Exploring Madison, Wisconsin

Wisconsin’s beloved college town has a new culinary scene that’s best in class

Dane County Farmers' Market
Dane country farmers’ market, photo courtesy of travel wisconsin

Wisconsin’s best-known college town has a reputation as an academic powerhouse with a freethinking, fun-loving attitude, mostly due to its fervent sports fans, liberal politics, and notorious Halloween Party. With students making up about a fifth of Madison’s 243,000 residents, plenty of neighborhoods are accessorized with the requisite front-porch couches and empty beer bottles. Yet as the city matures, its more sophisticated tastes are being reflected through a host of new drinking and dining establishments.

Wisconsin may be best known for its breweries, but several artisan spirit-makers have cropped up around the state, including Madison’s Old Sugar Distillery (oldsugardistillery.com). The tasting room’s raw warehouse space is infused with the sweet, heady scent of what’s being distilled within view of your seat: perhaps the signature honey liqueur, best sampled in a flight alongside house-made whiskey, rum, and (oddly enough) ouzo, the anise-flavored spirit popular in Greece. Wisconsin consumes more brandy per capita than any other place in the world, and Old Sugar’s version, made from local grapes, forms the base of a fine Old Fashioned.

Want another? Fans of Wisconsin’s (un)official state cocktail will dig The Old Fashioned restaurant and bar (theoldfashioned.com), which was inspired by north woods supper clubs and draws crowds with its convivial atmosphere and local specialties, from beer-cheese soup to Friday night fish fry. The Best Wurst platter sounds like a simple appetizer, but it turns out to be meal enough for two, between three kinds of local sausage, grilled bread, sauerkraut, pickles, and mustards. (Only in Wisconsin can a restaurant serve creamed herring and Braunschweiger and still be the height of cool.)

Once the sun sets, head down the street to Graze (grazemadison.com), where a vast wall of windows overlooks the illuminated State Capitol dome. At this gastropub sister to Madison’s fine-dining star, L’Etoile, created by James Beard–awarded chef Tory Miller, diners are encouraged to “graze” from local pastures, selecting meats and cheeses from the ever-changing chalkboard menu. (Find some of their suppliers at the city’s famous Dane County Farmers’ Market, dcfm.org.) A few Graze dishes reflect Miller’s Korean heritage, including bibimbap and a kimchi-laced Reuben. Or there’s always the ultra-American (and ultra indulgent) Graze Burger featuring a house-ground blend of bacon, sirloin, rib eye, and short rib, to be ordered with a side of vodka-battered cheese curds, followed by the cheesecake of the moment.

The ’Sconnie students’ evening may just be getting started, but yours would be better wound down at Madison’s first modern boutique hotel, located right next to the Badger’s Camp Randall Stadium. Hotel Red’s (hotelred.com) accommodations resemble sleek studio apartments, with their luxe linens and compact kitchenettes (including dishwashers, Keurig machines, and local Death’s Door spirits in the minibar), as well as spa showers that seem modeled after a miniature Wisconsin Dells water park. It all feels very hip and urban: Between the hotel’s contemporary concrete/glass façade and the check-in desk’s complementary craft cocktails on Fridays and Saturdays, you might forget you’re in Wisconsin…until you realize your elevator-mates are toting a crock pot of cheese dip with their luggage.

Hope you didn’t overdo it last night, because both Graze and the Old Fashioned serve popular brunches. If the Old Fashioned’s is looking too popular, just order a to-go bag of their sugar-dusted mini-donuts and walk over to the equally enjoyable Merchant (merchantmadison.com). The clubby craft cocktail den is better known as a late-night joint, but it also has lovely sidewalk seating and a morning menu of Benedicts, French toast, and omelets. If circumstances necessitate, Merchant mixes the retro Corpse Reviver No. 2, originally devised as a hangover cure; or if you’d rather remedy the situation with cheese curds, by all means, you’re in Wisconsin. 

Follow your culinary tour by exploring the city surroundings via the 17-mile Capital City Trail (dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/name/capcity; rent wheels from the city’s bike-sharing program, Madison B-cycle, madison.bcycle.com). Or head to the social heart of the University of Wisconsin campus, the Memorial Union Terrace (union.wisc.edu) overlooking Lake Mendota. The school’s outdoor club offers hourly rentals of kayaks, canoes, and stand-up paddleboards if you’re feeling ambitious; or just watch others take part while you sit back and enjoy a Babcock Dairy ice cream, concocted by the school’s food-science students.

Exploring Madison
graze, madison b-cycle, and the capitol, photos courtesy nick beard, nick collura, and travel wisconsin

Classic Madison Favorites

Enjoy the newcomers, but don’t forget these longtime favorites:

The Grand Gourmet
L’Etoile’s star (letoile-restaurant.com) has shone brightly on the region’s local, seasonal bounty since 1976. It’s the rare Madison dining room with more foie gras than bratwurst. Best known for its seven-course chef’s tasting menu.

Friday Fish Fry
The 1855 estate Quivey’s Grove (quiveysgrove.com) offers a bucolic setting for enjoying Wisconsin’s famous fry. It’s served in the stone house, stable, or, in summer, under the tent, with lawn games galore and New Glarus Spotted Cow on tap.

Food Science 101
Tour the Babcock Hall dairy plant (babcockhalldairystore.wisc.edu) to see production for milk bottling, ice cream, and cheese making.

Sweet Spot
Gail Ambrosius Chocolatier (gailambrosius.com) specializes in fancy, handmade, cocoa-based sweets, including a selection of truffles designed for pairing with beer.  

Go, Badgers!
Tickets for home football games (uwbadgers.com) sell out fast, but you can always hang out at the tailgate or hit sports-bar central, State Street Brats (statestreetbrats.com).

The Wright Stuff
Wisconsin-born architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed the city’s landmark civic center, the Monona Terrace (mononaterrace.com), with enormous arced windows to take in the lake view.

Celeb Spotting
The recently renovated Edgewater hotel (theedgewater.com) sits on prime lakefront real estate, and its walls are covered with headshots of guest celebs, from Ella Fitzgerald to Bobby Knight.

hotel red, memorial union terrace, and quivey’s grove, photos courtesy of hotel red, travel wisconsin, and quivey’s grove

A Madison Local’s Favorite Place: The Memorial Union Terrace

Braden Pittman, Wisconsin Union information desk attendant

“The Terrace has a really good atmosphere. Everybody is just there to socialize in good fun—you don’t drink beer at the Terrace unless you’re 21 or with your parents. [Wisconsin permits persons under age 21 to consume alcoholic beverages if they are with their parents, guardians, or spouses of legal drinking age.] People come here after work because there’s a relaxed atmosphere and there’s something that goes on every night: movies, bands, the sunset, the lake….Can I quit and go out to the Terrace right now?”