12 State Street favorites old and new

Spots turn Madison into a culinary destination
12 State Street favorites old and new
Forage Kitchen.

Downtown welcomes new dining spots constantly, providing us fresh flavors and new menus to explore. At the same time, some long-standing favorites give the city center its familiar character. There’s something for everyone: small cafes and international eateries that cater to students, pubs that host game-day crowds and trivia nights and upscale eateries that are perfect for a special celebration. It’s the mix–of old and new, casual and elegant, familiar and unexpected–that turns downtown into a culinary destination, and nothing helps define this area like State Street. Walk this stretch and you’ll notice the range of options and diversity it boasts.

Buck & Badger
Question: Where on State Street can you get a northwoods feel, watch sports and play trivia, all in one night? Answer: At this casual dining spot near the top of State Street, where in fact you can play trivia three nights a week. Stop in and grab a spot near the large fireplace on a cool night while you enjoy a whitefish hoagie with crispy whitefish drizzled with roasted red pepper aioli. Or grab a seat at the reclaimed barnwood bar and order a beer, some Wisconsin cheese curds and fried pickles. That’ll fill you up, eh? 115 State St., 230-7999 $$

Fair Trade Coffee
A sister to Michelangelo’s (also on State Street), this locally owned cafe has graced State Street for more than 10 years and offers a solid assortment of sandwiches, baked goods and drinks. Sink your teeth into the chipotle chicken breast panini–succulent chicken, a special chipotle sauce and cheddar pressed warm on flatbread. The sun-dried tomato sandwich is a nice vegetarian option, with a spread of tangy sun-dried tomatoes and rich walnuts on Madison Sourdough bread, topped with spinach, basil and Kalamata olives and grilled to warm perfection. With something that healthy, you deserve a seven-layer bar, made in-house, featuring cranberries, coconut, graham crackers and chocolate layered with other delicious and decadent ingredients. 418 State St., 268-0477 $

Forage Kitchen
The second restaurant under Doug Hamaker (he opened Roast Public House, also on State Street, a few years ago), Forage offers whole-food dishes that are accessible, delicious and focused on seasonally available ingredients. Plus they make their own kombucha! Step up to the salad bar and build your own bowl with toppings such as poblano slaw, goji-chipotle tempeh or lemon-herb chicken. The grain bowls are a satisfying meal; the power bowl combines tender rice and lentils with jerked chicken, a citrus-infused poblano slaw and a generous heap of guacamole. It’s like a little bit of California in the Badger State and “is exactly what I eat at home,” says Hamaker. Healthy without leaving you hungry? That’s a win. 665 State St., 286-1455 $$

State Street dining is tops at this rooftop restaurant, with views and ambiance fit for a special occasion, and a food and drink menu to match. The menu changes seasonally, with a focus on local products. Regardless of the season, you’ll find carefully executed combinations such as a New York strip steak with a chimichurri, roasted baby potato, arugula, pickled onion and avocado. Start your meal with the sauteed brussels sprouts with bacon and Russian dressing. Save room for the warm milk chocolate-filled buttermilk beignets with creme anglaise. Or perhaps have dessert for dinner? 227 State St., 663-7374 $$$

With an equal focus on food and drink, Hawk’s goes from casual family dining to late-night date night easily. Daily specials, such as golden grilled cheese with homemade tomato bisque soup, round out the standards, including an array of salads and sandwiches. The grilled portabella sandwich with melted provolone, roasted red pepper spread, spinach and a tomato slice is rich and filling. And those curly fries–just go try them for yourself. 425 State St., 256-4295 $

Ian’s Pizza
Ian’s offers comfort, familiarity and freshness all in one place. It starts with quality ingredients, many sourced from area farms, and made-from-scratch dressings, sausage and sauces. From there, innovation takes over, leaving the customer with delicious, albeit difficult, choices. Luckily, they sell pizza by the slice. Grab a couple and share–the smoked brisket, tater tot and barbecue sauce and the portabella pesto with blue cheese are great options. Monthly and biweekly specials keep things even fresher. The salad bar is a gem. Build your own with myriad combinations such as roasted squash, spiced pecans and bacon crumbles. 100 State St., 257-9248 $

Rising Sons Deli
One of Madison’s long-standing Thai and Lao restaurants has called State Street home since 2006, when it moved from its previous location at University Square. Owner Be Macvilay works behind the glass counter cooking as well as serving customers who come in a steady stream. The Drunken Noodles feature wide, thick noodles stir-fried with carrots, bok choy and a flavorful sauce with hints of both spiciness and sweetness; firm tofu pieces complement the dish well. Be sure to try some traditional Lao fare from MacVilay’s homeland such as mok pa, a mixture of catfish, eggs, herbs, chili pepper and spices, wrapped and steamed in banana leaves and served with traditional Lao sticky rice. 617 State St., 661-4334 $

Sunroom Cafe
Sunroom Cafe continues to be a wonderful place to grab a casual breakfast or lunch with friends, or even sit solo with coffee and a pastry, soaking up the morning sun. The tofu scramble is a vegan’s heap of heaven, made with organic tofu, mushrooms, scallions, green peppers, tomatoes and spices. A stack of chocolate chip whole wheat pancakes packs antioxidants and whole grains into your morning routine–at least that’s my excuse. An organic burger for lunch for less than $6 is a no-brainer. The salad selection on the dinner menu is refreshing; try the Arabic salad with tabouli, hummus and baba ghanouj on a bed of crisp greens. 638 State St., 255-1555 $

When Myles Allen’s beloved shop threatened to go out of business, siblings Anthony Rineer and Karima Berkani purchased the shop, keeping many of the original Cornish pasty recipes while adding fresh expressions to the menu. Back in the day, pasties made for a hearty lunch for Wisconsin’s miners. The pockets of flaky dough filled with meat, onion, potatoes and spices stayed warm, and the braided seam of dough that is created as the pasties are made served as a handle and ensured that dirt from the miners’ hands stayed off their lunch. The Traditional, a pasty filled with Wisconsin ground steak, potatoes and onion, is a must-have for meat eaters. The sweet potato with corn and black beans and tomatoes is a delicious veggie option. Even half a pasty will fuel the hungriest human. 101 State St., 230-5360 $

Snacks and Sweets

Capitol Corn Popper
Now owned by Lubna and Tony Azad, this shop is just across the street from its former digs when it was Vic’s Corn Popper. Folks can still enjoy the popular mix of white cheddar and caramel corn, made with real Wisconsin butter, or try the Badger Mix–the combo of sweet cherry and white kettle corn make for a festive snack. $

Clary’s Gourmet Popcorn
Pick up nature’s perfect snack in a variety of fun flavors–banana-lime or jalapeño cheese will excite the taste buds. But the real catch is a warm bag of cheddar cheese and caramel corn mixed together at bar time on weekends. $

Chocolate Shoppe Ice Cream
You can stop in to get Oreo nondairy ice cream, sugar-free cashew-caramel ice cream or dairy-free carrot mango Italian ice. But unless your health depends on it, you might want to indulge in the rich, creamy goodness of the super-premium ice cream. Zanzimint is my personal fave, combining mint and fudgelike dark chocolate ice cream. Door County Cherry, with all-natural ingredients, is a close second. $