Eclectic Eats on Atwood Avenue

Don't skip this side of town for some of the city's most delicious—and diverse—dining options

The tarts at Chocolaterian Cafe are a decadent treat.

The tarts at Chocolaterian Cafe are a decadent treat.

PHOTO BY MARTHA BUSSE

It was a blue-collar neighborhood that grew up in the first half of the twentieth century. Atwood Avenue teemed with mom-and-pop markets, bakeries and taverns. With the advent of suburban shopping centers in the 1960s, many of the businesses shuttered. But gradually things changed for the better. The upward and mobile found the well-built houses close to downtown attractive. Artists, musicians and writers began to call this quarter home. Today it’s a copacetic mix of residents that span all ages, races and orientations. Thriving shops and cafes line the avenue once more. Few places in our city can claim more exciting and appealing dining and entertainment options that reflect the diversity of this community. 

Alchemy Cafe
1980 Atwood Ave., 204-7644
Rather than magic it was first-rate food that turned a lackluster bar into a happening hipster hangout. The menu relies on imaginative sandwiches and apps, plus a handful of entrées. But many come for the sides of sweet potato fries and wasabi green beans alone. Friday night fish fry has always been a big deal in this part of town and still is at the Alchemy. $$

Bunky’s Café
2425 Atwood Ave., 204-7004
Transplanted from Madison’s old Greenbush hood, the new Bunky’s has thrived and grown on Atwood Avenue. The Italian-Mediterranean cuisine reflects the heritage of its owners, Teresa Pullara and Rachid Ouabel.  Not to be missed are spaghetti and meatballs, falafel and humus, nor tempting nightly specials as delightfully eclectic as the décor. It’s the rare place where cannoli don’t come straight from the freezer. $$ BOM

Chocolaterian Cafe
2004 Atwood Ave., 249-1156
Just a few years ago, who would have guessed people would be drinking Parisian-style hot chocolate and eating French pastries at what was the Schenk-Huegel uniform shop? As the name hints, this is a temple to the greater glory of chocolate. Since one does not live by chocolate alone, it also offers a daily selection of buttery-crusted quiche, charcuterie and cheese platters, seasonal salads and savory soups. $

Daisy Cafe & Cupcakery
2827 Atwood Ave., 241-2200
Since Leske’s Steakhouse abandoned this converted house in the ’60s, many other eateries have followed, none more successful than its current occupant. Though it serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, it’s the signature cupcakes that set it apart. Available daily are eight slathered-in-buttercream favorites and the sacrosanct cream-cheese-frosted carrot and red velvet numbers. New creations are added seasonally for a repertoire that currently totals over three hundred different cupcakes. $

Dobhan Restaurant
2110 Atwood Ave., 242-4448
It’s a Nepalese restaurant, but a bit eclectic, too, so it shouldn’t seem strange that it features weekend brunch. Many are drawn here for tried-and-true favorites like eggs Benedict, pancakes and waffles, enjoyed in a bright and beautiful dining room. Those seeking more than their eggs over easy will appreciate exotic fare like phull mumari—Indian-style poached eggs atop mung bean cakes, or variously filled dosa—thin rice crepes. $$ BOM

Gail Ambrosius Chocolatier
2086 Atwood Ave., 249-3500
If life indeed is like a box of chocolates, I hope my box comes from here. They’re so good because of the chocolate itself, which is single-sourced (harvested from the same region), giving it unique character. Filling and flavorings are imaginative without being weird—a trend today where experimentation is over the top. As good as the truffles are, the salt-sprinkled, dark chocolate-dipped caramels are perfection. $$ BOM

Glass Nickel Pizza Co.
2916 Atwood Ave., 245-0880
Named for founders Brian Glassel and Tim Nicholson, the business came to Atwood in 1997 as a carryout/delivery joint. Moving to bigger digs down the street added a full-service dining room and calzones and pasta. Pizza still rules, including several unconventional varieties like Thai Pie with peanut sauce and Couch Potato with wedge fries, sour cream, cheddar and bacon. Glass Nickel boasts six other locations statewide. $$ BOM

Green Owl Café
1970 Atwood Ave., 285-5290
It may be the only exclusively vegetarian restaurant in town, but it strives to serve food that should please vegetarians, vegans and carnivores, alike. The atmosphere is bright and welcoming and the range of choices appealing. Long before opening her own restaurant, Jennie Capellaro was famous all over town for her sublime vegan soups, a strong component here. A once-a-month event is a fixed-price raw-food dinner. $$

Harmony Bar & Grill
2201 Atwood Ave., 249-4333
It’s unquestionably one of the city’s classic corner bars. The patrons appropriately are a multifarious yet harmonious mix of real people and the atmosphere perpetual celebration. Folks from all over town come to devour the hot chips with blue cheese dip and walnut burgers. The jukebox is full of beloved blues and jazz discs and some of the area’s top bands perform here. $$ BOM

Jenifer Street Market
2038 Jenifer St., 244-6646
A couple of blocks off Atwood, this grocery is very much part of the area’s food universe. It only looks small on the outside.  Inside there’s a service meat counter, deli and bakery; rotisserie chicken and other takeaway hot food; local produce in season; an impressive selection of artisan cheese and wine, too! But it’s the many only-found-here items that attract gourmets from afar.

Lao Laan-Xang Restaurant
2098 Atwood Ave., 819-0140
It’s the younger, bigger sibling of the original Willy Street location. Lao specialties—soups, noodles, curries and stir-fries—have needle-sharp flavors and can be had as hot as you like. Most entrees include a choice of main ingredient—tofu, chicken, pork, beef or seafood—so there are lots of options for vegetarians. My all-time favorite is the curried squash in coconut milk with Thai eggplant and basil. $$ BOM

Michael’s Frozen Custard
3826 Atwood Ave., 222-4110
This was Madison’s homegrown custard’s second stand and the first to offer more than frozen treats. Intentionally built to resemble an old-fashioned diner, it dishes ubiquitous drive-in stalwarts. Hamburgers, hot dogs and fries, however, are incomplete without a malt, shake or Michael’s sundae.  The Turtle with hot fudge, gooey caramel and salted pecans is its best seller and hard to beat. $ BOM

Monty’s Blue Plate Diner
2089 Atwood Ave., 244-8505
Founder Monty Schiro launched the Food Fight restaurant group from this former gas station. After twenty years, Monty’s still remains an eastside magnet, attracting a crowd at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Besides the inevitable eggs every which way, burgers and fries, the house specialty is a galaxy of homemade pies and other sweets. Perhaps unexpected, though, are the many vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options. $ BOM

Next Door Brewing Company
2425 Atwood Ave., 204-7004
Despite the recent influx of white wine drinkers, beer still remains the near-east side’s drink of choice. So it’s fitting that a microbrewery has arisen in its midst. Next Door’s mission is to make beer good enough to leave home for—no matter where you live—and food that’s as well-crafted as its brews. With numerous communal tables, it’s the team’s perfect post-game rendezvous.

Stalzy’s Deli & Bakery
2701 Atwood Ave., 249-7806
This delicatessen is a hybrid combining New York’s traditional deli preferences with Madison’s penchant for locally sourced and homemade. All the anticipated favorites are here, including piled-high sandwiches with house-cured corned beef and pastrami. A lot of the rolls and breads are baked on premises. Paradoxically, Friday’s incongruous fried walleye sandwich with coleslaw fits right in. $

Tex Tubb’s Taco Palace
2009 Atwood Ave., 242-1800
This Texas-style taqueria is an offshoot of Kevin Tubb’s successful Eldorado Grill. What sets these tacos, burritos and tortas apart from those at Mexican restaurants is the Lone Star State’s idiosyncrasy for barbecued meats, fried avocados, jalapeño poppers, taco salads and Frito pie. Frozen margaritas come in every flavor under the Texas sun and by the pitcher or glass. $

Wilson’s Bar and Grill
2144 Atwood Ave., 241-2226 
This friendly sports bar has more TV screens than Best Buy and an extensive repertoire of fried and grilled pub grub. It’s the Friday fish fry and Saturday night prime rib, however, when diners outnumber drinkers. Weeknight comfort food specials like chicken pot pie and meatloaf have fans as loyal as those there to watch the Badgers and Packers. $

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