Madison was a farm-to-table foodie town long before most people even knew what that meant, so any list that highlights certain restaurants and leaves out others is bound to lead to a heated debate among local folks. So let’s just say that this list gives you a starting point for your MadTown culinary adventures (and, if you’re up for some passionate discussion, your conversations with your new neighbors)!
The ultimate foodie paradise, L’Etoile has been consistently ranked one of the top restaurants in Madison since its opening in 1976. Chef Tory Birch, winner of multiple James Beard awards and an Iron Chef Showdown champion, prepares spectacular meals that unfurl beautifully throughout your evening, brimming with local fare. With the majestic Capitol as a glowing backdrop and a wait staff capable of passionate and detailed recommendations, L’Etoile creates a full experience, not just a meal.
Graze is L’Etoile’s sister restaurant as well as neighbor. Its menu may be more casual (and less pricey), but boasts the same local sourcing and inventiveness. And the renowned Bloody Mary is indeed something to behold! Order yourself one of those and a basket of cheese curds, and you’ll find yourself content to pass a couple of lovely hours watching people bustle around the square.
We’re only at the third restaurant in our list, but it’s probably becoming apparent to you that Madison’s food scene is an embarrassment of riches. With another James Beard award-winner at the helm, Heritage Tavern quickly made a name for itself as sustainably-sourced, creative, and tasty. Chef Dan Fox also founded a farm of heritage breeds of pigs, which supply his and other area restaurants.
If you wanted, you could eat every meal of the day here. (And believe me, you’ll want to!) Start your morning with roasted coffee and a delectable pastry (maybe their famous cretzel), grab a takeaway lunch from the cafe or sit down to a more leisurely midday meal in the restaurant, and return for an evening meal that truly earns the restaurant its name. If you have a group of ten or less, you can even opt to dine at the oak table that has hosted six generations of Owner Trish Davis’s family on their South Dakota farm. Cap off the evening with one of the creative cocktails (the Philosoraptor, perhaps).
Also known as the Tornado Club Steakhouse, this place is a classic supper club: from the decor (wood paneling, cozy lighting, curved upholstered booths in the bar) to the food (relish tray, iceberg wedge salad, crispy hash browns, and expertly prepared steaks on sizzling pewter plates). The menu rarely changes, but why would it? You don’t mess with perfection, and Tornado has certainly achieved that.
This spot on the square is a good place to start if you want an introduction to Wisconsin fare: cheese plates, beer, cheese curds, beer, burgers, beer, Door County cherry salad, beer… you get the idea! They also have standard Wisconsin staples like a Friday fish fry and (of course) old-fashioneds.
Situated just off the square in a corner building with a fascinating local history, Lucille has a sparkling industrial vibe that befits the dizzying array of appealing cocktails and drinks. The food selection is also fittingly diverse; choose from tacos or Peruvian roast chicken, conch fritters or empanadas, and wood-fired or steel-pan pizza. But best of all is the basement lounge, which features a tufted velveteen lounge that stretches around the perimeter of the former bank vault. Also worth checking out is sister restaurant Merchant.
If sandwiches and beer are your jam, Roast is your place. Whether your sandwich of choice is a wrap, burger, or pulled pork, you’ll find it here. Plus its location gives you an excuse to stroll State Street and maybe even stop off at Chocolate Shoppe for some after-dinner ice cream. And sister restaurant Forage just a block away that offers various salads and protein bowls. In the episode of the vlog below, we stop by Roast after meeting Donald Driver. It will give you a look inside.
Juicy burgers and crisp fries (or gooey cheese curds) in a cozy pub atmosphere make Dotty’s a perfect destination for a fall meal. But check the basketball schedule first; the Kohl Center is a couple of blocks away, so you’ll find yourself waiting a long time if you show up on a game day. Dotty’s was one of the finalist in the I Love Madison Food Tournament to determine who has Madison’s Best Burger.
Café Hollander is the sole Madison offering from the Milwaukee-area Lowlands Group, and its bike-and-bier concept in the tradition of the Benelux region (Belgium/Netherlands/Luxembourg) make a fitting match for our cycle-centric city. Gather with your friends for some ale, frites, and lively conversation after an afternoon bike ride.
This pub has been staple in Dane County for almost 25 years. Each of the four Madison-area locations (plus one in Wausau) serve an extensive menu of food and beer, including some house-brewed selections, and offer a fun atmosphere with pool tables, game areas, and shuffleboard courts. The downtown location is especially appealing, with its historic architecture and secluded beer garden area.
This Sun Prairie spot is worth the trip to the suburbs for its cheese curds, meat loaf (trust us!), and a specially-topped pizza called “Donation Creation”, part of whose proceeds are donated to a local social service organization called Sunshine Place. In warmer months, an excellent variety of live music is featured on the outdoor patio. Buck n’ Honey’s is the Champion of the 2018 I Love Madison Food Tournament for Madison’s Best Cheese Curds!
Whether you choose the downtown Madison location or head back out to Sun Prairie, Sal’s earns the right to call their pizzas by another name. The from-scratch tomato pies (and a small but worthy selection of other offerings) all feature clever combinations of fresh, seasonal ingredients from local farms and purveyors.
Craftsman is one of more than a dozen unique restaurants owned and operated by the local restaurant group Food Fight (and they’re all worth trying). This particular establishment, in the western suburb of Middleton, aptly describes its delicious food as “hearty” and “rustic”, and offers an extensive range of brews and drinks. Its brown-leather-and-oak interiors make it an ideal spot to draw up a chair on a winter’s eve, and its outdoor patio is a congenial setting for after-work drinks or a leisurely lunch in the brief but lovely warm season.
Even if this were just a run-of-the-mill restaurant, it would draw satisfied crowds simply due to its jaw-dropping location above MMOCA (the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art) with sweeping views across downtown Madison and down State Street toward the Capitol’s gleaming marble dome. (There’s nothing better than savoring a drink as the lights of the Orpheum Theatre marquee glow to life across the street!) But Fresco also has serious foodie cred, with its locally-sourced menu and innovative preparations. Whether you choose to eat in the sleek red and white dining room or opt for a table in the rooftop sculpture garden, your experience here will leave feeling inspired and content. (It’s also worth noting that this is also Food Fight restaurant.)
As you can tell from this abundant list, Madison has no shortage of places to satisfy (and whet!) your appetite. We could have created a list of breakfast places alone and still had trouble whittling it down! So consider this selection merely the beginning of your foray into Madison’s food scene, and let it guide you toward myriad other restaurants you can enjoy as you continue to build your life in this awesome city.