Nine months ago, I had never been to Madison, Wis. In my mind, Madison was a college town that people visited to watch football games, eat cheese curds and get drunk on Halloween.
While I have no issue with football or squeaky cheese, since January I’ve gotten a brand-new perspective on the Wisconsin capital while visiting my boyfriend, who lived there for a time. The city of 243,000 possesses most of what Twin Cities residents love about their metro area: accessible lakes, good shopping, farmers markets and bikes — including B-cycle, Madison’s version of Nice Ride. But I was most impressed with the food.
You can eat a great meal in Madison for a very reasonable amount of money. As I explored the walkable city, I discovered unique neighborhoods with coffee shops, bars and restaurants that I found to be just as fun, and delicious, as my favorite spots back home.
Where to eat by day
We’ll start with the most important meal of the day. A diner to rival any in the Twin Cities, Mickies Dairy Bar on Monroe Street offers heaps of greasy breakfast fare at prices you can’t beat. I recommend splurging on whatever $2.25 coffee cake is on the menu that day (1-608-256-9476).
For lunch and general meat needs, the Underground Butcher is the fanciest-looking butcher shop I’ve ever seen. A full-service butcher, Underground specializes in meat from local farms and offers sandwiches and other snacks that you can pick up for a picnic at nearby Lake Monona (1-608-338-3421; undergroundbutcher.com).
For a nice Saturday morning stroll, hit the weekly Dane County Farmers Market (1-608-455-1999; dcfm.org), which fills the State Capitol grounds through Nov. 7. You’ll find everything from fresh produce to homemade jam, honey and baked goods. There are also food trucks and some of the best people watching around. For dessert, the Babcock Hall Dairy Store is a 30-minute walk from the Capitol through the University of Wisconsin campus. It serves up heaps of house-made ice cream (1-608-262-3045; babcockhalldairystore.wisc.edu).
Where to dine by night
One of our splurges was A Pig in a Fur Coat, a fine dining restaurant on Williamson Street. While pricier than most of our meals in town, the food and atmosphere were worth it. We had a couple of great cocktails, along with a perfectly cooked rib-eye, a refreshing lamb carpaccio and probably the highlight of the menu, chorizo-stuffed dates (1-608-316-3300; apiginafurcoat.com).
For a quick and easy dinner, there are several great pizza spots around town, including Salvatore’s Tomato Pies (salvatorestomatopies.com), Grampa’s Pizzeria (grampaspizzeria.com) and Pizza Brutta (pizzabrutta.com).
If you’re a late-night kind of person, the Corral Room bar at Tornado Steak House is a trip. Tucked into a cozy basement near the Capitol, “the style is quintessential supper club at its very best, a pride and joy to Wisconsin culture,” said Amanda McGinley, who has worked in the Madison restaurant industry for six years. “With half-circle white booths and a step-back-in-time feel, you can get some of the best steak and burgers for less than $15” (1-608-256-3570; tornadosteakhouse.com).
Where to drink
If I could take one spot in Madison and move it to Minneapolis, it would be Gib’s Bar. It’s a craft cocktail bar with a great beer selection that has taken over an old house on Williamson Street. The house has two bars, upstairs and downstairs, each serving its own menu and distinct vibe. Gib’s has cozy decor, creative menu boards (one beer list is displayed on a vintage television) and great cocktails made by friendly bartenders who are happy to chat about what they’re mixing up (www.gibs.bar).
Without a Spyhouse in sight, Madison’s coffee scene is just as snobby as our own. (I mean that in the most complimentary of ways.) Instagram-worthy shops include my personal favorite, Johnson Public House (johnsonpublichouse.com), and the three Colectivo Coffee (colectivocoffee.com) locations around town — the best being the shop on Monroe Street, with garage doors that open up to the street. Also on Monroe Street is Crescendo, a coffee shop that serves nitro cold press (crescendomadison.com). The best part? Most coffee shops also have craft beer on tap. It is Wisconsin, after all.
A short drive away
While you’ll find a number of breweries in town, including Ale Asylum and Karben4 Brewing, you can also make the trip to New Glarus Brewing Co., 40 minutes southwest of Madison, for its tasting room and brewery tour. Make sure to stock up on the Spotted Cow, Fat Squirrel and Belgian Red in the gift shop, because you won’t find them outside Wisconsin (1-608-527-5850; newglarusbrewing.com).
If you really want to live like a local, get out of town for a Friday night fish fry. While these take place across the state, at the Owl’s Nest in Poynette (30 miles north of Madison), you can sip $4.50 Old Fashioneds while you wait — and you will wait — for your table. The all-you-can-eat fried fish is served family-style with baked beans, bread, coleslaw and potato. Sit among people who have participated in this Friday night tradition for decades. It’s the best $11.95 you’ll spend on your whole trip (owlsnestzuege.com).
Madison is about a four-hour drive from the Twin Cities via Interstate 94.
Maggie LaMaack (@MaggieLaMaack) is a Minneapolis-based writer and works in marketing.