Madison for foodies

From street carts to fine-dining shrines, Wisconsin's capital city worships food.

Madison's State Street on market day.
A popcorn wagon has a choice spot on State Street.

Everyone knows what people in Wisconsin like: beer, cheese and bratwurst.

But they also like foie gras, frisée salad and seared pork belly. Southern Wisconsin is a colorful quilt of artisan farms, and their lovingly grown produce goes straight to the Dane County Farmers' Market and the restaurants of Madison.

I've made a lot of delicious memories in Madison: the celeriac soup at L'Etoile, the raspberry truffles of Candinas, the Hopalicious pale ale from Ale Asylum.

One fall weekend, I made some more.

The mecca

On Saturday mornings, Madison is foodie paradise. More than 160 vendors ring Capitol Square for the Dane County Farmers' Market, the largest producer-only market in the nation.

The piles of gorgeous and exotic vegetables there made our heads spin.

Everything is heritage, heirloom and, of course, organic. There are pink-and-white Borlotto shell beans, purple Viking potatoes, green-striped Delicata squash and chartreuse Romanesco that looks like jeweled coral.

Foragers have brought lobster and chanterelle mushrooms and a pure-white puffball the size of a basketball: "Slice it and fry it like a steak," the vendor advised curious market-goers.

There are pastries and delicious-looking cheeses and meats, too. It's frustrating to be a tourist here: We have no kitchen in which to cook our purchases. And we have made a rookie mistake by not bringing a cooler.

We allowed ourselves a freshly made buttermilk doughnut, but we couldn't eat too much because later, we were going on a food tour.

The tour

Madison Food Explorers is one of two companies that offer food tours, and we've signed up for its Downtown Lake to Lake walking tour. We started at Monona Terrace, home of the early-winter Farmers' Market, then walked through the State Capitol building.

Eggs Benedict from Heritage Tavern.
Off Capitol Square, Heritage Tavern upgrades a classic eggs Benedict.

Back on the square, we stopped in front of L'Etoile, co-founded in 1976 by now-famous chef Odessa Piper, the Midwestern Alice Waters.

Waters led the revolution in cooking with seasonal and locally sourced ingredients and was famous for prowling the market with her red wooden cart, piling it with choice ingredients.

"You can still see the sous chefs of restaurants walking around with their little carts, buying what you'll be eating tonight," our guide told us.

Other farm-to-table chefs followed Piper to Capitol Square — she is often called "Pied Piper" — and today, nearly every building on the Square that's not a museum is a restaurant, cafe, coffeehouse, brewpub or bakery.

A few doors away, The Old Fashioned is an updated version of the traditional Wisconsin supper club and its signature drink, made with Korbel brandy.

The drink may be old-fashioned, but it's still popular, said our guide, who told us that one-third of all Korbel brandy is sold in Wisconsin.

That day, however, the Old Fashioned was advertising an heirloom tomato caprese bloody Mary, made with house-infused basil vodka.

Our first stop for food was Heritage Tavern, whose chef raises heritage pigs.

To our surprise, our guide retreated to the bar, leaving our server to tell us what was on our plates: eggs Benedict made with shredded porchetta, wilted spinach, herb hollandaise and hash browns fried in duck fat. It was wonderful.

On the other side of the square, we sampled cheese at Fromagination.

"We have this European-style idea that you walk in and are enveloped by the aroma of cheese," said Pat the cheesemonger. "You say what you like, and we try to find it for you."

Soon, he had us talking like wine snobs, noting the grassy notes of an Ocooch Mountain sheep's milk cheese and the hazelnut and caramel flavors of a Manchego.

Drinking beer at State Street Brats.
Students hoist personal pitchers at State Street Brats.

There was more cheese at Ian's Pizza on State Street, where we split two of its top-selling macaroni-and-cheese pizzas. We thought it was terribly bland, though probably good for treating hangovers.

We had a mango lassi yogurt drink from the Nepalese restaurant Himal Chuli, part of State Street's global lineup, then joined a tide of young people in red sweatshirts starting their game-day festivities.

At State Street Brats, we squeezed onto the patio, where we were given brats and a 10-ounce cup of Spotted Cow, the super-successful farmhouse ale from nearby New Glarus.

It's a flavorful beer that's made with corn, like Miller and Bud. Thanks to genius marketing, it's convinced legions of Wisconsin tavern-goers not only to try craft beer, but to like it.

The brat, however, was so wizened and salty that I threw mine away.

Our last stop was the Babcock Hall Dairy Store in the Memorial Union. It's just a nook in the basement, but this "restaurant" usually is rated No. 1 on TripAdvisor. It sells sandwiches, but most people come for the premium ice cream, made by the university's dairy-science students.

Ian's Pizza in Madison.
Ian's most popular pizza is the mac 'n' cheese.

It makes 25 flavors, but we were offered only a choice of vanilla, chocolate or strawberry in cups. It was smooth and rich, like frozen custard.

Walking along State Street on a sunny day in fall never is a bad thing to do. But if we had it to do over, we'd stop at Heritage Tavern for those great eggs Benedict, then go sampling on our own.

If we wanted to know more about Madison, there are free State Capitol tours, and Madison Trust for Historic Preservation walking tours that cost $15.

That would give us more time — and money — to do some serious eating.

The restaurant

Not all of the great restaurants in Madison are around Capitol Square or along State Street. Since we were staying a block off Monroe Street, just south of the football stadium, we ate at a neighborhood place called Brasserie V.

It was a European-style bistro, but it used local ingredients. In fact, it was offering a special of roast pork with butternut squash and lobster mushrooms that was almost identical to a dish offered the same night at L'Etoile, but without the pork and for twice as much.

I ordered a savory cup of sweet-corn soup and the mussels and truffle frites. The mussels were on the small side, but the crispy fries, served with curry and classic aioli, were addictive.

The next day, I returned for more of that fantastic sweet-corn soup, and I added a generously sized Belgian endive salad with frisée lettuce, crumbled egg, apple, almond and warm bacon.

The diner

We'd noticed the lines outside Mickies Dairy Bar on Monroe, a hole in the wall that has fed students since 1947. But we never managed to get there before its 2:30 p.m. closing time.

Next, we tried Dotty Dumpling's Dowry, which looked way too upscale for a diner but had some great-sounding burgers on its menu.

The Old Fashioned on Capitol Square.
On Capitol Square, The Old Fashioned pays tribute to Wisconsin's supper-club tradition.

Alas, there was a long line, so we went around the corner to Vintage Spirits & Grill, where we nabbed a table on the patio and had a decent pulled-pork sandwich and a glass of Vintage Brewing's Woodshed IPA.

For dessert, we went back at State Street and had a dish of gelato at La Coppa, which is not far from Chocolate Shoppe Ice Cream, another popular local company that doesn't stint on fat or flavor.

In Madison, the choice is endless. The challenge is bringing an appetite to match.

Trip Tips: Eating in Madison

Dane County Farmers' Market: This big, fun market is held 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays from mid-April through the first Saturday in November on Capitol Square.

Then it moves to Monona Terrace until the Saturday before Christmas. After New Year's it goes to Garver Feed Mill, next to Olbrich Botanical Garden, for its Late Winter Market.

Food festivals: January, Beer & Cheese Fest and Restaurant Week. Memorial Day weekend, World's Largest Brat Fest. Labor Day weekend, Taste of Madison.

Dining: On Capitol Square, L'Etoile is the original farm-to-table restaurant, expensive but exquisite. Its next-door sister restaurant Graze is more affordable.

Heritage Tavern also serves a menu of locally sourced ingredients. The Old Fashioned Tavern and Restaurant serves updated supper-club cuisine, and Marigold Kitchen serves breakfast and lunch.

Vegetables at the farmers market.
Heirloom vegetables fill bins at the Dane County Farmers' Market.

In addition to cheese, Fromagination sells sandwiches, salads and picnic baskets to go.

Or prowl the side streets around Capitol Square, where there are many sidewalk cafes, and pick out the one that looks best to you.

Monroe Street, just south of Camp Randall, has many good restaurants.

In summer, most locals think there's nothing better than a burger and a pitcher of beer on the Memorial Union terrace, also an outdoor-music venue and home of the Babcock Hall Dairy Store.

Or pick up something from one of the many food carts at the campus end of State Street.

Food tours: Madison Eats offers many three-hour theme tours, including Capitol Square Downtown, Willy Street Global Eats and Atwood Avenue Brew & Chew.

The three-hour Madison Food Explorers Downtown Lake to Lake tour offers the basics of Madison history and food, with stops for cheese, pizza, brats and ice cream.

Chocolate: Madison has an unusual number of great chocolatiers, especially Candinas in Verona. For more, see A chocolate tour of Madison.

More: The Isthmus publication covers local restaurants and breweries extensively.

Last updated on January 18, 2022

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