15 romantic Madison restaurants

Cozy bistros, elegant eateries and hidden gems
15 romantic Madison restaurants
Forequarter, 708 1/4 E. Johnson St.

Madison is made for love, especially at this time of year. Charming neighborhood restaurants glow, illuminating snowy streets. A brisk walk leads you to candlelit atmospheres, attentive service and seriously good food, made by passionate chefs eager to feature ingredients Wisconsin can offer even during this quiet season. Others wish to share with you the tastes of their homeland through ancestral recipes, providing us all much needed sanctuary from these cold days. So bundle up, grab your sweetie and head out into the night–a cozy table for two awaits.

$ < $10
$$ $10-$15
$$$ $15-$25 $$$$ $25+
(price indicates cost of a dinner entree)

BOM Best of Madison 2014 winner

43 North
108 King St., 255-4343
The forty-third parallel runs through Wisconsin as well as Sapporo, Japan, home of 43 North’s owner, Shinji Muramoto. Food concepts from all over the world, such as a cassoulet featuring lamb, bacon and white beans, as well as the tastes of Wisconsin (cheese plate!) come together in large and small offerings at this exciting King Street restaurant. Enjoy a quiet dinner at one of the sleek tables that line the wall beneath full moons of pendant light, sip on a Negroni cocktail, share a bottle of wine from Spain, or stay local with various ales or porters at the modest-sized bar alongside an open kitchen. $$$$

Chez Nanou
805 Williamson St., 283-4266
Spend an evening holed up at Chez Nanou, the east side’s delightful French bistro. Feel like you’ve just stepped inside a French country home as sounds of stirring, along with sweet and savory scents, come out of chef and owner Anne-Marie “Nanou” Rieunier’s petite kitchen. Rieunier, a native of the south of France, and chef David Weiss of Alsace keep the menu fresh each week, focusing on simple, home-cooked meals such as crepes, beef bourguignon and cassolettes gratinees featuring ham and mushrooms, bacon and potatoes or smoked salmon. Creamy and light crème brûlee infused gently with lavender flowers direct from the French countryside will send you over the moon. $$

708 1/4 E. Johnson St., 609-4717
The menu at this rustic East Johnson eatery, run by Madison’s Underground Food Collective, changes a little each week based on the availability of fresh ingredients. It recently featured maple-lacquered quail with quinoa, cauliflower, slow-cooked shallots, golden raisins and harissa vinaigrette. Try the Underground Butcher charcuterie board with mustard, pickles, olives, Wisconsin cheeses and bread. This intimate space fills quickly and reservations are taken only on Sundays. For those who aren’t in a rush to eat, the tavern-style restaurant offers a late-night menu until 1 a.m. $$$

Grampa’s Pizzeria
1374 Williamson St., 283-9580
Can a former gun shop be romantic? The answer is yes–at least when it comes to Grampa’s Pizzeria. It’s hard to believe this small and super-popular Willy Street eatery is housed in a former gun store. A beautifully refurbished restaurant, Grampa’s honors old-world traditions, making their own mozzarella cheese by hand every day and serving it with balsamic vinegar, basil, olive oil and vanilla fleur de sel. Grampa’s also delights with delicious salads, such as pork confit and beet varieties, plus desserts like a sticky ginger cake. Grab a table in the back of the house and take in the view of the raised beds sleeping away the winter days in the backyard garden, or enjoy a glass of wine or a beer with your meal at the bar. $$

21 N. Pinckney St., 255-6075
Harvest is a fine-dining experience wrapped in a comfy sweater. “We will never tell you what to wear. Come as you are,” the Capitol Square restaurant announces on its website. Walls the colors of a setting autumn sun provide the backdrop for an upscale yet comfortable evening. White linens drape from small tables, while a small bar dons bottles of wine neatly arranged in wooden cubbies. The French and American cuisine is based on local, seasonal and just plain old good food, made possible by big collaborative relationships with small farms. Though the farm-to-table menu changes regularly, there is always something grilled, seared, roasted or sauteed available alongside the best vegetables and fruit Wisconsin has to offer, rounded out with something deliciously sweet in the end. $$$$

Inka Heritage
602 S. Park St., 310-4282
Spicy colors of bold saffron, dusty eggplant and cilantro green seem to dance on the walls along with the Latin music that plays at Inka Heritage, Madison’s Peruvian restaurant. Polished wood tables and high-back chairs sit near storefront windows, where long, sheer drapery pools on the floor and softens the view of Park Street. Incoming diners are sure to get a whiff of the pollo ala brasa, a marinated Peruvian rotisserie chicken slowly roasting over an open flame. The tamal Peruano appetizer, a Peruvian tamale stuffed with smoked pork, a hard-boiled egg and a botija olive and served with a creole sauce that is so delicious you might think about eating it with a spoon, and you would not be wrong. But save room for dessert. The executive chef and co-owner, who was born and raised in Peru, graduated from Le Cordon Bleu and specializes in pastry, serving up such delights as tres leches cake and arroz limeno, a Peruvian-style rice pudding. $$ BOM

Lao Laan Xang
1146 Williamson St., 280-0104
On a chilly evening, the comforting scent of mango curry simmering with flavors of pineapple and peanut invite you to come inside this well-known Laotian restaurant and be a welcome guest in a converted home nested among the darkened storefronts of Willy Street. Finish your meal with another round of mango: Mango sticky rice is a dessert sweetened with brown sugar, served with a half of a fresh mango and sprinkled with crushed sesame seeds. Tables are precious and few, but quick take-out is always an option for a quiet evening at home. $$ BOM

1 S. Pinckney St., 251-0500
With a sweeping view of the Capitol and elegant, locally focused French cuisine, L’Etoile is arguably Madison’s most upscale dining destination–and an ideal location for a romantic meal. Attentive staff include a sommelier who is at your service to pair wine with every stage of your meal, and a pastry chef who creates innovative desserts, and also prepares at least one delicious gluten-free offering. All is under the guidance of James Beard Award winner Tory Miller, who keeps this refined farm-to-table experience truly graceful and timeless. $$$$ BOM

2500 University Ave., 238-1922
Ah, Lombardino’s. With all the charm and romance of old Italy, you keep Madison falling in love over and over again. In this charming restaurant, founded in 1954, tables for two sit beneath miniature balconies and mosaic tiles shipped from Italy line the walls. Dark green bubbled-glass lanterns hang low on chains over the bar, where you can share a bottle of wine and a plate of fried calamari served with a marinara sauce spiked with horseradish. The menu changes regularly–as the restaurant’s website says, Lombardino’s like to “cook as Italians might if they lived in the upper Midwest.” Specials in the early winter months have included local pork loin chop and a wood-grilled whole branzino. $$$$ BOM

121 S. Pinckney St., 259-9799
Behind the bar of this downtown warehouse-style hangout, young tattooed sorcerers in plaid concoct seasonal potions to fix what ails you. Despite the tall ceilings, iron work and dark wood, the black vintage-style scrollwork on the walls keeps the vibe soft and cozy. Fade into the eclectic evening crowd that gathers for craft cocktails, small plates, boards to share and hearty dinners. Come on a Tuesday, when this all-American, farm-to-table restaurant celebrates what they refer to as “Cheap Date Night.” Two entrees (a recent offering included cappellini en brodo in a lobster and parmesan broth), a bottle of wine and dessert, all for $40, is a steal. $$$ BOM

Osteria Papavero
128 E. Wilson St., 255-8376
Lamplight from the street fills the charming dining room of this Italian restaurant like a Tuscan sunset. Chef Francesco Mangano, of Bologna, Italy, grew up working in his nonna’s restaurant, where he learned how to use the ingredients available in each season and with great passion, to bring forth flavors that are deeply aromatic, saucy and savory. Mangano cures his own meats for the salumi misti. The giardiniera, served as an accompaniment, is also homemade and perfect to share along with crusty bread and a bottle of wine at a nice, leisurely pace. Spend an evening at his restaurant and you will know for yourself the Italian way of life. $$$

Quivey’s Grove
6261 Nesbitt Rd., 273-4900
What began in the nineteenth century as a privately owned Italianate fieldstone mansion and stable, amid a grove of black walnut, maple and elm trees, is today a classic Wisconsin establishment for fine dining–with one fabulous fish fry. Hot and crispy battered pieces of cod come with parmesan cheesy hash browns and a lightly dressed slaw. But first sit at the bar and enjoy this Fitchburg restaurant’s famous hand-muddled Korbel Old Fashioned served with a cinnamon stick, and let this elegant 120-year-old space listed on the National Register of Historic Places take you back to a very romantic place in time. $$$ BOM

Red Sushi
106 King St., 294-1234
Whether you’re in the mood for quiet and cozy or electric yet intimate, you’ll find both options at this trendy and sophisticated downtown sushi restaurant. Opt for a table or sit side-by-side at the sleek bar for an up-close view of the chefs creating roll after roll. Their quickness and precision is absolutely mesmerizing and their signature rolls, such as the Mermaid with shrimp tempura, avocado, pickled jalapeno, mango, spicy tuna, strawberries and kiwi, are as satisfying to watch as they are to eat. Craving something from the grill instead? Red Sushi offers items such as braised Berkshire pork cheek, seared sea scallops and bacon-wrapped chicken, along with vegetarian options. $$ BOM

617 Williamson St., 441-1600
Belgian waffles with whipped cinnamon orange butter and maple syrup, omelets with herbs and Gruyere cheese, grilled Norwegian salmon, a juicy ribeye–these are just some of the sophisticated ways Sardine restaurant defines brunch. Couples casually sip Bloody Marys at the bar, while others enjoy the food, atmosphere and views of Lake Monona in this bright and airy restaurant. Co-owners and chefs John Gadau and Philip Hurley deliciously weave locally grown and seasonal ingredients into a stellar menu, which is also carried out in the bistro’s dinners and a happening weekday happy hour. $$$ BOM

Wonder Bar Steakhouse
222 East Olin Ave., 256-9430
Think you’d enjoy a little Chicago mobster history with your steak? Look no further than the Wonder Bar Steakhouse. Back in 1929, Eddie Touhy, brother of Roger “the terrible” Touhy, opened this hideaway to offer refuge for felllow Chicago gangsters when they needed to wait for things to cool off in the city. This steakhouse and bar has changed owners a couple of times in the eighty-five years since, and now the only trace of illegal activity can be found in the framed and yellowed newspaper clippings on the walls. A handful of tables surround a beautiful stone wood-burning fireplace next to the bar, and there’s plenty of additional seating upstairs. Medium-rare steaks arrive at the table pink with a warm center. The Wisconsin mashed potatoes are rich and creamy, and the vanilla bean crème brulee is a little something smooth and sweet to end a dangerous and sexy evening. $$$$