Over the past years, Madison has earned a reputation as a bustling center for the arts – from visual, musical, to the culinary. With regard to good food, it comes as no surprise given the state capital’s assortment of restaurants with rave reviews, chefs and artisans with accolades and decorations, and a thriving farmer’s market with only fresh locally-grown produce.
As a foodie hub rapidly growing in influence – from the rest of Dane County to the entire Wisconsin, and now spreading towards nearby states – Madison definitely has a candidate regardless of your craving. However, start that gastronomic adventure with these four must-try restaurants in the Mad City.
- Bonfyre Grille
Starting off this list is a rather relaxed setting but with a menu intended to leave a lasting impression with their contemporary American cuisine. Living up to its mission of providing “quality food and service in an upscale casual environment,” Bonfyre Grille has been operating for ten years now and has earned its spot among food blogs and lifestyle magazines as one of the top things to do in Madison.
Their bonfire menus are rotating from Lunch and DInner, plus a Sunday Brunch and a Happy Hour menu. Also, the list of dishes to choose from include seasonal treats available for a limited time only. Among the best sellers in this pot, roast joint include Mort’s Pot Roast – slow-roasted pork served with red wine demi-glace together with baby carrots, asparagus, mash, spinach, and shiitake mushrooms. For seafood, check out their Wood-Fyred Trio dish which is a union of salmon, scallops, and shrimp flavored with Swiss chard, spring risotto, and lemon caper sauce.
Another reason guests flock the Bonfyre is its bar, with a seasonally changing lineup of spirits and of course, beer on tap. There are about 16 beers on tap, including local brews. Also, they maintain an unchanging set of cocktails, as the rest of the menu also changes with the seasons. It includes their signature Bonfyre’s Irish Margarita and the Fyre and Ice, their iteration of the Bloody Mary, but with added toppings.
2. Ha Long Bay
This family-owned restaurant definitely whips up authentic dishes from Vietnamese, Thai, and Laotian cuisine including a selection of seasoned rice, noodle, and curry-based dishes. The name of the restaurant, by the way, is taken from the UNESCO World Heritage Site in Vietnam whose name literally translates to “descending dragon.” Truly. This restaurant has grown into a dragon of the Madison culinary scene with the flavors of Southeast Asia in its arsenal.
First, there is no need to get overwhelmed with their large menu. Start with their thin glass-like Pad Thai noodles and taste Thailand in an instant. Also, another popular pick for its regulars is the drunken noodle or the kee-mao Thai. Do not worry, this is not an alcohol-infused noodle meal, it got its name as a famous post-drinking meal. You would also do well not to miss the Vietnamese spring rolls – thin rice paper wraps a surprisingly filling mix of vegetables, shrimp, and pork. Another choice pick is the Sai Oua, a Laotian-style sausage made from ground pork mixed with herbs and usually served in slices resting on a mix of fresh steamed vegetables.
One word of caution though, while it often comes up in recommendations for takeout meals, do not expect a short in-and-out transaction especially during lunch and dinner hours. The line does get long at the Descending Dragon Bay.
3. The Old Fashioned
If you are looking for meals that capture the essence of Madison, and by extension, the state of Wisconsin, look no further than The Old Fashioned. To further emphasize its delectable dishes hitting home, the restaurant gets its ingredients from local farmers, brewers, and suppliers.
Newcomers to the city are often invited to try out their fried cheese curds, available in a variant dipped in Wisconsin beer batter. You can also take a bite out of the Wisconsin Burger – beef grilled over live fire and topped with melted Cheddar, olive oil mayonnaise and raw onions on a toasted bun. Also, for a whiff of delicious change, they have designated meals for every night of the week. From cheeseburger Mondays to taco Tuesdays all the way down to prime rib Saturdays and Scandinavian Sundays.
Of course, completing the experience is The Old Fashioned’s selection of beers and wines – about 150 of them. There is a weekly rotation of beers available on tap and of course about a hundred bottles readily available for customers with that exact taste they are looking for.
4. The Green Owl Cafe
Imagine a restaurant winning a “best BLT sandwich award” in the city’s Restaurants Awards. Now imagine the same restaurant winning said award without using actual bacon. That is the kind of quality pulled off by the people at The Green Owl Cafe, standing high as Madison’s only vegetarian restaurant.
Fitting perfectly with the vegetarian lifestyle, The Green Owl Cafe along Atwood Avenue offers a top-notch menu without any shred of meat. The chefs are incredibly creative in preparing and serving faux-meat, recreating a greener version of common restaurant fares, to its customers. Vegan schnitzel and vegetable jambalaya are among their bestsellers. Also, you can try out nachos, a peanut macro bowl, and their quinoa salad. Another dish customers seem to can’t get enough of is their TLT – tempeh, lettuce, and cheese. This was their entry in the aforementioned Madison Restaurants Awards, with the smoked and flavorful tempeh – a meat substitute from soybeans – was used in place of the traditional bacon.
Lest we forget, the Green Owl Cafe also serves a nifty selection of drinks, wines, and cocktails. Take a sip of Chaitini – Chai tea mixed with vanilla bean vodka with syrup and a dash of coconut milk. For a bit of warmth, try the Blazin Berry with its hot pepper tequila base, plus a concoction of raspberry and pomegranate with freshly squeezed lemon. Most of their wines are specially requested, organic, and most are sourced from local vineyards. They also keep a close connection with these farmers and producers and even take their ideas in further developing their amazingly green menu.