I moved to Willy Street in 1978. Precisely speaking, I no longer live there, but with apologies to Sarah Palin, I can still see it from my house. I’ve also worked in the same building on Williamson for the past seventeen years. When I first arrived, there were lots of billboards, five gas stations, two biker bars and too many dilapidated buildings. Much has changed here and not without controversy, yet the neighborhood hasn’t lost its quirkiness or diversity that are its charm.
Just ten blocks long, Williamson Street is home to twenty-two unique dining options (with at least three more on the horizon), four bakeries, a butcher shop and an outrageously successful food co-op that bears its name. From east to west (and around the world!), here is my taster’s tour of the most delicious street in town.
600 Williamson St. (Gateway Mall), 255-5580 A Williamson Street pioneer, it relocated here from Park Street almost three decades ago and has since doubled in size. As in so many Chinese restaurants, the menu resembles a novella. Regardless, zero in on the homemade noodles: thin and wide, in broth and sauced. Fat wontons and Shanghai chicken fried noodles never fail to satisfy. $ BOM
600 Williamson St. (Gateway Mall), 255-6910 It may be the only Indonesian restaurant in town, but it ranks among the best anywhere. There are many exotic dishes to choose from, all made from fresh ingredients and deftly prepared, but I’m addicted to the homemade tofu. (Yes, tofu that is subtly flavored and with a pleasant texture!) Even though pad Thai originated in Thailand, I love how they make it at Bandung, flavored with kecap manis, Indonesian sweet soy sauce. $$
617 Williamson St. (Machinery Row), 441-1600 I could easily convince myself that I was dining in a Parisian brasserie, but the view of Lake Monona reminds me that I’m not. Cooking is appropriately classic French with pommes frites, steamed mussels, duck confit and other favorites. The bar is a convivial gathering place and the dining room worthy of white linen. In my opinion, their Sunday brunch is the best in town. $$$ BOM
744 Williamson St., 208-9378 The genre of cooking is popularly dubbed “Tex-Mex” but in truth it’s pure Texas. Anyone who knows anything about the Lone Star State knows that when it puts its brand on something, it’s theirs! Proof positive is the chicken-fried steak, smoked beef brisket and lobster, shrimp and crab enchiladas. The bar stocks about every brand of tequila I’ve ever heard of and then some and not surprisingly makes a superior margarita. $$$
805 Williamson St., 283-4266 Stumbling upon this small place is serendipitous for sure. Nanou Rieunier and her cooking partner Dee Kuech specialize in authentic French bourgeois cuisine—homestyle cooking. The short menu includes several varieties of savory and sweet crêpes, salade niçoise and croque-monsieur; along with specials that change weekly, including irresistible desserts like lavender crème brûlée and chocolate gateau. $$
811 Williamson St., 338-3421 Part of the Underground Food Collective, it’s as much about the future as the past. Selling farm-raised, locally sourced meats and poultry, Underground features cuts rarely found elsewhere. What often might go to waste here becomes sausage, pâté, rillettes and terrines. With a nice selection of artisan cheese, quality baked goods, wonderful housemade comestibles and sandwiches made to order, it’s the perfect place to pick up a picnic lunch. $$
901 Williamson St., 251-1100 This being his fifth food venture, Vasilis Kallias knows something about pleasing the public. The mostly Greek-inspired selections are fresh and modern. He certainly prepares old favorites like spanakopita and gyros with hand-cut fries, but also offers more complex dishes like braised lamb shanks cooked in red wine. Many daily food and drink specials make it a popular neighborhood diner. $
916 Williamson St., 442-8009 For way too long what was marketed here as French bread resembled Wonder Bread more than the genuine article. In 1994, all that changed when Madison Sourdough came to town. In the subsequent years, it added croissants, brioche and other French-style pastries to its repertoire. With its move to Willy Street came a café that serves breakfast, lunch and light meals until the early evening. Their pretty patio is an idyllic spot to while away a sunny day. $ BOM
923 Williamson St., 819-6319 A century-old cottage might seem an incongruous setting for a contemporary Japanese restaurant, but the combination works. It’s a simple yet intimate setting for a meal built around ramen and dumplings with an appetizer or dessert. As far as I’m concerned, the steamed bun with pork belly, pickled cucumbers, scallions and hoisin sauce is reason enough to frequent Umami. $$
940 Williamson St., 316-3300 Butcher blocks mingle with crystal chandeliers, creating a setting as whimsical as its name, but chef Dan Bonanno takes his food very seriously. His creations are some of the city’s most distinctive—making use of the likes of tripe, rabbit and foie gras—and his preparation is most imaginative and artful. At the communal tables expect to rub elbows with gourmands and hipsters alike who flock here for memorable meals. $$$ BOM
944 Williamson St., 256-0202 Tucked away in a baby strip mall, Bahn Thai was Madison’s first Thai restaurant. Many have come and gone since, but this family-run business caters to a loyal clientele. Traditional Thai mainstays like spring rolls, Tom Ka Gai, pad Thai, and red and green curries are reliably prepared and served by a friendly staff at both lunch and dinner. $$
310 S. Brearly St. (just off Williamson), 260-8568 These are not your mamacita’s burritos, but rather tortillas packed with unconventional ingredients and a fusion of flavors that explode on your taste buds. The signature “White Trash Burrito” made with Spam, tater tots, baked beans and Velveeta is unusual to say the least. Open daily until 3 a.m., it’s especially jumping at bar time with revelers seeking a distinctive late-night nosh. $
1054 Williamson St., 258-2000 From the start, this place has thought outside of the pizza box. Founders Tom Cranley and Brewer Stouffer’s mission was to make a better pizza—handmade using better ingredients with more imagination. Who would have guessed that the Algo Malo with beets, blue cheese and walnuts would attain a cult-like following? Proof of its success are locations in Fitchburg, Middleton and soon in Whitefish Bay near Milwaukee. $ BOM
Café Costa Rica 1133 Williamson St., 256-9830 Located in an old house that is vintage Willy Street, it’s as funky and laidback as some of its neighbors. This is Thony “Mango Man” Clarke’s latest effort, which began with a downtown food cart that introduced much of Madison to Costa Rican cooking. Empanadas with a choice of fillings including a dessert variety are Mango Man’s forte. His piled-high plate lunches come with gallo pinto (rice with beans), fried plantains and salad. $ Editor's note: Cafe Costa Rica is now closed.
1146 Williamson St., 280-0104 This shoebox of a place is home to some really big flavors. It bills itself as “Madison’s first authentic Laotian restaurant.” It is unarguably one of the best. I think the curried squash is an inspired vegetarian dish, but my favorite is moak gai—chicken, ground pork and hot peppers wrapped in banana leaves served with a dipping sauce. Dishes come in four degrees of heat from “timid” to “native Lao” (which will set your mouth on fire!). $$ BOM
1201 Williamson St., 442-6207 Bonhomie rather than décor defines a pub. It needs to be a neighborhood rendezvous and dispense a commendable selection of beer. Good food is a plus. The Weary Traveler qualifies on all counts. It’s the home of the Bob’s Bad Breath Burger that perennially makes the list of Madison’s best hamburgers. It’s one of a handful of places where you can buy Calliope ice cream—its flavors are as eclectic and exotic as Willy Street itself! $ BOM
1210 Williamson St., 251-3902 A Willy Street old-timer, the vibe here is spring break, the food pan-Caribbean, and the drinks sheer caprice. It’s difficult to say whether I enjoy coming here more on a dreary winter’s day, or in summer when I can sit outside on the patio. After a couple of mai tais, a must order of conch fritters and some jerk pork, I’ll be humming “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” all the way home. $$ BOM
Willy Street Co-op 1221 Williamson St., 251-6776 The 9,500-square-foot facility is a full-service natural food store that rivals Whole Foods. It overlooks its humble beginning, a small building across the street it once shared with a flooring company. Then it sold mostly bulk foods and an unpredictable selection of organic produce. Today, prepared food from the bakery and deli—with extensive gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan options—is an integral part of its appeal. A second location opened in Middleton and another looks likely. BOM
1236 Williamson St., 251-6234 This hole-in-the-wall combination grocery and restaurant has only a few oilcloth-covered tables, but the attraction is generous portions of authentic jerk barbecue. Owner Martin Deacon hails from Port Antonio, and like many other Madison restaurateurs, started out with a food cart. He also caters and sells imported Jamaican food products, as well as his homemade jerk marinade and key lime pies. $ BOM
1353 Williamson St., 255-2868 The multipage menu includes many tempting Thai, Laotian and Vietnamese specialties, but I always opt for the last category. Of all the Asian cuisines, I think Vietnamese is my favorite. It can be both assertive and subtle, and Ha Long Bay does it well. As expected, there are many soups—including the national soul food, pho—and noodle dishes. Everything is fresh and full of flavor-making it difficult to choose, but the pan-fried whole red snapper with lemongrass is extraordinary. $ BOM
1358 Williamson St., 257-5263 Open only for breakfast and lunch with no table service, this place really bustles on the weekend. The best-in-town scones come in sundry flavors with a gluten-free option. It’s not surprising that owner Jane Capito, whose roots are in Madison’s legendary Ovens of Brittany, would know something about fine baking. $
1524 Williamson St., 251-9964 There’s nothing shiny or slick about this place, but rather it has a comfort level like a pair of jeans that comes only from wear and tear. Bar food, however, is top shelf and even stylish (like the Sexy Fries, homemade potato chips with truffle oil and Parmesan). Beer lovers should appreciate the large selection of craft brews, bargain hunters the drink specials, and just about everyone the outdoor patio. $ BOM
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