Food & Drink

The Essential Madison Restaurants

Published On 09/06/2016 Published On 09/06/2016
Graze Milwaukee
Steak Frites from Graze | Samantha Egelhoff/Courtesy of Graze
Salvatore's Tomato Pies

Best pizza

Salvatore's Tomato Pies

Address and Info

912 E. Johnson St

This modern little pizza shop is dishing up pies with atypical -- but delicious -- topping combinations like fig with bacon, carnitas with jalapeño pesto, and adobo chicken with harissa. But have no fear, pizza purists: there’s also a NJ-style tomato pie with a thick swirl of tomato sauce on top of a layer of mozz, all on an airy, slightly crispy crust. All ingredients are super-fresh and most are local, as well.

Best hangover remedy

Mickies Dairy Bar

Address and Info

1511 Monroe St

Mickies has been around since the '40s, as the throwback menu on one wall demonstrates. It’s a small diner with a line out the door most mornings, and especially on Badger game days. It’s a favorite of the football players, both because of its proximity to Camp Randall across the street, and its giant portions. Get a scrambler with eggs and meat or veg piled on top of chunky hash browns (called "yanks" here), crowned with cheddar. It comes with a side of gravy... and no one will bat an eyelash if you order a strawberry shake too.

Best dumplings

Paul's Pel'meni

Address and Info

203 W Gorham St

They serve one thing and one thing only: succulent little Russian dumplings called pel'meni. They're filled with either beef or potato, or you can do the correct thing and order a batch of mixed. Always get them topped with the works, which includes a mix of butter, curry powder, sweet chili sauce, cilantro, and sour cream.

Samantha Egelhoff/Courtesy of L’Etoile

Best splurge dinner

L'Etoile

Address and Info

1 S Pinckney St

Anyone who thinks fine dining doesn't exist in Madison needs to experience Chef Tory Miller's cuisine at L'Etoile. With a James Beard Award already under his belt, he is the reigning king of fancy food, and the biggest supporter of locally produced and grown goods around. An a la carte menu is offered, but spring for the tasting menu to really explore Miller's genius.

Best vegetarian

Banzo

Address and Info

2105 Sherman Ave

A brick-and-mortar location plus two food carts demonstrate just how popular the falafel are at Banzo. You can get the crunchy little chickpea balls in a pita sandwich, salad, or platter, but try the falafel and seared eggplant combo. Carnivores are welcome, too: beef and chicken kebabs are just as tasty.

Greenbush Bakery

Best donuts

Greenbush Bakery

Address and Info

1305 Regent St

You can't go to Greenbush without getting an apple fritter. You'll notice that the price is about five times more expensive than the regular donuts, but don't be put off -- they're bigger than your face. They'd make a great frisbee if they weren't so delicious. If you don't have four other people to share a fritter with, any of the other 40+ varieties of donuts will make you just as happy.

Best late night

Ian's Pizza

Address and Info

319 N Frances St (& other locations)

This is a college town, and bar time is a big deal. Who feeds all those ravenous individuals after closing time? Mostly Ian's, judging by the massive lines that form in the wee hours of the morning. It's raucous, but everyone is having a good time. Keep the line moving by figuring out whether you want that mac & cheese slice or the chili cheese Fritos slice before they even ask you... then congratulate the newly married bride in her wedding gown in the line behind you.

Good Food

Best food cart

Good Food

Address and Info

Near 33 E Main St (& Library Mall)

The Good Food carts will always have long lines of hungry office workers looking for a filling, healthy, and affordable lunch. Wraps and salads are the name of the game, with hearty enough ingredients to satisfy even the most skeptical salad-hater. Sweet potatoes, roasted chicken, avocado, and black beans add real heft to the huge wraps.

Dotty Dumpling's Dowry

Best burgers

Dotty Dumpling’s Dowry

Address and Info

317 N Frances St

Despite the rather weird name, Dotty's serves up burgers and fried foods in a classic bar setting filled with dark wood and dim lighting. Six-ounce patties are cooked to medium by default, properly honoring the Wisconsin-raised beef by not cooking them till they're tough. Homemade sauces give each burger a different personality -- try the umami bomb boomerang sauce, made with mustard, mayo, black pepper, and anchovies.

Fromagination Artisan Cheeses and Perfect Companions

Best sandwiches

Fromagination

Address and Info

12 S Carroll St

What's the one thing you can't make a sandwich without? Cheese. (OK, bread is probably a more correct answer, but this is Wisconsin, so, you know.) It only makes sense that the best cheesemonger in the city also makes the best sandwiches. From roast beef to Nueske's smoked turkey, each sandwich involves delightfully crusty bread, and a perfectly paired cheese or two.

Best taqueria

La Rosita

Address and Info

6005 Monona Dr

Some of the best taquerias are located in the back of the local mercado... which is precisely where you'll find the best tacos in Madison. La Rosita provides small booths in the middle of the store where you can gorge yourself on cecina or lengua tacos, chicharron burritos, or heck, carnitas by the pound. Don't pass up the freezer full of colorful paletas in dozen of flavors for dessert.

The Great Dane Pub & Brewing Company

Best brewpub

Great Dane

Address and Info

123 E Doty St (& other locations)

Though there are now four locations in the Madison area, it's the Downtown spot that will always be the classic. It's boisterous at peak times, with patrons enjoying their Black Earth porter and Peck's pilsner while playing a round of billiards in the pool hall. Standard pub favorites like wings and cheese curds mingle with more exotic fare like the peanut stew.

Best ice cream

Babcock Hall Dairy Store

Address and Info

1605 Linden Dr

There's no more delicious way of supporting your fellow Badgers than getting some ice cream from Babcock Hall on a hot day. It's the oldest university dairy building in the US, and all the dairy in the store, from ice cream to cheese, is made onsite by students. You can even watch production from the observation deck before you attack that cone of blue moon.

Samantha Egelhoff/Courtesy of Graze

Best brunch

Graze

Address and Info

1 S Pinckney St

This is L’Etoile’s little brother, where you can reap the benefits of a high-end kitchen without breaking the bank. Brunch is especially popular, when you can get anything from bagels and lox to bibimbap burritos topped with spicy kimchi.

Marigold Kitchen

Best breakfast

Marigold Kitchen

Address and Info

118 S. Pinckney St

When a restaurant is only open until 2 in the afternoon, it better have one stellar breakfast. Marigold Kitchen's breakfast is served whenever they're open, which is great for us late risers. You'll find upscale renditions of classic breakfast dishes, like hash made with duck confit, and an omelet with artichokes and oven-roasted tomatoes. All the warmth of a diner, but with a contemporary twist.

Best steakhouse

Tornado Steakhouse

Address and Info

116 S Hamilton St

Dim lighting, white tablecloths, and wood paneling: all the hallmarks of a good supper club... and this one just happens to serve some of the best steaks in Wisconsin, to boot. If you need something traditional and classic to really impress someone, this is the place.

Best apps

The Old Fashioned

Address and Info

23 N Pinckney

The Old Fashioned doesn't have a large appetizer list, but they do two things really well: lazy susans and fried cheese curds. The enormous lazy susan No. 6 is like a supper club on a platter, with cheese spreads, salami, deviled eggs, creamed herring, smoked fish, braunschweiger, and pickles. The cheese curds are beer battered and squeaky. What more do you need?

La Taguara

Best Latin American

La Taguara

Address and Info

3502 E Washington

Venezuelan food doesn't generally get as much love stateside as it deserves, but there are a lot of fans in Madison thanks to La Taguara. Meat lovers should order the bandejita paisa, a plate full of thin steak, deep-fried morsels of pork belly, and chorizo with rice and beans. If that's a little much for you, arepas, empanadas, or a Cuban sandwich will be plenty to fill you belly with Latin American love.

Best Modern Asian

Sujeo

Address and Info

10 N Livingston St

Asian cuisine at Sujeo gets a makeover almost as stylish as the high-rise building the restaurant is housed in. A small-plate section of the menu plays with Asian ingredients in new ways, like with the Thai-style shrimp ceviche or cheese curds with kimchi and gochujang. Purists may prefer the renditions of ramen or Korean barbecue, which stay true to more traditional recipes. Everyone can agree that the late-night noodle bar is clutch, though.

Essen Haus

Best beer hall

Essen Haus

Address and Info

514 E Wilson St

It's Oktoberfest every day of the year at Essen Haus. There's all German beers on tap, live polka music (indoors and out), beer steins and tap handles hanging from the ceiling, and most importantly, Das Boot, a 2-liter glass in the shape of a boot that comes with its very own drinking rituals. It's often filled with UW students, but all Madisonians love the beer hall atmosphere.

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1. Salvatore's Tomato Pies 912 E Johnson St, Madison, WI 53703

Salvatore's Tomato Pies is what you get when you combine Italian family roots, New Jersey-style pizza, and fresh ingredients from local Wisconsin farmers (read: cheese). While the market-driven menu rotates regularly, the pizza is always on point whether you opt for the traditional Margherita get-up or one of their daily specials, which use eclectic ingredients like fig, prosciutto, summer corn, shishitos, and other seasonal bounty. As an added bonus, there's an array of Midwest micro-brews on draft, and growler refills are available.

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2. Mickies Dairy Bar 1511 Monroe St, Madison, WI 53711

Squeeze into a booth at this Madison diner that looks like it was imported from a slightly more realistic Pleasantville and order up a Scrambler: an imposing pile of meat, potatoes, about 47 eggs, shredded cheese that’s still in the process of getting perfectly melty when it hits the table, plus about a coffee cup’s worth of gravy.

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3. Paul's Pel'meni 203 W Gorham St, Madison, WI 53703

If you've never had pel'meni before, Paul's is the best place to try them. In the vein of the Polish pierogi and Ukrainian varenyky, pel'meni are Russian mini dumplings. This cozy Madison spot stuffs them with either beef, potato, or a mix of both; steams them to order, and provides an array of different toppings like Sriracha, butter, yellow curry, sweet chili sauce, sour cream, and cilantro (pro tip: opt for "the works" and add all of them for a truly umami experience).

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4. L'Etoile Restaurant 1 S Pinckney St, Madison, WI 53703

Helmed by James Beard Award-winning chef Tony Miller, this Madison mainstay uses all-natural ingredients to create refined takes on beloved regional cuisine. The menu shows hints of French inspiration, but boasts uniquely Midwest flavors by incorporating local offerings -- for example, the La Belle Farms foie gras with grapes, peanut butter, and brioche, or the steamed langoustine with popcorn, blueberries, and violets. While an Ă  la carte menu is available, we suggest you opt for the tasting menu to experience the impressive breadth of flavor that L'Etoile offers; regardless of which route you choose, the curated wine list has been specially designed to pair well with the food offerings at this sleek spot.

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5. Banzo 2105 Sherman Ave, Madison, WI 53704

Serving healthy Mediterranean fare like pita sandwiches, tabouli, hummus, and quite possibly some of the best falafel in Madison, Banzo is a go-to lunch option for vegetarians on a budget. The bright eatery boasts two corresponding food trucks so you can always get your fix, and as an added bonus, your carnivorous friends can tag along -- the beef and chicken kebabs here are just as solid.

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6. Greenbush Bakery 1305 Regent St, Madison, WI 53715

Whether you're an early riser looking to start your day with a donut or trying to satiate your alcohol-induced sweet tooth after midnight, Greenbush Bakery has you covered. The Regent Street mainstay cranks out certified Kosher donuts for the masses, serving up inventive hits like the house signature sour cream old fashioned, as well as blueberry maple, Oreo-topped cookies and cream, and buttercream s'more. It's counter service, and the bare-bones interior lacks seating -- which really isn't a problem, since you'll likely devour these delicious pastries before you even reach your parking spot.

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7. Ian's Pizza 2035 E North Ave, Milwaukee, WI 53202 (East Side)

Ian's gourmet pizza is made with exceptional ingredients and expertly prepared, with options like a very solid, greasy NY-style pepperoni, to the ultra carb heaven mac & cheese -- which you should always, always order with bacon. Despite the range of non-traditional toppings, everything at Ian's is made from scratch. This spot is also open for brunch, which means that It's now possible to start your Sunday with a Brisket Hash brunch slice of pizza.

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8. Dotty Dumpling's Dowry 317 N Frances St, Madison, WI 53703

Speciality burgers like the Stanley's Blue Ribbon (cream cheese, thick-cut onion ring and BBQ sauce) and the Green and Gold (cheddar cheese, fried pickles, and bacon mayo) make Dotty's a popular joint among Madison residents. The menu also offers poutine and cheese curds because, ya know, Wisconsin.

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9. Fromagination 12 S Carroll St, Madison, WI 53703

This authoritative dispensary of artisan, craft, and local cheeses stocks every refrigerated space available with wheels and squares of predominantly locally sourced fromage. The staff is expertly trained to answer all your salty questions, while the back of the store caters to your ancillary cheese needs, with wine, meats, and chocolates. If the savory stink makes you hungry, worry not, for this shop also sells a selection of housemade sandwiches stuffed with store cheeses.

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10. La Rosita Latina 6005 Monona Dr, Madison, WI 53716

This Mexican supermarket sells everything from fruit and produce to butchered meats, as well as freshly baked goods. If an afternoon of grocery shopping gets you hungry, head to the back where a full menu of freshly made burritos, tacos, tortas, and tamales, and a row of comfortable blue booths, await your appetite.

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11. The Great Dane Pub & Brewing Co 123 E Doty St, Madison, WI

Did you know that the country's best brewpub is just 4hrs away in Madison? Well, you couldn't have, because it was only recently that The Great Dane won that top honor at the Great American Beer Festival.

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12. Babcock Hall Dairy Store 1605 Linden Dr, Madison, WI 53706

Based out of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Babcock Hall is the oldest operating dairy plant in the country and the best place to get ice cream in the city. Not only did its founders make major scientific contributions to the study of dairy production (the building itself is named for the agricultural chemist Stephen Babcock, who invented the first butterfat content test and helped flesh out the cold-curing process for cheese in the late 1800s), but the dairy goods -- handcrafted milk, ice cream, cheese, and more -- are still made by students in the program today, so you can show Badger solidarity, support the local Madison community, and get your lactose fix at the same time.

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13. graze 1 S Pinckney St, Madison, WI 53703

You'll love their upscale pub fare, especially their burgers.

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14. Marigold Kitchen 118 S Pinckney St, Madison, WI 53703

When a restaurant is only open until two in the afternoon, it better have one stellar breakfast. Marigold Kitchen's breakfast is served whenever they're open, which is great for us late risers. You'll find upscale renditions of classic breakfast dishes, like hash made with duck confit, and an omelet with artichokes and oven-roasted tomatoes. Expect all the warmth of a diner, but with a contemporary twist.

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15. Tornado Steakhouse 1798 N Humboldt Ave, Madison, WI 53202

Not only is Tornado Steakhouse a great steakhouse, but it is one of the best supper clubs in Wisconsin. For the past 20 years, Tornado Steakhouse has been right in the middle of Madison's hottest night life scene, serving up mouthwatering steaks until 1am.

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16. The Old Fashioned Tavern & Restaurant 23 N Pinckney St, Madison, WI 53703

Upon walking into The Old Fashioned, you can tell it's a well-loved neighborhood joint: signs for regional beer brands and sports jerseys hang from exposed brick walls, and the old wooden tables are rarely ever empty. The walk-ins only spot is a popular haunt for brunch and dinner alike, boasting a robust beer selection of Midwest favorites like Lakefront and Pabst Blue Ribbon, and lest we forget: some of the best Bloody Mary's and cheese curds (beer-battered, fried to order, small enough to eat by the handful) in the state.

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17. La Taguara 3502 E Washington Ave, Madison, WI 53704

Venezuelan is the speciality at La Taguara, a supremely casual Latin American spot in Madison whose interior resembles a small-scale high school cafeteria. The menu sticks to traditional dishes like bandejita pasta, a stacked plate of thin steak, deep-fried morsels of pork belly, and chorizo with rice and beans; sweet corn pancakes stuffed with hand-crafted cheese; and arepas and empanadas. There are some Americanized plates as well, like a Cubano sandwich and a slow-cooked pork burger.

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18. Sujeo 10 N Livingston St, Madison, WI 53703

Asian cuisine at Sujeo gets a makeover almost as stylish as the high-rise building the restaurant is housed in. A small plate section of the menu plays with Asian ingredients in new ways, like with the Thai-style shrimp ceviche or cheese curds with kimchi and gochujang. Purists may prefer the renditions of ramen or Korean barbecue, which stay true to more traditional recipes. Everyone can agree that the pan-Asian spot's late-night noodle bar is clutch, though.

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19. Essen Haus 514 E Wilson St, Madison, WI 53703

It's Oktoberfest every day of the year at Essen Haus. There's all German beers on tap, live polka music (indoors and out), beer steins and tap handles hanging from the ceiling, and most importantly, Das Boot, a two-liter glass in the shape of a boot that comes with its very own drinking rituals. The place is often filled with UW students, but all Madisonians love the beer hall atmosphere.