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An Ode to Madison (At Least Its Restaurants and Bars)

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As I’ve mentioned here before, I lived in Madison, Wisconsin, until moving back to Massachusetts recently. That means I’ve got restaurant/bar recommendations for days. With our most food-obsessed holiday coming, I thought it would be great to share some of the Madison establishments that I’ve been the most thankful for. I wish I had enough time and space to tell you about every single one of the hole-in-the-wall places that I love, but as you will soon discover, I’m already going through a huge list, so these are my absolute top recommendations.

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First, some honorable mentions. For a classic Italian deli experience, go to Casetta Kitchen and Counter and order the Italian. The portions are huge, so keep that in mind if you order a full, but you will not regret it. If you find yourself in the Atwood area and don’t mind a busy spot, hit up Tex Tubb’s for interesting, delicious tacos. And for a reasonably priced, tasty margarita, make the trip to The Mason Lounge. It’s in a bit of a strange location, but it’s definitely worth the trip; there’s fun decor and a cozy local vibe.

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Okay, now we’re ready to go for our ideal “day” in Madison. Keep in mind that if you do this all in one actual day, you’ll probably be taking in a Michael Phelps-like number of calories, but hey—you do you.

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Let’s start with coffee at Bradbury’s, a small and unassuming coffee shop/crêperie [Editor’s note: it’s impossible for a place that calls itself a crêperie to be “unassuming,” but we’ll go with it] located at the corner of North Hamilton and North Webster. Solid flat whites and chai lattes, but there’s something magical about their house cold brew. I’ve probably purchased about 100 cold brews from them, and it never got old. As soon as it hits your lips, the flavor comes bursting through—it’s the best coffee I’ve ever had from a store.
Food-wise, you can’t go wrong with a sweet or savory crêpe, but the real stars are their scones and muffins. They make them in house every day, and they roll out interesting savory flavor combinations like rosemary, gruyère, bacon, and apple in addition to more traditional options.

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Now on to breakfast. Time for a true Madison classic: Mickies Dairy Bar on Monroe Street, right next to Camp Randall (the University of Wisconsin football stadium, for the unfamiliar). It’s a bustling hotspot overflowing with students during the school year, which had long turned me off. But then I had the good fortune of going on a sleepy afternoon when school wasn’t in session—and man, Mickies is good. Think giant portions of classic breakfast options at a fraction of the price of your favorite hipster brunch joint. The Reuben omelet is incredible, and you have to try a malted milkshake. My personal favorite flavor: butterscotch.

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The selection of loose leaf tea and tea accessories at Macha Tea Company on Johnson Street is impressive, and rare for an American city that isn’t a major metropolis. But their lesser-known side is Friday lunch and Sunday brunch. They offer a rotating mix of options like traditional Japanese breakfasts and ancient grain bowls, with your choices appearing on Instagram (@machateacompany) the day before. However, their hours are limited and they only make a limited quantity of each menu item, so get there early if you want to ensure that you get your first choice. They also have seasonal beverages, like a summer watermelon cooler that is out of this world. And if you ever find them on a day where they have their ice cream sandwiches in stock, buy one. Hell, buy two!

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For a cheap and satisfying lunch, the Fresh Cool Drinks food cart is the way to go. Seriously, they sell avocado and shrimp/avocado and chicken rolls the size of Chipotle burritos for $3.50—though you should be mindful of the spice levels when you order, because things can get hot pretty quickly. They have tasty smoothies as well, so check them out at the farmer’s market in Capitol Square Saturday mornings or with the other food carts on State street near the UW library during the week.

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If you like Mediterranean food, you’ll like Banzo on Sherman Avenue. If you don’t like Mediterranean food, you’ll probably like Banzo. If you’re like a grandmother who says “I don’t eat hummus; I don’t like it,” you just haven’t had good hummus yet—go to Banzo anyway. It will change your mind. The patio has lost some of its charm now that a large apartment complex towers over Banzo, but it’s still a nice place to sit outside and enjoy one of Madison’s many green spaces. The hummus plate is fine if you’re really into hummus (it’s just a huge helping of hummus and either meat or falafel), but I’d recommend the F Bomb platter or the Chick wrap.

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Okay, I don’t know how we’ve gotten this far without talking about cheese curds, but they are a big deal in Wisconsin. If you’ve never tried them—let’s be honest, you probably haven’t if you haven’t actually been to Wisconsin before—then this is a non-negotiable part of your trip, period. They’re these squeaky little bits of cheese that you snack on in various forms, including fried. That’s right: Restaurants in Wisconsin take clumps of cheese and fry them up. My personal favorite curd spot is Graze on South Pinckney. It’s a strong restaurant in general, but I always find myself there for cheese curds. Most places make curds crispy-crunchy and kind of dense, but Graze’s manage to be light and fluffy, and they come with a divine aioli for dipping.

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If you go to Grampa’s Pizzeria on Williamson Street expecting a traditional pizza joint, then you’re going to be in for quite a surprise—Grampa’s offerings are probably best surprised as Italian-adjacent, but with a twist. All of the small plates are delicious, especially the fresh mozzarella if it’s on the menu. Pizza-wise, the seasonal pies are hard to beat, but the Finocchio, a sausage pizza with just the right amount of heat, is amazing too, and it’s always available.

You will probably be too full for a dessert, but they have a wonderful flourish at the end of the night: As you leave, they give you a small baked good, typically a shortbread cookie, as a palate cleanser/parting gift. It’s a really nice touch. If you have someone to go with, Tuesday date night is an incredible deal. You might wait a while for a table—it’s a tiny space—but you can duck over to the bar next door while you’re waiting (more on that later).

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Downtown Madison is home to a wealth of fine dining spots, but the only farm-to-table place that I found myself eager to return to was A Pig in a Fur Coat on Williamson, a family-style restaurant specializing in shared small plates. It’s hard to offer too many specifics since the menu is constantly changing, but if they have foie gras or pork rillettes on the menu, you should start there. It’s not cheap, but the food is so good that it’s worth it anyway. Skip the pricey cocktails if you’re strapped for cash, and you can still get a high-quality meal without totally destroying your bank account.

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Okay, now it’s time to start drinking. Breweries are springing up all around the country as craft beer has its moment, and my favorite local brewery in Madison is One Barrel, located on Atwood Avenue. It was just getting off the ground when I first moved to Madison; they didn’t bottle or widely distribute their beer, so you could only get it from the taproom or certain local bars and restaurants. They’re a little more popular now, so you can easily buy a six-pack, but you should head to Atwood to check out the taproom anyway. Not only is Atwood packed with other good bars and restaurants, but they offer beers onsite that you can’t get anywhere else. The Breakfast Beer is tasty (and served in a coffee mug if you get it at the taproom), but my favorite is the Commuter Kölsch: light and refreshing, but with a surprising amount of flavor.

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Since Madison is a college town, there’s no shortage of dive bars. When I was going out with friends a lot, we frequented these establishments and I knew the lay of the land pretty well, and my favorite spot was always City Bar. Located on State Street near the UW library, it’s a place that kind of reminds you of a speakeasy from the outside—you go down a suspicious-looking set of stairs that eventually opens to a below-ground bar. But once you’re inside, it’s just another well-worn dive lounge. Go for a strawberry or cucumber press, made with house-infused vodkas.

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When I was living in Madison, the most likely place for me to end a night out had to be Gib’s on Williamson, so it’s only fitting that we end here as well. I didn’t discover it until my second year in town, but I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that it’s the best cocktail bar I’ve been to in the United States. I’ve had every cocktail there so many times that I got to the point where I would just ask the bartenders to spin something new out of fresh air, and they never disappointed.

Gib’s was where I drank the best Tom Collins I’ve ever had, made with Topo Chico mineral water, and it’s where I learned that spicy cocktails were not only a thing, but a really good thing. If you ever go and the This Is A Hot Drink is on the menu, get it; it’s the best cocktail I’ve ever had. It can be a little pricy, but later at night, they serve classics like sidecars or mules at a discount, and their beer list is anchored by Schlitz for those who want to get buzzed on the cheap.

Gib’s is owned by Grampa’s Pizzeria (remember them from earlier?), so if you’re waiting in a long line for a table, you just pop over for a drink or two while you wait. And they do special craft cocktail events where they bring in other bartenders to put together delicious new concoctions that they often serve at a discounted price.

-Ian Wood