Critiques, Cravings and Conundrums From the Madison Food and Dining Scene
Apr 23, 2011
01:32 PMSmall Dishes
There hasn’t been such commotion on Willy Street since 1976. That’s the year when a prefabricated box was dropped at the corner of Brearly Street, flaunting the Taco John logo. Public sentiment soon led to its removal and a reflection about any future development.
Much has changed since then, but the neighborhood hasn’t lost any of its quirkiness or charm. In the intervening years, though, it has rightly earned a reputation for being the city’s Restaurant Row … and now … Bakery Boulevard might be appropriate as well.
This year the upheaval is the result of our annual summer reparation, road construction. I hope this inconvenience will deter few from enjoying some of the city’s most interesting and enjoyable eating. And, if you still think Williamson Street is just for sprout lovers, think again! Here’s a rundown of the kismet that awaits you.
Willy Street is open, a single lane headed eastbound. So, starting at the Yahara River and heading west here some of the noteworthy food-oriented destinations:
Mickey’s Tavern. This dive bar has all the right stuff—tacky decor, classic jukebox and cheap drinks. It’s a happy hangout for hipsters and hippies alike. The better-than-bar-food menu served at brunch, lunch and dinner is the best attribute of all.
Batch Bakehouse. Brought to us by the man who gave us Ian’s Pizza—Ian Gurfield, his bakery turns out exemplary European-style breads and pastries that taste as good as they look. The caramel pecan rolls are worth a few potholes and gravel dings alone.
Lazy Jane’s’ Café and Bakery. Namesake owner Jane Capito has had her hand in a lot of Madison eateries (she’s also the owner of Mickey’s Tavern). Lazy Jane’s, justly favored for breakfast and lunch , recently opened a separate bakery a couple of doors away that crafts home-style treats to take home.
Ha Long Bay. Their Pan Asian menu is lengthy. They prepare each dish with attention to detail and quality ingredients. But what sets Ha Long Bay apart from the ubiquity and homogeny is its Vietnamese specialties with needle sharp flavors guaranteed to wake up the most fatigued of taste buds.
Jamerica. Pure funkiness in the best Willy Street tradition, this hole-in-the-wall carryout also operates a food cart on campus. Jamerica pays homage to the art of jerk barbecue which it sells by both the plate and pound along with a selection of Caribbean food products.
Willy St Co-op. Food co-ops arose during the counter culture movement of the 1970s. Many have come and gone since then, but the Williams Street Grocery Cooperative has prospered helping its members to live well. It’s come a long way from primarily a purveyor of brown rice, tofu and other things that no doubt are better for us than they taste. Today, with a second location in Middleton, it boasts an in-house bakery, deli and juice bar and is one of the largest retailers of locally grown produce and agricultural products in the city.
Jolly Bob’s. It’s been many years since Tim Erickson turned an infamous Willy Street den of iniquity, the Willy Bear, into a shrine to perpetual summer. The exotic rum drinks and Caribbean food are as good as ever and the backyard patio is just as enticing.
Weary Traveler Free House. The young and the restless rendezvous here to eat, drink and meet Mary. Another venture of the Berge Brother, the pub grub here is no afterthought. Their peculiarly named “bad breath burger” has a cult-like cadre of devotees.
Lao Laan- Xang. As small as this shoebox of a place is, it has a distinguished culinary history. Once home to both a gourmet hotspot in the 80s, followed by a popular vegetarian restaurant in the 90s, currently Lao Laan-Xang with a second location on Atwood Avenue is indubitably one of the city’s finest Asian restaurants.
Mother Fool’s Coffeehouse. A coffeehouse of the type popular before Starbucks: a Bohemian rhapsody of exam crammers would be poets, starving artists and political agitators more likely to be munching on vegan muffins than sipping double mocha lattes.
The Roman Candle. It was here Brewer Stouffer and Thomas Cranley decided to build a better pizza. The mark of their success is now all over town, with other locations on the Westside and in Middleton.
Nature’s Bakery. Literally a taste of old Willy Street, this cooperative bakery began on Johnson Street in 1969, but moved to Williamson a year later and has been there ever since. In addition to their wholegrain bakery products they produce nine kinds of granola, also available at quite a few markets in three states.
La Rocca’s Restaurant and Pizzeria. There’s nothing fancy about this little family-run trattoria that dishes up Italian-American comfort food. The pizza comes a zillion ways and is available by the slice at lunch and late night.
Umani Ramen & Dumpling Bar. The new kid on the block, Umani already draws urbane diners from all over town, flocking here to chow down on the latest food sensation, ramen. Situated in a historic old cottage, inside everything is up to date and outside boasts a large patio overlooking Willy Street.
Madison Sourdough. These folks introduced the town to the taste of real sourdough bread, relegating the squishy stuff previously sold as French bread to the bottom shelf. Through many incarnations and at many locations, the business has grown and prospered. On Willy Street the bakery carries on the tradition of making fine breads as well as sumptuous European pastries. The small on-premises café is a popular place for weekend brunch and the brioche French toast is as heavenly as it is sinfully delicious.
Bon Appetit. Chef, owner and chief bottle washer Greg Johnson is the heart and soul of this tiny café. The eclectic ever-changing menu reflects his whim of the moment and attracts a loyal following of regular customers.
Eldorado Grill. Kevin “Tex” Tubb brought a taste of Texas to Madison. Eldorado, his flagship restaurant, is well known for its long shelf of tequila, margaritas and southwestern-style cooking. But worth any detour is the soul-satisfying smoked barbecue—the baby back ribs, pulled pork and beef brisket are the genuine article.
Ground Zero Coffee. This post modern coffee shop is a daily destination for many who live or work in the neighborhood (in my case, both). The clientele is an amicable mix of commuters both by car and on foot, focused laptop jockeys, state employees on break and the occasional eccentric just chilling out.
Bandung Restaurant. It may be the only Indonesian restaurant in town, but it’s one of the best anywhere. Being out of the ordinary is no doubt part of its charm, but the skillfulness of preparation of fresh and flavorful dishes keeps customers coming back. The rijsttafel—a banquet of many dishes—is just about the most fun a group of diners can have—even when it’s time for the tab.
Sardine. Talented Phillip Hurley and John Gadeau first wowed area foodies when they opened Marigold Kitchen. They did again with Sardine which captures the essence and bonhomie of a French Brasserie. Whether at dinner, brunch or after work drinks and apps, Sardine seldom disappoints. In summer, dining on their outside terrace with a panorama of Lake Monona is yet another reason to dine here.
Wah Kee Won Ton Noodle Restaurant. If you can slurp it, they probably make it. It should come as no surprise that the list of noodles and noodle dishes at Wah Kee is extensive since the business began as a noodle factory. For regulars and newcomers alike, Shanghai chicken fried noodles and wontons are a must.
Local businesses have put together a website that not only has updates about construction, but happenings on Williamson Street: www.willylives.com