Madison Food Escapes
Dine in the city—but feel like you're a world away
A table at Sardine
Sure, we love Madison,otherwise we wouldn’t live here. But it’s nice to imagine just for an hour or two that we’re somewhere else—whether it’s the steamy streets of Bangkok, the sun-washed beaches of the Caribbean or even the crazed urban life of New York City. Wherever it is, these local restaurants will take you there—no passport required.
It’s a fact that culinary innovations and trends start on the coasts and work their way inward. And these kitchens are certainly indicative of the east and west coasts both in atmosphere and taste.
The new downtown hotspot Tempest Oyster Bar features outstanding,sustainable seafood in a laid-back atmosphere carried out with bleached and weathered wood, white stucco walls and a bar fronted with old green bottles. Tempest feels like a trendy, understated place that would pop up in San Diego, and the fact that an old wooden Chris Craft boat and impressive blue marlin grace the front room of the restaurant gives the impression that the ocean isn’t far away.
From the gorgeous natural light that filters in to the character of the old brick walls, wood floors and bentwood chairs, Sardine reminds me of a place I’d stumble upon in a San Francisco neighborhood and return to again and again. Set near the waterfront, this bistro always has a nice wine list, cool cocktails and a relaxed but sophisticated vibe. Maybe it’s all because co-owner/chef Phillip Hurley has worked in several kitchens in the City by the Bay.
Warm yet modern, earthy but sexy, Harvest could be set in the Napa Valley—if it weren’t so committed to food grown here in the Midwest. The upscale restaurant, like the best of its wine country counterparts, focuses on local and organic ingredients, with menus that change constantly to reflect what’s in season. Special dinners highlight area farmers and, of course, everything pairs beautifully with a good wine. (KV)
New York State of Mind
It’s tempting to say the only thing Gotham Bagels and Stalzy’s Deli lack in terms of authentic New York feel is attitude. But the truth is, New York City stopped being rude a long time ago, so not even the orderly and efficient service gives away that both are a long cab ride from the Big Apple. What really causes one to look for an Upper West Side address for Gotham—or Lower East Side for Stalzy’s—is bagels with a bite and a chew and a decent schmear, and a pastrami that’s tender and just a little fatty with good mustard and a pickle—and we’ve finally got ’em both. For many years the question of what the Madison food scene lacked got the same answer—a real deli. Cross that one off the list. Now, if there were just a subway from Mifflin to Atwood. (NH)
Across the Nation
These city hotspots remind us of urban centers around the U.S.A, from northwestern nostalgia to honky-tonk taqueria.
Lakeside Street Coffee House isn’t Pike’s Market Seattle, or even Belltown Seattle. It’s more Magnolia Seattle, or even Mercer Island Seattle with a peek of water through the window and a school across the street. But the attention to detail from bean to cup is Seattle through and through, and on a rainy day if you squint a little, the state Capitol looks like Mt. Rainier. (NH)
Steppin it Up
Tex Tubb’s Taco Palace is an unfussy taqueria, someplace you’d encounter in San Antonio or Austin. The décor is pure fun and the neon-lit sign outside signifies this place is definitely a family friendly, casual neighborhood spot. Its spot-on margaritas (NOT made from a mix), cheap tacos and refill-it-yourself salsa bar are worth the trip alone. Lest you think this taco joint forgot it’s in Madison though, it didn’t; check out their Wil-Mar, Atwood or Schenk’s Corner burritos. (SM)
Feel like you’re jetting around Europe when you pop into these taverns and eateries, all of which lend that certain je ne sais quois to the experience.
Kick it Up
Order up an ale, stout, lager or other favorite European brew and settle in to watch a rugby match at The Coopers Tavern. (KV)
Anyone who’s been to Germany knows their affinity for good-time beer halls. You’ll indeed find that same die Kameradschaft (camaraderie) at the Essen Haus in an authentic atmosphere. (SM)
The owner’s from Bologna, but Osteria Papavero reminds me of a restaurant in Parma where the ham was sublime and the ragu unforgettable. (NH)
Dance and Dine
Stop by Brocach on a Friday night for a pint and to hear the Currach playing upbeat jigs and reels, and you’ll swear you’re in Ireland. (KV)
You’d never know by its strip-mall location, but La Baguette’s croissants, baguettes, tarts and quiches are what make it truly divine. Choose from a tarte aux poire, pain aux olives or a boule with butter and sit in front of the fireplace, pretending you’re in a café off the Boulevard Saint Germain. (SM)
Satisfy your wanderlust—and cravings for exotic flavors—at these restaurants influenced by distant locales.
Inspired by Caribbean islands, Jolly Bob’s is a perpetual ray of sunshine. The back patio, with its white plastic furniture, beckons all summer long. But come winter, the restaurant’s combination of food, music and drinks is particularly appreciated. Stop by for dinner or simply the
tropical libations. After a few Bahama Mamas or Rasta Raspberry Slammers, you’ll wonder, is that the hum of traffic on Willy Street or the sound of the Caribbean Sea?
Set in a quaint space on Fair Oaks Avenue, Sala Thai has earned a loyal following since opening in 2008. The restaurant’s interior is filled with wood—on the floor and ceiling and in carved details on the walls and the pointed arch by the cash register—as well as artwork and portraits of the Thai royal family. Sitting by the front windows and digging into the hot green curry with tofu, I began to feel flushed. Maybe it was the sunshine streaming in or the spiciness of the dish, but all of a sudden, the steamy streets of Bangkok didn’t feel so far away.
When you want big flavor without a lot of fuss, turn to one of the city’s casual Mexican restaurants. At Taqueria Guadalajara, the tiny pink house on Park Street, El Pastor farther down the street, the new Francisco’s Cantina on East Main or one of the many La Bamba outposts, you’ll find tacos, burritos, tostadas, enchiladas and more. Pop in for a bite and leave with a full belly and hardly a dent in your wallet, just as if you’d wandered into a little taquería south of the border. (KV)
Midwest at Heart
Favorite places that make us feel like we’re only a stone’s throw from home.
Twin City Charm
Ah, Minneapolis. Its approachable Midwestern sensibility means that many of its restaurants are sleek and modern but filled with friendly people. Such is the case at Merchant, where drinkers and diners huddle at the bar or spread out in the dining room enjoying a very uptown (in Minneapolis’ case, it could literally be in Uptown) setting.
It’s no secret we love our locally grown restaurants, but let’s face it, we stop in at the chains, too. The Chicago-born Francesca’s empire has made it up to our fair city (and yes, we have the only Wisconsin location). Francesca al Lago’s delightful hand written menu with ever-changing options makes us feel like we’re at a local joint, though, and that seems to be their aim. It doesn’t hurt that it’s got a stellar location and beautifully appointed interior, either—kind of like Chicago’s neighborhood joints.
Did you know Milwaukee used to be the bowling capital of the world? This former blue-collar city has since stepped out of its bowling shoes and into its dress shoes and come into its own as a cosmopolitan city. But we still like stepping into the Avenue Bar and reminiscing about how it used to be—good fish fries, happy-hour camaraderie and cold beers—all in a friendly tavern atmosphere that’s barely been touched by time. (SM)
We know this story is about feeling like you’re someplace else, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention there’s one spot that makes us feel like there’s “no place like home” and that’s L’Etoile. Its semi-recent building change is a welcome facelift and feels appropriate for Madison. Not only is this farm-to-table fine-dining establishment now able to fit more people, but the sleek, open-air setting with soaring windows reflects Madison’s move into a budding, bustling city that’s coming into its own. (SM)
Of Restaurants Past
If you’ve ever hoisted a glass of Peck’s Pilsner at the Great Dane Brewpub, you’re already an elbow up on Madison restaurant history. Peck is the name of this city’s first restaurant owners, Eben and Rosaline, who opened an inn in 1837 that lodged and fed workers building Wisconsin’s Capitol. It’s no stretch to see these guys—hewing and quarrying a city from the wilderness—clad in suspenders, sleeves rolled up, quaffing mugs over rough-sawn tables, digging forks into thick local fare.
When I arrived in Madison for graduate school a century and a half later, something of the provincial still remained. Crispy fried smelt could be munched at the worn tables of Goeden’s Fish House (where the Vintage now stands). All-you-can-eat spaghetti at Josie’s on Park Street—in the heart of Madison’s Greenbush neighborhood—was comforting on stomach and wallet. But as I got married and graduated to the work world in the 1990s, a buffet of inter-national options was emerging. Was it tajine of lamb and artichoke bottoms at Marrakech Café on King Street? Taking in a bowl of steaming borscht at Russian House on Johnson Street as snow fell outside? A romantic night with my wife—dipping triangles of pita bread into creamy Greek caviar—at Kosta’s on State Street? Reliving trips to Spain through tapas of potato omelets and cured ham at La Paella? These meals, it seemed, grounded me in the here and now and brought me to
I have to confess a certain sadness—a realization of mortality, probably—in saying that these restaurants are no more. Just as the Pecks moved on to ventures in Baraboo shortly after coming to Madison, so these restaurant owners are seeking opportunity elsewhere. The restaurant world, especially in Madison, is nothing if not fluid. So while I remember this wave of nascent ethnic eateries as a golden age, another—of Latin American and Indian food, of local fare and of cuisines yet unimagined—surely awaits.
- John Motoviloff
A Love Affair with New Orleans
I first visited New Orleans in 1975. I had no expectations; it was just another business trip to another town. After all, I’d already seen most of the country’s capitals of commerce and London, Paris and Rome to boot. It was a foggy winter night and I tediously inched my rental car down the Interstate. Suddenly, a green sign materialized: Vieux Carré. (Hertz had warned me that this was my exit.) Down the ramp I spiraled, crossing Rampart Street into another world: the Vieux Carré—it means “Old Square” in French but is better known as the French Quarter.
Out of inky shadows, old buildings with lacy ironwork crept forth like ghosts rising from the grave. I crossed Bourbon Street, a neon-lit river of humanity—more a carnival midway than a thoroughfare. I opened the car window and the air was thick and gentle, exotic yet at the same time familiar: the perfume of food cooking, the salty smell of the Gulf, and the musk of mildew and decay. The noise assaulted me, both incessant and intoxicating: laughter, distant riverboat whistles, the bark of pitchmen and music everywhere. The Big Easy dished up a sensual gumbo, and I had yet to set foot in any of its celebrated restaurants.
During the days that followed, it was breakfast at Brennan’s and dinner at Antoine’s. Having to stand in line at Galatoire’s only made the place more captivating, once I was admitted into its venerable inner sanctum and presented a menu that hadn’t changed in almost a century.
I wandered through the French Quarter, investigating every nook and cranny, only to return again and discover something I’d somehow overlooked. I fantasized about the secrets that hid behind rusting gates in crumbling brick walls. Even the streets names seduced me … Mystery, Desire and Tchoupitoulas. How could I not fall in love with a city where every day is an excuse for a parade and every meal a feast?
Traditionally, the cuisine here is Creole: an improbable but delightful ménage of French, Spanish, Caribbean and African flavors. In the passing years, the Italians, Cajuns and diverse cultures continue to spice the mix. The result is unique to this place, including dishes like jambalaya, etouffée, muffuletta and beignets with chicory coffee.
Much has changed in the post-Katrina city. For one thing, there are now more restaurants than before the hurricane! There were casualties, to be sure, but New Orleans has always been and continues to be an incubator for aspiring young chefs and innovation in cooking. Paul Prudhomme, Emeril Lagasse, Susan Spicer and many more made their names here. What remains constant, however, are an unequalled appreciation of good food and the joy of living.
Food and I have a serious relationship, one consummated long before I ever came to New Orleans, but one never as satiated anywhere else.
- Dan Curd
Find more local dining content—from features to columns to a searchable, comprehensive dining guide—here.