Road Trip Eats: Visit Madison

A stellar food scene makes Madison more than a stop on your way to Chicago

Traveling with family to Chicago, years ago I decided to stop grabbing lunch at fast food spots along the highway in favor of pulling off the road in Madison. It’s a great city: beautiful lakes, the gorgeous State Capitol, and an incredible food scene. But Madison is more than just a stop along the way to Chicago. We just spent a three-day weekend in Madison, and the food was phenomenal. A lot of it is right on the Capitol Square too, which makes it super easy. Here are my top Madison food recommendations:

Near the Capitol Square:

Dane County Farmers Market
Photo by Jason Derusha

Dane County Farmers Market: Billed as the largest in the nation, this farmers market is incredible. It wraps around the Wisconsin State Capitol building on both sides of the street. Huge. About 150 booths every Saturday, everything grown by the farmer behind the stand. Cool pastries and, of course, so much cheese.

photo by jason derusha

Graze: Chef Tory Miller won the Best Chef Midwest award from the James Beard Foundation, and this is his gastropub. No reservations, almost everything from local Wisconsin farmers, Graze is in a gorgeous space with views of the Capitol. Very approachable, very delicious, excellent brunch, too.

Eno Vino Wine Bar: At the AC Madison Hotel: The view is of the Capitol at night (pictured at the top of this article), and the wine is fantastic. About 40 wines by the glass, all priced under $13 (tax is included). The 2012 Chateau Mirefleurs Bordeaux was delightful ($10), as was the big bold 2014 Luce Della Vite Lucente Super Tuscan. 

The Old Fashioned: Feels like it’s been there forever, but the Old Fashioned is a new(ish) approach to great Wisconsin foods. Founded in 2005, they’ve got Wisconsin cheese plates, deviled eggs, great sausages—all with fantastic sourcing. Yes, you can (and should) get a Grasshopper or a Brandy Alexander, or one of the 51 Wisconsin beers on tap.

Heritage Tavern
photo by jason derusha

Heritage Tavern: This place blew my mind. Executive Chef Daniel Fox has a ton of experience in Chicago restaurants, but he moved to Madison to raise heritage pigs. His skill at Fox Heritage Farms is clear on this pork-heavy, small plate–focused menu. He was a James Beard Best Chef Midwest semi-finalist in 2015 and 2016. Great service, fabulous vibe and menu. This would be a four-star restaurant if it were here in the Twin Cities.

photo by jason derusha

Red Madison: Red had the best deal on a high-quality sushi lunch I think I’ve ever seen. Two special rolls for $13.50. The Tropic Bintoro had spicy albacore and tempura mango. The negi-toro was gorgeous, fatty tuna. Just great stuff for a great price. The room is super sexy, too. Red is a hot spot for a late night.

Field Table: I’ve only been to the market at Field Table for the cretzel (a combination of a croissant and pretzel) served with a dollop of beer cheese in the middle, but that alone is worth a pop in. I know it sounds weird, but there’s something super cool about the combination of salty and flaky, and beer cheese is always a winner.

Elsewhere in Madison:

A Pig In A Fur Coat
photo by jason derusha

A Pig in a Fur Coat: This place reminded me of Victory 44 with duck-fat fries, rabbit rillete, and an awesome foie gras mousse on bombolini with fig. Nice service, great care on the food sourcing, and deliciousness abound.

Robin Room Bar
Photo by jason derusha

Robin Room Bar: A fantastic cocktail bar not far from A Pig in a Fur Coat, with drinks priced between $9 and $13. Try the Meadowlark: strawberry-infused Malfy Gin, beet-and-sugar snap pea syrup, lemon, and salt.

Henry Vilas Zoo
photo by jason derusha

Miko Poke: I admit to loving poke bowls, and Miko Poke is a really nice fast-casual restaurant. Set up like a Subway or Chipotle, you choose your rice, choose your poke (ahi tuna, salmon, albacore), and then top it with whatever vegetables or crunchy things you like. They have some favorites, too, if you want to leave the work to them. Expect more restaurants like this to open in the Twin Cities soon. (Close to the free Henry Vilas Zoo, where you can make fun of the Badgers.)

Babcock Hall Dairy Store
photo by jason derusha

Babcock Hall Dairy Store at U of W: Stephen Babcock, a researcher from the University of Wisconsin’s Department of Agricultural Chemistry, invented the first reliable butterfat content milk test in 1890. The Dairy Plant is named for him, and the dairy store has incredible ice cream, all made right there at the University.  You’ve got to get the Badger Blast with fudge swirl and chocolate flakes, or the Union Utopia—vanilla ice cream with peanut butter, caramel, and fudge. A small ice cream is about $2.

Porter: Cool coffee shop with breakfast, lunch, and retail. They pour counter culture coffee from North Carolina, and it’s in the historic Milwaukee Road train depot. Great coffee, cool spot—with a bike shop next door, too. They’re hoping to open a taco restaurant and some other vendor stalls inside.

Memorial Union Terrace
photo by jason derusha

Other Things to Do in Madison: Vitense Mini-Golf, Chazen Museum of Art, University of Wisconsin Memorial Union Terrace, State Capitol Tour, Bike or Walk around Lake Monona, Shop State Street