From ramen to Russian dumplings, there's so much more to eat than just cheese curds in this great, small food city. (Although, also eat all the cheese curds.)
Ask Michael Banas when Madison's food scene turned a corner and he'll tell you it all started with a tomato. For him, at least—a bushel of the very best, brought to the back door of Lombardino's by an ambitious farmer. At the time, Banas and his business partners (see also: the rightfully popular Tipsy Cow) were a month into running the Italian restaurant, which had been slinging red sauce on University Avenue since 1952 and begging for a fresh coat of culinary paint.
"Let's be honest," says Banas. "That's all we did—we used his tomatoes. But then he came back the following year and had cucumbers and basil on his truck. Who can say no to freshly cut basil? I mean, come on!
"Then it was some beets, squash, and melons a year after that," adds Banas. "Fast forward and we now have direct relationships with all our farmers; we tell them what we need and they plant it for us. And we're not alone. So many Madison restaurants have followed this formula. It's what we all do; it's what we want to do."
Tory Miller is one ingredient-minded chef who's aced that approach. The Wisconsin native grew up working at his grandparents' diner in Racine—about 40 minutes outside Milwaukee—and kicked his career off at critically acclaimed New York spots like Eleven Madison Park and Judson Grill. But Miller really made his name with the Deja Food restaurant group and its two major draws in downtown Madison: the forward-thinking gastropub fare of Graze (think: vodka-battered cheese curds, locally sourced lamb carnitas, and a particularly satisfying katsu pork tenderloin) and the multi-course madness of L'Etoile. The latter has been especially good to Miller on a national level, earning him a Best Chef: Midwest nod at the James Beard Awards in 2012. He takes it all with a flake of Maldon, however; mostly because Madison still falls outside the purview of many diners who don't live in the Midwest.
"It’s something that is difficult to talk about sometimes," says Miller, "but Madison is still a small town. Even though we like to act like a big city, we aren't one yet."
That's a key point to make here: While it's essentially a college town dominated by the University of Wisconsin campus, locals actually show up year round. They're not fickle, either; if you're doing bringing something new or needed to the table, you'll be rewarded with regulars. Or as Miller puts it, "The people here care about quality food, so chefs push each other to keep being innovative with their menus. With all these options, customers have become more adventurous, too; even old-school diners are more willing to try different cuisines from all over the world."
With that in mind, here are 10 options that should be on every serious eaters list….
Daniel Bonanno worked the shelves at Tenuta's Italian Deli—a beloved family business in Kenosha, Wisconsin—when he was still in high school, but the rising Madison chef found his calling during a year spent abroad in Florence. A sous gig at Spiaggia (the current home of Top Chef champion Joe Flamm) followed soon after that, setting the stage for his own heady take on Italian food and other Mediterranean favorites at A Pig in a Fur Coat. Anyone looking to replicate its star dishes at home will soon be able to shop at Alimentari, a specialty deli that stocks the wares Bonanno personally loves, from pâtes, rillettes and foie gras to freshly made pasta.
The brick-and-mortar outpost of Banzo keeps it casual with counter service, several craft beer options, and an expanded menu that includes locally sourced lamb, daily salad and side specials, and a sweet potato falafel with a welcome, swift kick in the pants from serrano peppers. It's all about the chickpeas here, though; ground fresh and fried to a perfect middle ground between crispy and creamy, they're as peerless in a pillowy pita now as they were when Aaron Collins and Netalee Sheinman opened their first food cart in 2011.
If you're among the many that make a day trip out to New Glarus Brewing—one of the country's biggest craft brands, and a major point of pride for Wisconsinites—pencil in breakfast or lunch at this truly farm-to-table cafe. A mere five-minute car ride away, it elevates familiar dishes to ethereal heights, whether that means a house-cured corned beef sandwich, a seasonal panzanella salad, or a savory French toast that somehow makes sense of gouda, apple-onion jam, spinach, cherries, a maple-roasted garlic vinaigrette, and a perfectly cooked duck egg.
Thanks to the lingering influence of New Glarus Brewing (its Spotted Cow cream ale is practically the state mascot), quality beer is a given in Madison. However, if you wanna get weird and see a glimpse of the industry's future, nothing can touch the grand ambition and artful execution of this tiny Bay Creek taproom. Belgian-inspired while carving out its own corner of the increasingly competitive sour/wild ale community, this is where you go to try a bold Méthode Traditionnelle blend of purple raspberries or a meerts-schooled marriage of mangoes, pink guava, and French oak foeders.
Not to be confused with the equally essential Graze that's on the other side of the State Capitol building, Graft is a self-proclaimed "saloon meets salon" that revolves around crowd-pleasing small plates (mac & cheese made with buttermilk spätzle, gouda and breadcrumbs; fried chèvre drizzled with honey and a black pepper gastrique; a "broken caesar" salad of broccolini, lemon and parmesan) and a wine list that's well-curated and fairly priced. If you must go big, Graft also offers a $60 dry-aged, bone-in ribeye, but we're partial to the $9 trio of rotating tacos Chef Travis Vaughn serves on Tuesday nights instead.
Just when you thought Capitol Square couldn't possibly support another obsessively sourced farm-to-table phenom, in comes Heritage Tavern chef/owner Daniel Fox. Some of his recent hits include a family-style combo of char siu pork shoulder and tuna; an upscale riff on pork schnitzel and knockwurst; and tempura bacon-wrapped cheese curds (because Wisconsin). Maybe not the best place to take a vegetarian, although a roasted beet salad co-starring poached figs, aged goat cheese, macadamia nut butter, pickled rhubarb, dark chocolate and strawberries certainly sounds… different.
When you need a break from the overpriced parking lots and general air of chaos surrounding the UW campus, head straight for the original East Washington Avenue location of Jeykell Badell's revelatory Venezuelan restaurant. Having earned quite a cult following in its first five years, it's the perfect intro to staples like pabellon (shredded beef with black beans, white cheese, deep-fried plantains, and a small arepa) and cachapa con queso y cochino frito (a sweet corn pancake stuffed with Venezuelan cheese and served alongside crucial house-made condiments and a pile of crispy pork).
There may be no better example of Madison's open-minded dining scene than the runaway success of Lao Laan-Xang's two locations, the first of which dates all the way back to 1990. Try and imagine newly converted Nirvana fans subsisting on squash curry here; the Inthachith family reportedly goes through about 150 pounds of the creamy, slow-cooked acorn a week. Also of note: Laotian house specialties like spicy minced meat salads (larb) and catfish that's been mixed with ground pork, dill and lemongrass and steamed in banana leaves (moak pa).
Living up to the legacy of 106 King Street's previous tenants (the breakout sushi bar Red and the izakaya-inspired Restaurant Muramoto), this meticulous noodle shop spends 10 hours at a time perfecting its broth and Conscious Carnivore-sourced proteins. Chef Matt Morris' spicy ramen—a proprietary blend of habaneros, jalapenos, and Thai and Korean chilies—is recommended for anyone into big flavors and slow burns, although even vegetarians will find something to love in a collagen-free combo of miso, carrots, and potato paste.
There's not a whole lot on the menu at the latest iteration of Paul Schwoerer's pel'meni shop, so let's get right to it: order a half-and-half mix of Black Earthground beef and starchy potatoes, making sure to say that, yes, you would like "The Works" (butter, curry powder, sweet chili sauce and cilantro, with sour cream on the side). This location also has a liquor license and happy hour specials Tuesday through Friday, making this the one Russia-related thing we can all agree on.