Enjoying Mediterranean and Middle Eastern restaurants around Madison is a great way to explore our city’s culinary diversity. Though most of the restaurants offer dishes familiar to our palates—creamy hummus, crisp falafel and juicy kebabs—these eateries love to let the flavors of their homelands shine. From the robust seasonings of Algeria to the playful spices of the Greek Isles to the bright herbal notes of Persian cuisine, your taste buds are sure to enjoy the trip. The only challenge now is where to begin.

 

239 E. Main St., Sun Prairie, 837-5700 Delicious Greek food on the far east side! Of course you can get a gyro, loaded with savory meat, tangy yogurt sauce, fresh tomatoes and piquant onions, but why not return for date night and share a combo platter? It features pastitsio, layers of baked pasta mixed with ground beef, topped with a cream sauce; moussaka, baked eggplant with savory tomato-beef sauce and creamy bechamel laced with a hint of cinnamon; and gyro meat, all accompanied by pita, rice pilaf and green beans. Chocolate baklava and the Rosy Aphrodite cocktail ensure a perfect ending to a great meal. $$   

2105 Sherman Ave., 441-2002 Many of us know Banzo via their popular food cart, which opened in 2011. The launch of their Sherman Avenue location was music to our ears—more of their great food! Banzo’s perfectly crisp-on-the-outside, tender-on-the-inside falafel, flavored generously with cumin, parsley and other herbs and spices, has always created quite a stir, and pairs perfectly with grilled chicken or beef kebabs (featuring cuts from Black Earth Meats) on their F-bomb sandwich. Add a side of French fries without guilt—they use Wisconsin potatoes! Or go veggie with the Harvest sandwich, featuring falafel, greens and seared eggplant. For two extra bucks, you can make it a platter with hummus, pita, salad and rice.  $ BOM

2425 Atwood Ave., 204-7004  Bunky’s lentil soup isn’t just something to tide you over until your meal comes; every bite of the delicious fusion of pureed lentils and fragrant spices is worth savoring. But save room for the Mediterranean veggie combo platter, which you can get as an appetizer or entrée. It boasts generous portions of tabouli, hummus, baba ghanouj, falafel and stuffed grape leaves served with warm pita bread. Also leave room for a slice of homemade tiramisu, or one of the restaurant’s famous gluten-free cakes. $$ BOM

2611 Monroe St., 441-5444 Gather around Jacs rustic wooden bar for a drink with friends—choose from fifteen craft and Belgian beers on tap. Among the European-influenced cuisine are some Mediterranean-inspired appetizers. In the mood for something sweet and salty? Try the almond-stuffed dates wrapped in bacon. Or enjoy the hummus, which the chef infuses with seasonal flavors such as roasted red pepper, pea and mint and roasted garlic and black pepper. The flatbread with walnut pesto, chevre and arugula is a meal for one.  $$

Istanbul Supermarket745 S. Gammon Rd., 277-1771 Frequented by local Middle Eastern residents, this unassuming supermarket near the west-side Woodman’s offers a small but standout selection of to-go dishes including chicken kebab, shawarma and gyros. You can also pick up ingredients, from Turkish coffee and tea to preserves and candies to whole chickens, to make your own delicious meal at home. The market serves food 1–9 p.m. $

141 S. Butler St., 216-4511 Owner Laila Borokhim follows in the culinary footsteps of her grandma, making traditional Persian dishes that utilize unique ingredients such as dried lime, saffron and turmeric. Layla uses local Wisconsin ingredients, varying her menu to reflect the season. Try the kuku, a Persian frittata that features market-fresh vegetables and fragrant herbs, or enjoy the ghormeh sabzi, a hearty stew of fresh herbs, beans, dried Persian lime and turmeric-seasoned lamb, served with rice. The small restaurant is tucked downstairs, but snag one of the few seats outside on the sunny porch, take a bite of her food and imagine warm Mediterranean waters. $

5510 University Ave., 238-7111 It seems that just the mention of Morocco evokes swoons and sighs—the vibrant colors, rich culture and, of course, the food. At Madison’s Marrakesh, enjoy tagine, a typical Moroccan stew made with delicately spiced meats and vegetables served in an earthenware pot. The chicken Bastilla, a delicate phyllo dough pie filled with chicken and almonds and topped with cinnamon and powdered sugar, is sure to please the adventurous palate. Want to experience Morocco’s culinary traditions firsthand? Marrakesh offers cooking classes on-site. $$

625 State St., 251-8510 This State Street staple has been popular for so long—seventeen years—that people call the owner by his nickname, Fice. The longevity of this restaurant is just one clue that the food is not to be missed. The other is the crowded tables. The menu ranges from the staples—shawarma, falafel and hummus—to daily specials including Zidane’s couscous, the small grain topped with a savory mix of vegetables and garbanzo beans. Owner Faycal Belakhdar says his café is not just about the food, but about feeling at home; many of his customers come from all over Africa and the Middle East to enjoy his large portions, quick service and familiar flavors. Don’t miss the cashew baklava, a mass of lightly sweetened ground, creamy cashews, surrounded by flaky phyllo. $ BOM

77 Sirloin Strip, 251-7733 When your restaurant has an address that reads like a Wild West movie, you know it will be fun if nothing else. But at Mediterranean Hookah Lounge & Café, not only do you get entertainment—weekly karaoke and belly dancing—you also get good food. First things first: Start at one of the two bars for a drink and a toke on a hookah, or just plop yourself right into the comfy leather chairs and relax with a pot of tea. Then dive into the labneh, a yogurt dip spiked with olives and tomatoes, and the lamb kebab plate, loaded with fresh grilled veggies and seasoned lamb, served with salad and potatoes.  $$

226 State St., 255-5450 One thing Wisconsin does right is supper clubs. Add a Greek flair and you have a true Madison experience. Of course no supper club is complete without a fish fry, and you can get a delicious one here, but it might be fun to change it up. How about a Mediterranean steak sandwich, with grilled sirloin strips spiced with oregano, topped with tomato, grilled onion and green pepper and tzatziki sauce on pita bread? Or the feta-stuffed chicken breast, plated on seasonal grilled vegetables? Feel free to embrace both traditions and enjoy the popular feta burger, a juicy patty topped with salty feta cheese. And nothing beats a slice of the homemade apple pie.  $

6119 Odana Rd., 274-1788 At the Nile, you can start shamelessly with your dessert before dinner. A large glass of the refreshing mango delight is worth diving into and lives up to its name. Sweet, rich mangos pureed with creamy yogurt over ice is a refreshing alternative to appetizers. Next, dig into the kafta kebab. Tender ground lamb and beef are combined with aromatic spices and a hint of heat before being grilled to perfection. The fluffy basmati rice has great texture and flavor, and even the hummus stands out with its whole-chickpea garnish. Warm pita and za’atar, an herb-infused condiment, offer an unusual and tasty accent to the meal.  $$

751 N. High Point Rd., 831-7776 The restaurant’s simple yet elegant interior makes this a great spot for a quiet date or a family birthday celebration. The Turkish-style cuisine shines when it comes to kebabs—you can’t go wrong with the bite-sized marinated and grilled beef served with green peppers and onions, and a side of rice—but the appetizers don’t disappoint, either. Try the grape leaves, stuffed with rice, pine nuts and herbs, or the shepherd salad, which features freshly chopped tomatoes, onions and cucumber with a hit of feta cheese, kalamata olives and parsley. For dessert, the baked homemade rice pudding, called sutlac, warms the palate and the soul. $$

6405 Mineral Point Rd., 274-4044 Sometimes going to someone’s house for dinner is just what you need, and dinner at Otto’s delivers. This historic farmhouse offers a cozy environment and upscale food and service. The grilled salmon in grape leaves is a perfect pairing of fresh Scottish salmon, toasted pine nuts and lemon-currant vinaigrette, served with roasted red potatoes and sautéed spinach. The red onion relish serves as a delish foil to the kofta, which is served with a white bean salad. On summer evenings, you can enjoy music on the deck while sipping a glass of wine. The beauty of eating at this house is that neither you nor your friends have to do the dishes.  $$$

419 State St., 630-9191 Palmyra greets customers with an open dining room, colorful posters depicting exotic destinations and friendly staff. It only gets better from there. The culinary choices reflect the owner’s Syrian heritage; many recipes are from his parents. Try the beef kebabs or chicken shawarma, served with salad, hummus and pita, or fattoush, a salad with seasoned pita chips and vegetables. Vegetarians rejoice—potato curry or yalangi, stuffed grape leaves, are delicious and satisfying. $

316 State St., 251-6311 At Parthenon, it’s all good. Good food, that is, since 1972. The gyro meat, a mixture of lamb and beef, is seasoned, packed and formed in-house every week. The tzatziki sauce is made fresh there as well, starting with forty gallons of milk, which they culture and then strain and season, ensuring freshness and authenticity. What to get? Gyro and fries, of course. The food here is perfect after a late night on the town or while enjoying the summer air from the rooftop garden, open May to October.  $

2810 E. Washington Ave., 245-0404 You can’t go wrong in this small restaurant run by a wonderful Lebanese family. The gyros have taken home the blue ribbon, but a more adventurous palate would enjoy the Tantan chicken, marinated in citrus and spices and slow-cooked until it falls off the bone. Grab a side of pita and muhammara, a delicious sweet-tangy spread made from walnuts, red peppers and pomegranate. The falafel wrap appetizer—pita bread around made-from-scratch falafel balls, lettuce and tahini sauce—costs a mere $4, and is enough for a light lunch. This is a great place for families; kids will certainly enjoy the vast selection of donuts made fresh daily!  $

410 E. Wilson St., 251-4455 This casual diner delivers Greek comfort food, including the avgolemono soup, a creamy soup scented with lemon and thickened with egg yolk. Bits of rice and chicken and soft bread for dipping make this a light meal or a delicious preview to the main course. Try the homemade falafel, or the savory, juicy gyros for a satisfying lunch. Breakfasts offer a fusion of flavors—Rock the Casbah includes eggs scrambled with Moroccan-seasoned chicken, tomatoes and onions, with fried potatoes and pita. Wash it down with a bloody Mary and call it a weekend. $

7457 Elmwood Ave., Middleton, 836-6614 The warm ambiance of this café makes it a great place to meet a friend for a delicious lunch. Brothers Faton and Gjyner Lumani created a menu that reflects their Albanian heritage. The dinner menu truly highlights their culinary creations; it is liberally sprinkled with eastern European flavors. Be sure to try the raki plate, showcasing their fresh-made Albanian sausage, a combo of New Zealand lamb, beef and spices. The meal comes with boiled eggs, cabbage salad, crushed red pepper sauce (ajvar), kalamata olives, cucumbers, tomatoes and roasted red peppers with warm bread. The Albanian qebap platter is another way to enjoy the sausages; they are grilled and served with feta cheese, fries and shepherd salad. $$

827 E. Johnson St., 251-7768 It’s a Mediterranean twist on a hip gastropub. Enjoy a brunch spread on the sunny deck tucked behind the restaurant. The restaurant’s cheesy take on potato chips—gorgonzola sauce drizzled over thin, crisp chips made in-house—or the vegetarian charcuterie board with cheese-stuffed dates, hummus, pickled grapes, figs, rice crackers and toasted baguette and a unctuous, tangy artichoke spread nicely complement a refreshing limoncello cocktail. After that, why not fill up on the Saltimbocca-wich? It’s got grilled chicken, fresh sage, prosciutto, arugula, mozzarella cheese and caper aioli. $$

5420 Willow Rd., Waunakee, 249-6720 Authentic Greek food while you fuel up? Brilliant. Owner Gus, who formerly worked at Parthenon, liked the idea of having gyros and other Greek specialties in a gas station. And this is not your typical pit stop food. Gus makes the tzatziki sauce and gyro meat from scratch. You will probably be taking your meal to go, but feel free to grab a seat at one of the several tables. Choose from grilled kebabs, pork and beef souvlaki, slow-baked chicken with Greek spices, or potatoes with a lemon gravy. Gus’s gyros and yogurt sauce are so delicious, the meat is purchased by area restaurants and grocery stores and sold under the name Athens Gyros. $

1336 Drake St., 260-9898  The café’s close proximity to the zoo and culinary influences from North Africa are sure to spark your sense of adventure. Grown-ups can enjoy a panini with fetaand red peppers and tapenade, or creamy hummus and gyros in pita with a refreshing glass of wine or local beer. Or try the chicken jarré, an Algerian tomato-based soup with mint leaves, garbanzo beans and rice. Come early for a traditional Algerian breakfast—garbanzos and carrots spiced with coriander, cumin and caraway, topped with an over-easy egg and a side of grilled pita. $