MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Foodies in Madison

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

Eggs Benedict from Heritage Tavern.

© Beth Gauper

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

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 fertile 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 yellow Romanesco broccoli 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 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.

The Old Fashioned on Capitol Square.

© Beth Gauper

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

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. She 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, Dan Fox, 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.

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.

Ian's Pizza in Madison.

© Beth Gauper

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

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 super-premium ice cream, made by the university's dairy-science students.

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 $10.

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

Drinking beer at State Street Brats.

© Beth Gauper

Students hoist personal pitchers at State Street Brats.

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's a European-style bistro, but it uses 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 restaurant is known for its extensive, Belgian-heavy beer list. It doesn't have many from Wisconsin, but I got the Really Cool Waterslides from 3 Sheeps Brewing in Sheboygan, a nice piney IPA.

There aren't any Ale Asylum beers on the list – in fact, none from Madison – and yet Jason Jones, an Ale Asylum brewer, was sitting next to me at the bar, trying out a saison from Switzerland. I tried to get him to tell me about how savvy Madison beer drinkers are, but he refused.

“Oh, they're all hipsters,'' he said. “They're drinking PBR to be ironic.''

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. My tab was $12, surely one of the best deals in Madison.

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 at its new location on Frances Street but had some great-sounding burgers on its menu.

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 with coleslaw and peach-chipotle sauce 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.

Vegetables at the farmers market.

© Beth Gauper

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

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.

Food festivals in 2016: Jan. 16, Isthmus Beer & Cheese Fest. Jan. 17-22, Restaurant Week. May 27-30, World's Largest Brat Fest. Sunday after Memorial Day weekend, Isthmus Food Cart 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 and Harvest also serve a menu of locally sourced ingredients. The Old Fashioned Tavern and Restaurant serves updated supper-club cuisine, and Marigold Kitchen serves breakfast and lunch.

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.

Madison's State Street on market day.

© Beth Gauper

A popcorn wagon has a choice spot on State Street.

Monroe Street, just south of Camp Randall, has many good restaurants, especially the European-style Brasserie V, which has an extensive beer list.

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: The three-hour Madison Food Explorers Downtown Lake to Lake walking tour, $43, offers the basics of Madison history and food, with stops for cheese, pizza, brats and ice cream.

The tour devotes the first 1¾ hours to a few cursory details about the town, Monona Terrace and the Capitol. Our group numbered 16, quite large for a food tour, and members were allowed  to buy things at stops, which is unusual for a food tour because it slows the group down considerably. Our group went over the allotted time by half an hour.

Madison Eats offers three tours, the three-hour Atwood Avenue walking tour on Tuesdays and Thursdays for $44-$48; the three-hour B-Cycle Brunch bike tour on Saturdays, $49; and the 1½-hour Foodie Friday walking tour, $25.

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. Eating in Madison A to Z bloggers Nichole Fromm and JonMichael Rasmus also cover dining and are the authors of "Madison Food: A History of Capital Cuisine.''

Last updated on January 14, 2016