This post was originally published in March 2015 and revised in Sept 2019 and August 2021 after return visits to Madison.
Wisconsin’s capital city of Madison has a blossoming food scene that is recognized throughout the Midwest as a pioneer in farm-to-table, ingredient focused cuisine. Madison is the city taught me how to be a foodie. I lived there for 8 years before moving south to Chicago for a new job.
My passion for delicious food began at the Dane County Farmer’s Market. I started volunteering as a DCFM assistant, attending the market every Saturday for 2 years. I got to know the farmers and which foods were in season at what times of the year. I really began to understand how chefs could get inspiration from the ingredients themselves. My culinary awakening alligned with the larger farm-to-table movement that was spreading throughout Madison’s restaurants.
From those humble beginnings, I have become a full-fledged foodie. Even though I have eaten at incredible Michelin star restaurants, I never forget that Madison is where my food obsession began. I have tried just about every restaurant in Madison at least once. The foodiest restaurants tend to cluster in the downtown Isthmus area as well as the near east side along the Washington Street cooridor, so it’s easy to explore many of them by foot or bicycle.
Sardine offers hands down the best brunch in the city, and without fail, I eat here on every.single.visit to Madison. It is popular, so you can expect to wait if you do not make a reservation in advance. The ambiance in this restaurant is to die for, thanks to the airy and subway tiled space on the edge of lake Monona. It is easy to let the hours slip away here while sipping on drinks with friends inside Sardine. I am in love with the crab cakes and I order them every time. But I’ve also had the brie omelettes and the baked eggs, both of which are delightful. Make sure to order frites on the side — they are delicious!
This is a place where you can come to eat, or just to pick up some of the most delicious bread in the city! If you come from breakfast, I am a huge fan of the biscuits and gravy, because the biscuit is crunchy on the outside but soft on the inside, so it doesn’t get soggy in the gravy.I also enjoy the Bacon & Egg Firratto, which similar to a thick grits with a creamy Parmesan cheese sauce. Another personal favorite is the potato hash. Cooked in duck fat, the potatoes are well seasoned and fried crispy!
Lunch & Snacks
Tucked away on a quiet street off of State Street, Paul’s Pelmeni offers a unique option in Madison — Russian cuisine! Pelmenis are a Russian style dumplings that are typically filled with meat and paired with sour cream. The menu at Paul’s Pelmeni has choices like beef or potato dumplings which you can, and should, order with “The Works”. Your dumplings will show up topped with butter, curry powder, sweet chili sauce, cilantro, and sour cream on the side. They are piping hot and a perfect late night meal or quick lunch on the go!
Banzo, which started as a food truck, quickly turned into a brick-and-mortar restaurant in 2011 because the demand for their delicious Mediterranean food outpaced what they could supply from the cart. This place is so tasty that one of my close friend’s even had it at her wedding! I always wind up ordering the falafel, but the menu also has locally sourced lamb, sweet potato falafel and pillowy pita wraps.
One of my favorite new openings in Madison is the Heights on the near-west side of the city. Serving New American bistro cuisine, this daytime eatery is brought to you by Underground Food Collective of Forequarter and Underground Butcher. Its beautifully decorated interior is full of natural light and minimalist decor, but the star of the show is their spacious outdoor patio behind the restaurant. You can order food to eat in the restaurant, or you can pick up deli meat and fresh bread to take home.
Ahan is a fairly new opening on Madison’s eastside restaurant scene, offering a unique selection of Laos and Southeast Asian cuisine. It is located inside a music venue, but also has a spacious patio on the side. The menu fuses Madison’s dedication to local produce and ingredients with traditional Laotian cooking techniques, giving you a deeply delicious and healthy taste of Asia. I love how many of their menu optiosn are vegan + vegetarian friendly, along with allergy compliant.
I really like the ambiance at Graze. It has floor to ceiling windows on one side with a prime location on the capital square, so you get such a nice view of the Wisconsin Capitol building. With ceiling height chalkboards and an industrial style, it feels airy and comfortable. For food, I always wind up ordering the same thing when I’m there– the beet burger with a side of cheese curds. I think Graze has some of the best fried cheese curds in Madison, and this tasty little burger is the perfect thing to pair them with!
For a traditional Wisconsin steak house or supper club experience, Tornado Room can’t be beat. This is a restaurant that I regularly go back to when I visit Madison because the vibe is just so good! The warm red lighting, the cozy round booths, the traditional yet delicious menu — all of it is perfect. The menu features everything you’d expect from a steakhouse, from choose your own cut options of prime beef to a bevy of indulgent sides. Don’t miss the escargot!
My favorite spot on Monroe street, Brasserie V is a Belgian style restaurant with an incredible beer selection. Even though I’m not much of a drinker, the owner loves sour ales and packs his menu with them, so I’m always excited to try what’s new. He even has a special fridge to keep the sour ales at the right temperature! Their food is pretty top-notch as well, especially their traditional mussels and choose-your-own-cheese-board.
Serving up what I would argue is the best meal in Madison right now, Mint Mark was opened up by the team from Robin Room as their first foray into the dining arena in the Atwood neighborhood. Their constantly changing small plate menu offers creative takes on classic dishes, as well as out-of-box combinations that work every time. Brunch is a great option, but their chef’s table for dinner is where it is at. Their tropical Palm Springs-inspired decor is a refreshing change of pace from the normal “Madison” look, and their cocktail list is topnotch.
Take Out + Dessert
A charming family-owned business in the heart of the Willy Street neighborhood, Ha Long Bay specializes in Thai, Vietnamese and Laotian food. Their generous serving sizes of rice and noodle dishes are all delicious with a very authentic flavor profile. It is a popular spot for takeout, but it is also has a spacious dining room if you want to eat in person.
This is not the place to go if you are on a diet, and you will be reminded of it the second you walk in with their painted mural on the wall talking about all of their full-fat dairy and rich ingredients. The extra creamy ice cream at Chocolate Shoppe is WELL worth the extra calories, and their wide-ranging assortment of flavors is bound to please everyone in your group. Zanzamint, This sh*t just got serious and heaps of love are a few of my favorite flavors!
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