Eat like a Madisonian

A city’s food scene helps you understand the culture of a place and its inhabitants, and vice versa.
various items from the old Fashioned
The Old Fashioned on Madison's Capitol Square is known for making Wisconsin delicacies like fish fry, Old-Fashioneds and brat sandwiches. (Photo by Nikki Hansen)

A city’s food scene helps you understand the culture of a place and its inhabitants, and vice versa. Madison is known to many as the dining capital of Wisconsin, despite the fact that it isn’t the state’s largest city. “I constantly hear people who come from larger cities with way larger population bases come back here and talk about how they can get better food in this city, and more easily than a lot of other places,” says Evan Dannells, who moved to Madison about 20 years ago from his hometown of Manhattan, Kansas. Owner of Cadre, a new restaurant on University Avenue, Dannells says Madison feels more like home to him than anywhere else has.

Madison has a culinary landscape that fits so many molds, so it’s impossible to characterize the local diner in just one way. But there are at least three things regarding the culinary mindset of a Madisonian that we know to be true:

We know where our food comes from.
Before the farm-to-table movement made its way to Madison, there was the Dane County Farmers’ Market. As the largest producer-only farmers’ market in the U.S., DCFM has an extensive influence on what we eat, how we think about food and how we interact with the people who grow our food. “We owe just an immeasurable amount to the organic farmers who started the farmers’ market on the Capitol Square in the 1970s, and people like Odessa Piper … who was trying to train people how to eat in this city,” Dannells says. “And it became something that sort of permeated our culture here.” Piper, along with every other chef, baker, restaurateur, farmer and food producer who continue to champion a sustainable, local food system, play a big part in shaping Madisonians’ relationship with food.

We don’t take ourselves too seriously.
Madison doesn’t have a massive fine dining scene outside of L’Etoile, but you can still find excellent food in more casual settings. And we like it that way. One night, we might dress up for a fancy meal, but the next, we’re happy to slide into a booth at a dive bar and order a basket of cheese curds and a pitcher of beer. Call it part of our stereotypical Midwestern persona, but we like to be comfortable. At a white tablecloth establishment, you’re more than likely to find a few flannel shirts and blue jeans in the crowd. But we do value good food and the communal connection that comes with dining out, evident in our willingness to wait two hours for a Friday night fish fry that we’ve had a hundred times before.

We understand what we have here in Madison.
Madison has more restaurants than it should for a city its size. We have a prolific research university that attracts some of the smartest and most creative minds in the world. We’re a city that still feels like a small town. We’re surrounded by lush farmland tended to by farmers who care about the quality of their product as well as the land they shepherd. We’re the type of place where you’ll bump into top chefs at the farmers’ market and rub elbows at dinner with both business leaders and college students. While we have a unique downtown and isthmus filled with delectable food options, we also have sprawling suburbs filled with restaurants, bars, distilleries, wineries and breweries that enrich the area. And we’re willing to share our town and the best food it has to offer with anyone who wants to pull up a chair. While we can’t give you an exact definition of what it means to “Eat Like a Madisonian,” we’ll share some of our favorite foods and traditions in the area that give you a taste of Madison’s dining scene.

Grab a fork — let’s dig in. –AB & MI

The 4 Bs of Wisconsin
In the category of classic regional food, we must first address the obvious Wisconsin food groups: beer, brats, bloodies and brandy Old-Fashioned sweets. Whether at a restaurant or chilling at a Wisconsin Badgers football tailgate, you’ll likely see most people with one of these items in their hands.

From left to right: Next Door Brewing Co.’s Bubbler, Capital Brewery’s Supper Club, One Barrel Brewing Co.’s The Commuter and ALT Brew’s gluten-free Rustic Badger.

Many local brewers show their state pride with the names and labels of their beer. Pictured are a few you’ll find in the Madison area that have distinct Wisconsin connections. From left to right: Next Door Brewing Co.’s Bubbler, Capital Brewery’s Supper Club, One Barrel Brewing Co.’s The Commuter and ALT Brew’s gluten-free Rustic Badger.
(Photo by Nikki Hansen)

Meet Mary, The Madison Bloody
A bloody-loving Madisonian probably has a certain idea of what makes the perfect bloody mary. (Which is why many spots in town offer build-your-own-bloody bars.) We tried to dream up the absolute best bloody mary we could think of — one that screams “Madison” from the first sip to the last drop — and here’s what we came up with. (It was a tough job. *Gulps shorty*)

bloody mary fully garnished

Photo by Nikki Hansen, products featured all made locally in Wisconsin

Off to Marketfarmers market intersection of state and capitol square

Every Saturday from April to November — except during Art Fair on the Square in July when it moves to Breese Stevens Field — thousands of people flock to Capitol Square to peruse delicious goodies grown and created by local farmers and producers. The smell of Stella’s Hot & Spicy Cheese Bread fills the air as people chat with growers and eagerly fill their reusable bags with fresh produce they’ll use all week long at home. The Dane County Farmers’ Market is the largest producer-only farmers’ market in the United States, which is fitting for a city where supporting local farmers is ingrained in the way of life. –MI

Fin-Tastic Fish Fry
The Wisconsin fish fry is a tradition that extends throughout the state, and even Madison restaurants that you wouldn’t expect to serve up fish fry make sure to put it on the menu each week. Whether you want cod, walleye or perch, or you like your fish beer-battered, lightly breaded or sans coating, stop by to try one of these fish fries.

plate of fish fry from avenue club

Avenue Club’s Fish Fry (Courtesy of Food Fight Inc.)

Eat Rush Creek Like a Local
Uplands Cheese’s seasonal Rush Creek Reserve went on sale in late October last year. Less than two months later, on Dec. 13, it had officially sold out, as it usually does every year. It’s creamy, it’s rich, it’s funky — it’s damn near a Wisconsin delicacy. It’s also a bit of a splurge at $35 per 12-ounce wheel. So when you do indulge, make sure you know how to correctly savor it.

warmed up rush creek reserve with a spoon

Not Your Average Curds
We couldn’t get away with creating an “Eat Like a Madisonian” section without mentioning cheese curds, could we? Cheese in fried curd form is present on so many bar and restaurant appetizer menus in Madison.

hand pulling one cheese curd

Cheese curds from Graze (By Keni Rosales)

Our Kind of Clubbin’
These five supper clubs are Madison institutions.

exterior of Tornado Room

Courtesy of Tornado Room Steak House

Take the “What Kind of Foodie Are You Quiz”
See where you fall on the ‘Madison Foodie’ spectrum by counting up how many local food experiences you’ve checked off our list.foodie chart with various parts and things to cross off