.com
Sardine – 608-441-1600, www.sardinemadison.com
Sassy Cow Creamery – 608-837-776, www.sassycowcreamery.com
The Cooper’s Tavern – 608-256-1600, www.thecooperstavern.com
The Greater Madison Convention and Visitors Bureau – 608-255-2537, www.visitmadison.com
The Old Fashioned – 608-310-4545, www.theoldfashioned.com
The Wise Restaurant and Bar at Hotel Red – www.hotelred.com/eat-drink
The Wisconsin Cheeseman – 800-698-1721, www.wisconsincheeseman.com