Madison Magazine

Best of Madison 2012

The people have spoken -- quite loudly -- and here are the winners for the Best of Madison 2012

By: Cara Harshman

What does Mickies Dairy Bar smell like on a chaotic Sunday morning breakfast rush? How does bath time at Waggin' Tails Doggie Dude Ranch sound? What makes Hopalicious such a good craft brew?

These are the types of questions this year's winners answered. Whether it's bath time, relaxation time or chow time, the 2012 Best of Madison catches the winners at their prime. We in Madison have endless options on where to eat, drink, do yoga, and have our clothes dry cleaned and cars fixed. You can go anywhere once but what is the vibe that separates the best from the rest? Since 1981, when readers cast 1,000 ballots to vote for the likes "best skuzzy bar" and "best dressed man," a lot and a little has transpired. The word "skuzzy" has exited our lexicon and Madison Magazine is in color. Yet 31 years later, 600 % more ballots cast (that's right, about 60,000 ballots) and the best hamburger is still Dotty's and Ella's Deli is still the best place to take kids.

The people have spoken—quite loudly—and here are the winners for Best of Madison 2012. 


>>Best Restaurant
GOLD: Nostrano | To fully capture Nostrano at its best, one must get out to the farm. Owners Tim and Elizabeth Dahl match each square inch of restaurant space with the same amount of garden space on Madison's west side. Much of the menu stems from the dishes Tim himself likes to eat. "I cook what I'm hungry for," he says flipping through a rustic Italian cookbook. "I want to eat that." Flips a page. "That looks awesome." It seems local diners share Tim's tastes.

Click here to view a photo slideshow of Nostrano.

SILVER: The Old Fashioned

BRONZE: Sardine

>>New Restaurant
GOLD: Merchant | Merchant is at its best right after the sun sets and the last rays of orange light intersect the golden glow of hanging lanterns, exposed bulbs and dim flicker of the tabletop candles. It's lively but not overcrowded. The sound of booze and ice emulsifying in shakers accents the conversation. Notes of fresh herbs and citrus tantalizingly mate with aromas of grilled burgers, steaks and roast chicken. The whole place—down to the food, the wallpaper and the exposed cement floor—feels rustic and nostalgic.

Click here to watch a video of Merchant.

SILVER: Buck & Honey's


GOLD: Marigold Kitchen

SILVER: Mickies Dairy Bar | Imagine a restaurant where grandmothers, businesspeople, college athletes and preteens order the breakfast: three generous portions of cheese-topped scrambled eggs atop a bed of "yanks," all smothered in gravy. The famous Scrambler is the dish that has brough generations to Mickies Dairy Bar since 1946. "People come here to go back in time," co-owner Janet Thongnuam says above the laughs and clatter filling the place on a Friday morning. "It's a place of memories." It's also a family affair, says Thongnuam, pointing out two of her kids working behind the counter. "And my husband's in the kitchen."

BRONZE: Original Pancake House

>>Neighborhood Bar
GOLD: Weary Traveler Freehouse

SILVER: Blue Moon Bar & Grill

BRONZE: Harmony Bar & Grill | The Harmony is a neighborhood joint that lives and breaths its surrounding community. It's a fan favorite whenever the Badgers, Brewers or Packers are vying for a title and at its best during happy hour and into the evening, when regulars, softball leagues, families and friends table up around great bar food and local brews.

Click here to view a photo slideshow of Harmony Bar.

GOLD: Greenbush Bakery |;At its prime time, around 5 or 6 p.m., when all the donuts have been baked and are neatly arranged on display, Greenbush Bakery is "a donut paradise," says general manager and baker Nels Labansky. Take a tour from donut production to consumption at this year's best bakery.

Click here to view a photo slideshow of Greenbush Bakery.

SILVER: La Baguette

BRONZE: Lanes Bakery & Gift Shop

>>Craft Brew
GOLD: Spotted Cow (New Glarus)

SILVER: Hopalicious (Ale Asylum) | A rush of luscious citrus aromas floods the nostrils. Lips meet the glass and pure hop flavors layered with citrus overtake the mouth. Another sip and yet no bitterness lingers. This is how Otto Dilba, co-founder of Ale Asylum Brewery, describes the first sip of a Hopalicious, but he won't tell you that. "We want people to experience Ale Asylum for themselves," he says. "We try never to tell people what they should think." Well, the people have spoken, and they've voted Hopalicious silver for best craft brew. Even before this American Pale Ale hit the shelves, brewmaster Dean Coffey knew he he had something special. Now it's the craft brewery's flagship beer, making up sixty percent of Ale Asylum's beer sales. It is clear this beer has a permanent spot on taps around Wisconsin. Hopalicious is the beer that Ale Asylum wants to be interesting for the connoisseur and easy for the novice. "We've got beers that are real heavy, bitter bombs, but Hopalicious is not meant to be that beer," Dilba says. When is Hopalicious at its best? The moment you finish it and still crave another.

BRONZE: Warped Speed Scotch Ale (Lake Louie) 

To see the full list of the Food & Drink winners, click here.


Arts Group
GOLD: American Players Theatre

SILVER: Madison Symphony Orchestra | Navigating the rocky waters between the sophisticated, educated listener and the average symphony-goer is a familiar job for John DeMain. Going into his 20th season as music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, DeMain always strives to find a balance between the "war-horses" pieces and "the curiosities." "I try to come up with an overview when I build a season," DeMain says. "We'll have a couple pieces that I think will push the audience. But I also make sure there is a good dose of your favorites symphonies." Listen to the full audio interview, and hear excerpts of DeMain's favorites from the 2011-2012 season online.

BRONZE: Children's Theater of Madison

Art Gallery or Museum
GOLD: Chazen Museum of Art

SILVER: Madison Museum of Contemporary Art

BRONZE: Overture Galleries

Live Music Venue
GOLD: High Noon Saloon

SILVER: Overture Center

BRONZE: Barrymore Theatre

To see the full list of Arts & Cultures winners, click here.


GOLD: Dragonfly Hot Yoga

SILVER: Inner Fire Yoga | As the students for a lunchtime "Core Fire" class trickle through the lobby, Karen Erstad, program manager and instructor at Inner Fire Yoga, sits behind a desk and greeted each by name. It's a warm space—and not just because the rooms crank up to 105 degrees for some hot classes. Pumpkin orange and sunflower walls, painted with words like joy and awaken, create a mood of rejuvenation and peace. "Our MO is if you're going to come here, you're going to have a workout," says owner Marit Sathrum. "But it's also more because the students learn the surrender part of it—the stillness."

BRONZE: Kneaded Relief Day Spa

>>Martial Arts Studio
GOLD: Villari's Martial Arts Center | It's Saturday morning and Villari's Martial Arts Center on State Street is full of four- to nine-year-olds held at attention—giggling intermittently. The instructors file in for their class and the mood is friendly, educational and most of all respectful. Material distractions are not welcome in the studio—the color of the belt is the only distinguishing factor between students here.

SILVER: Badgerland Jiu-jitsu

BRONZE: Infinity Martial Arts

>>Bed & Breakfast
GOLD: Mansion Hill Inn | Summer is prime-time at the Mansion Hill Inn. Guest flock from all over the Midwest for a unique getaway in one of ten rooms at this downtown bed and breakfast. By day, guests can traverse the Mansion Hill area on retro Trek bikes. "It's a really great spot if you're into cycling," says general manager Margaux Stutz. By night, the smell of freshly baked cookies permeates the air on the porches while guests sip nightcaps.

SILVER: Arbor House

BRONZE: Speckled Hen Inn

>>Pet Day Care, Boarding & Pamperer
GOLD: Camp K9

SILVER: Ruffin ‘It Resort

BRONZE: Waggin' Tails Doggie Dude Ranch and Pet Lodge | They start their dog days early. From 6:30 to 8:30 a.m. the door at Waggin' Tails constantly opens to canines pulling their owners along, eager to reunite with their daycare friends and frolic in the hose. The mood is rambunctious and very close knit. "This businesses is kind of like being a bartender," says Julie Bollenbach, the day care manager at Waggin' Tails. "Over fifty percent of our clients come two to three times a week. We know everybody."  

To view the full list of Shops & Services winners, click here.


>>Local Celebrity

The Leader
He's cool, funny, approachable and a winner. Not even an over-analyzed player transfer kerfuffle can dim Bo Ryan's star in the local celeb pantheon. He's one of the best basketball coaches in the country but as down-home as they come. Just the way we like our celebrities in Madison.

The Lawmaker
Yes, it says something that two of our top three celebrities are politicians. But serious, respectful and classy Rep. Tammy Baldwin has never treated politics like the game show it's become, nor has she acted like a celebrity. Which is exactly why she's one of the biggest, right?

The Lightning Rod
Heck, yes, a local celebrity can be right-wing rockstar. Gov. Scott Walker has attracted more national attention to Wisconsin than cheese. The question remains: Is he a one-hit wonder or on the verge of a Hall of Fame career?
For now, he's a Best of Madison celeb. 

>>Morning Radio Team
GOLD: Connie & Curtis, WZEE-Z104

SILVER: Jonathan& Kitty, 105.5 Triple M

BRONZE: Pat O'Neill & Bob Bonner, Magic 98

Radio Personality
GOLD: Sly in the Morning, WTDY 106.7 FM & 1670 AM

SILVER: Vicki McKenna, 1310 WIBA AM

BRONZE: Fish, 93.1 Jamz

TV Personality
GOLD: Charlie Shortino, NBC 15

SILVER: Leigh Mills, NBC 15

SILVER: Rob Starbuck, WISC-TV3

BRONZE: Carleen Wild, NBC 15

TV Team Evening Anchors
GOLD: Sarah Carlson, Eric Franke, Jay Wilson, Gary Cannalte, WISC-TV3 (Pictured above)

SILVER: Leigh Mills, John Stofflet, David George, Robb Vogel, NBC-15

BRONZE: Greg Jeschke, Amber Noggle, Bob Lindmeier, Jake Zimmerman, WKOW 27

Want to experience some of the Best of Madison winners? See our Multimedia coverage for Best of Madison 2012 here.

Local and Regional News