Madison offers a plethora of restaurants, so selecting a particular eatery can be a daunting task for the unitiated (or even for those who have lived here a while). Having been a resident of this city for several years now, I would like to offer my take on some of Madison’s best locally-operated restaurants. While the list is not exhaustive, it is a good compilation of what Madison has to offer in terms of fine food and drink. Some of these restaurants are well-known institutions, having been around for many years, while others are relatively new to the scene. Any visitor to Wisconsin’s capital would be well advised to stop in and sample the fare from at least a few of these places.
The top ten restaurants in Madison (in no particular order) are:
1. The Old Fashioned (23 N. Pinckney St., Phone: (608)310-4545). A relative newcomer to the Madison restaurant scene, The Old Fashioned serves traditional Wisconsin comfort food such as bratwurst, rainbow trout, walleye, burgers, and of course the Friday fish fry. One can also expect a wide assortment of the restaurant’s namesake, the old fashioned, made with brandy or whiskey. With the exception of a wonderful mixed greens salad, tossed with brandy vinaigrette, the food is on the heavier side, well doused with butter and sauces, and generally fried or toasted. Certainly not a place to be eating at every night of the week, but the rich, buttery, stick-to-your-ribs sandwiches and entrees of The Old Fashioned just can’t be beat. Food and drinks are reasonably priced, and the sandwiches are actually rather cheap, considering that one sandwich (served with a side of salad or fries) can actually feed two people.
2. Johnny Delmonico’s (130 S. Pinckney St., Phone: (608)257-8325). If you’re craving a great steak, Delmonico’s is the place to go. The place prides itself on its certified Angus steaks, which are aged for 2-3 weeks before being served. Delmonico’s also offers other big ticket items, such as Alaskan King Crab, lobster, and crab cakes that are second to none (and this statement is coming from someone who lived in the Chesapeake Bay area for 7 years!). As you might imagine, prices here are big too, and a steak dinner will run no less than $50 by the time you leave. Fortunately, the restaurant offers a generous Happy Hour on weekdays, providing appetizers and drinks at half price (including those wonderful crab cakes!).
3. The Great Dane Pub & Brewing Co. (123 E. Doty St., Phone: (608)284-0000). An institution unto itself, the Great Dane should be visited for its top-notch selection of in-house brewed beers. In recent years, the restaurant has spread to other locations as well, namely, Fitchburg (2980 Cahill Main), and Hilldale Mall (357 Price Place). Unfortunately, due to zoning issues, the Hilldale Mall location has yet to serve its own microbrews; however, plans are underway to obtain licensing soon. I highly recommend the Stone of Scone Scotch Ale, Emerald Isle Stout, and the restaurant’s annual offering of Barleywine (served January-February). Great Dane also serves exceptional, hearty food, including burgers, pot pie, brown bread with honey butter, and even Tuna Tataki (seared raw tuna). Prices for food and beer are reasonable, and on weekdays, from 4-6PM, the place does offer beers on Happy Hour prices for $2.25/glass.
4. The Nitty Gritty Restaurant and Bar (223 N. Frances St., Phone: (608)251-2521). If you’re having a birthday, you better come here. Known throughout Madison as the #1 birthday place, the Nitty Gritty provides the birthday boy or girl with a balloon, a mug, and all the free beer/soda that he/she can drink. The restaurant also has a wide assortment of specialty burgers, which are grilled to perfection and arrive on a toasted bun. Prices are reasonable for the food, though the drinks can get expensive (one more reason to show up on your birthday). Luckily, there are happy hour deals for every day of the week, and coupons circulate in local papers. The Nitty Gritty also has a Middleton location, at 1021 North Gammon Rd.
5. Greenbush Bar (914 Regent St., (608)257-2874). Best pizza in Madison. Good pasta too. Great atmosphere and a cozy environment. The Greenbush Bar, located in the basement of the old Italian Workmen’s Club, is one of the last vestiges of the once thriving Italian neighborhood that made its home on Regent street. While that neighborhood is mostly history now, the restaurant makes a brisk business selling what is arguably the best pizza you will find outside of Chicago. Patrons can also order other traditional Italian dishes, and the place stocks a nice collection of vintage scotches, whiskeys, and other hard liquors. One drawback: Greenbush is not open for lunch. However, the dark basement atmosphere, lit up mostly by Christmas lights affixed to the ceiling, is more suited to dinnertime anyway. Prices are reasonable, though one may want to splurge on those rare liquors sometime.
6. Marigold Kitchen (118 S. Pinckney St., Phone: (608)661-5559). Though not a breakfast or morning person, I will often look for an excuse to go to Marigold Kitchen and peruse its breakfast selections. While the Marigold serves the “classics” like strawberry pancakes, scrambled eggs and so on, the food is made with care, transforming the usual breakfast fare to a very tasty and delectable repast. Several examples need to be listed here: French toast made with challah bread and served with light pastry cream, maple syrup, and berry puree, or omelets stuffed with chorizo sausage, Gruyere, and zucchini, or hash made with tender strips of lean duck. The smells are delectable, and the presentation of the food, why, impeccable! Prices vary depending on the item, but you do get your money’s worth (and I usually end up with a take-home box).
7. CocoLiquot (225 King St., Phone: (608)255-2626). One of the more recent additions to Madison’s eating repertoire, CocoLiquot (a play on the French word for poppy) stands out for one specific reason: its chocolate. David Bacco, the restaurant’s chocolatier, creates amazing pieces that are not only rich in cacao content, but contain ingredients one would not immediately expect in chocolate. My favorite pieces are the Jasmine Pearl truffle, made with green tea and jasmine flower, Framboise (raspberry), and the Aphrodisiac for Her, a sweet combination of strawberry, passion fruit, and banana. Other chocolate pieces are the Carribean Fire, a pepper-laden little fireball, Tahitian Vanilla, and the Yin and Yang, which is composed of half white and half dark chocolate. Price per chocolate piece stands at about $2, but the cost is well justified. French cuisine is also served, usually on small plates that are meant to be passed around and shared. Prices are a bit steep overall, which is why I recommend this spot for dessert rather than dinner.
8. Bahn Thai Restaurant (944 Williamson St. Phone: (608)256-0202). This cozy restaurant, located on Madison’s East side, wins my vote for best Thai restaurant in the city. Entrees are pretty cheap there, running $8 on average. My favorite dishes are the restaurant’s Tom Yum Gai soup, which is a spicy concoction of chicken, lemongrass, straw mushrooms, and chili paste, and the Yum Woon Sen, which is a salad made up of see-through noodles and ground pork, seasoned with lime, cayenne, and spring onion. Other winners are the restaurant’s many curries and the Pad Thai. Even though the menu does not always state this fact, all food served at Bahn Thai tends to be on the spicy side. If you don’t care for that excess cayenne and chili, be sure to tell the staff while ordering, and they may be able to reduce how much seasoning is added, or advise you to order something else.
9. Pancake Café (6220 Nesbitt Rd., Fitchburg, WI Phone: (608)204-7040). By its name alone, one may guess what the Pancake Café is famous for. Pancakes in every flavor, from blueberry to strawberry to chocolate chip, to buckwheat, potato, and even wheat germ, are available. Pancake Café is most famous for its oven specialties, including the Baked Pecan, or the Apple Pancake, either of which is stuffed with its respective ingredients, baked, and then arrives as more of a pie or tart than a flat pancake. Prices are reasonable, and I have not yet finished an entire pancake platter alone. The restaurant is actually located in Fitchburg, a suburb just outside of Madison. Pancake Café also has locations in Sun Prairie, which is not far from Madison, and Lemont, Illinois (of all places!). This restaurant is the only one on my Top 10 list that is not located in Madison proper; however, due to its proximity and its fame, I just had to include it.
10. Michael’s Frozen Custard (2531 Monroe St., Phone: (608)231-3500). Located in an old service station building, now remodeled, Michael’s serves real Wisconsin custard year-round. This is not “soft-serve” ice cream, but rather, super fresh, creamy, premium ice cream. During the summer months, Michael’s will blend its custard with various ingredients to create specialty flavors of the day, such as chocolate torte, peanut butter cup, cherry jubilee, and the like. One may also purchase pre-packed containers to take home. Michael’s Frozen Custard has a second Madison location as well, on 5602 Schroeder Rd. Prices are a bit on the expensive side but, at least in this case, you just can’t put a price on homemade premium ice cream.