By Molly Mogren
Wisconsin’s capital city is also its biggest college town. While Badgers are known to party hard, this hippy-dippy town also offers up amazing ethnic restaurants, classic German bars and locally-driven fine dining. Without further ado…
An old-school steak house serving up classic cuts (T-bones, ribeyes and other beefy options, plus venison tenderloin, duck and more) with traditional sides like hash browns, asparagus and greens beans. Settle into a big booth and pretend you’re in an episode of Mad Men or something. In fact, the only element of nostalgia missing here is a thick cloud of cigarette smoke, a memory we’re happy to leave in the past.
116 South Hamilton, Madison, WI 53703
Dark, divey, outfitted with 70s beer memorabilia and a wall of dartboards, if you’re of legal drinking age, you’ve probably been to a few bars almost as awesome as the Plaza. Spotted Cow is the local beer of choice (and they offer it by the pitcher for under $10), perfect for washing down their beloved Plaza burger… made with a secret sauce of sour cream/mayo and who knows what else. Just know it’s damn good (especially paired with cheese curds).
319 North Henry Street, Madison, WI 53703
UW opened the Memorial Union in 1928, and it’s been a favorite Badger gathering spot ever since. Babcock ice cream is a UW institution (made on campus), and regardless of the temperature, a scoop or two is a must. The Rathskeller, a German-style beer hall, is a favorite meeting/studying/study-drinking spot amongst students and reminiscing alums. Once the snow melts, the party moves to the terrace. Call dibs on one of the hundreds of brightly colored tables (with matching iconic chairs) and take turns buying pitchers and brats with your pals.
800 Langdon Street, Madison, WI 53706
All Midwesterners are plenty polite… until they’re jonesing for an old fashioned Mickies breakfast. No reservations, no wait list… simply pounce on a table or counter seat once you see folks paying their bill. The dirty looks are worth it: this classic greasy spoon doesn’t skimp on oil, butter, fat and anything else that makes food delicious. Some combination of bacon, eggs, pancakes, corned beef hash, loaded scrambler, coffee or huge, full-fat milkshake will cure even the worst hangover. Not that anyone has ever partied too hard in Mad-town…#sarcasm.
1511 Monroe Street, Madison, WI 53711
When it comes to fine dining in Madison, it’s all about L’Etoile. James Beard award-winner chef Tory Miller combines old world technique with modern flavor in a menu that pays homage to Midwestern farms. Most of his seasonal cuisine is sourced from local providers, even during the cold Wisconsin winters when Miller utilizes cellared root crops and produce canned and stored from the summer harvest. For a more casual vibe, head next door to their ever-crowded gastropub Graze, which serves up the same pasture-fed concept with its elevated bar fare.
1 South Pinckney Street, Madison, WI 53703
Few things are more awesome than a Wisconsin supper club. We love the capitoal square’s Old Fashioned, which offers a retro feel while giving a great big hug to local farmers, cheese makers, bakers and meat mongers. It’s old-meets-new in the best way possible way. Brunch is stellar (hot mini doughnuts made to order, fried walleye and eggs), and their bloody Marys kick major ass. They do a killer Friday fish fry, served with poppy seed coleslaw, matchstick fries, house-made lemon caper tartar sauce and rye bread.
23 North Pinckney Street, Madison, WI 53703
The first restaurant from Madison’s Underground Food Collective, Forequarter doesn’t have a specific owner or chef. Instead, there’s a team a talented cooks collaborating on inventive menus seven nights a week. The place is small, service is personal with a cozy, laidback vibe. Menus change often, but you can always count on something sausage-y (they make their own meats and charcuterie at Underground Butcher—Forequarter’s sister meat emporium) or causal riffs on “fancy” foods like tea-glazed foie gras with Meyer lemon, white soy sauce & puffed black rice. Be sure to sample a few of their craft cocktails. From classic Manhattans to their rhubarb Collins (made with rhubarb liqueur, sage and sparkling wine)—you’ll want to try everything, even though you know your liver will hate you for it.
708 1/4 East Johnson Street, Madison, WI 53703
As far as we’re concerned, the only extracurricular we’ve ever mastered is indeed brunch club (if only you could’ve lettered in that in high school!). This newish concept from the folks at Food Fight Restaurant Group offers tricked out versions of your favorite breakfast staples all the live-long day. Try eggs benedicto, served with roasted tomatoes, Italian salsa verde, sun-dried tomato hollandaise, and crunchy candied prosciutto; or bananas foster French toast (egg batter-dipped Challah bread, topped with bananas, brown sugar rum sauce, and pecans). At 11 a.m., start digging into salads, sandwiches and hearty entrees (tempura fish tostadas, veggie pot pie, meatloaf). It’s the kind of stuff that sticks to your ribs, which is precisely the thing brunch—no matter the time of day—is all about.
444 West Johnson Street, Madison, WI 53703
When you hear “Grampa’s Pizzeria,” bowling alley, thin-style pies loaded with red sauce, sausage and greasy cheese might come to mind. Instead, this Willy Street spot does farm-to-oven, hipster-y takes on pizza. Try the puerco, a tomato sauce covered pie topped with pork confit and gorgonzola, or the brassacre, made with Brussels sprouts, bacon, fresh mozzarella, olive oil and garlic (and yep, they have a gluten-free crust available, too. Surprised? Didn’t think so.). Pair your ‘za with a super fresh market or beet salad. If you’re anti-carbs, they also do regular non-pizza specials, like steamed mussels or charcuterie boards. Really, it’s not your grampa’s pizza shop.
1374 Williamson Street, Madison, WI 53703
A small restaurant along Madison’s hippie-tastic Williamson Street (just say Willy Street and you’ll fit in just fine), Lao Laan-Xang serves homey, spicy authentic Laotian cuisine (think fulavorful curries and noodle dishes). Nothing fancy, just good, sinus-clearing food.
1146 Williamson Street, Madison, WI 53703
Walk into Jolly Bob’s and feel the winter melt away. The shack-like façade disguises what might be one of the most fun atmospheres in town—a tiki bar, serving tropical (and boozy) libations, plus food inspired by the Caribbean. Think jerk chicken and blackened mahi mahi served with a honey papaya mint salad, crab cakes and more. When summer hits, grab a seat on their secluded patio.
1210 Williamson Street, Madison, WI 53703
The international dining scene is all about Peruvian food (think ceviches, grilled meats and lots of fresh produce), and Surco brings it to Badgerland. Lots of fresh fish, arroz con pollo, mixed seafood ceviches and sandwiches that pack lots of flavor.515 Cottage Grove Road, Madison, WI 53716 608.467.6814
When this popular Russian dumpling spot shuttered its original State Street location a few years back, it left a hole in the stomachs of the late-night, post-bar crowd (not to mention people looking for a cheap and delicious lunch). But you guys, Paul’s Pel’mini is back, serving their beloved dumplings and absolutely nothing else. And all is right with Madison’s 2 a.m. world.
203 West Gorham Street, Madison, WI 53703
About Molly Mogren
The daughter of a flight attendant and a hippy-turned-real estate developer who toured Europe in a Volkswagen bus, Molly Mogren came into this world with an undeniable sense of adventure. From hiking the Antarctic Peninsula, to outrunning a hyena in South Africa and even driving a street-legal monster truck through Des Moines, Iowa—she never turns down an opportunity to do something crazy. She’s worked as Andrew Zimmern’s right-hand lady since 2007; they’ve co-written three books together and co-host a weekly podcast called “Go Fork Yourself.” Her latest project, Hey Eleanor!, chronicles her year-long journey of tackling one thing that scares her every day. She lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota with her fiancé, dog (Patsy) and kitty, Bogart. She likes to drink coffee, do crossword puzzles and is very good at parallel parking.