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. 

FOOD & DRINK

>>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

BRONZE: Umami

>>Breakfast
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.

>>Bakery
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)