Get to know your city better with a Madison Eats Food Tour

Next time you can't decide, consider a food tour
Otehlia Cassidy is on the left as a group of people enjoy pizza
Courtesy of Otehlia Cassidy

Everyone knows Madison’s culinary scene is rife with delicious, diverse, award-winning options — but that doesn’t mean we know where to eat come Thursday night. Next time you just can’t decide, consider a food tour. Not only will you walk away with a full belly, you’ll also forge a deeper connection to your neighboring chefs, producers, artisans and farmers, who make Madison the city it is.

“I want people to feel connected to the culture of Madison,” says Otehlia Cassidy, founding owner of Madison Eats Food Tours, which allows guests to sample food and drinks on guided walks featuring history lessons and iconic views. “I try to make sure people can learn about the people behind the food. Focusing on places that are locally owned and [that] source locally as much as possible, and the stories behind that and why that’s so important to the sustainability of our community.”

Madison Eats Food Tours offers themed public and private tours covering several stops along Atwood Avenue, Willy Street, State Street or Capitol Square. Ticket prices start at $55, and Cassidy or one of her three guides take care of everything — all you have to do is walk, sip, nosh, mingle and listen. It’s this last part that’s so valuable and unique, says Cassidy. As much as she loves introducing new people to Madison’s culinary scene — about half of her 2,000 annual tour guests are out-of-state visitors — she’s most excited to connect local diners to the people behind the food. People like Anthony Rineer, who “panic-purchased” Teddywedgers on State Street with his sister, Karima Berkani, when he was only 21, because they wanted to save their favorite restaurant from being replaced by a chain.

“Even people who are from Madison and take tours often learn something about their own community they didn’t know; then having those connections makes them want to go back,” says Cassidy, who calls the restaurateurs, brewers and artisans along her stops “partners.” Many of them, like Tex Tubb’s Taco Palace and Gail Ambrosius Chocolatier, have been working with her from the start. Cassidy also organizes food tours to more exotic locales such as Cuba and Mexico — but she finds just as much culture here at home. “We have a lot of diversity in our food community,” she says. “We have people of color, we have women, we have different ethnic restaurants.” Working within Madison’s food network so intimately has also offered insider perks: Now she knows that Heritage Tavern has an “incredible” bar menu she never would have seen from the dining room, that Lucille dishes out free pizza on Fridays at 4 p.m., and that Tornado Room Steak House serves up steak sandwiches late at night while the rest of the city sleeps.

Cassidy admits she didn’t know what she was doing when she first got the idea to start a food tour company eight years ago, and neither did many of her partners. But they figured it out together. That camaraderie and support within Madison’s food culture was the special sauce that inspired her in the first place, back when she was a monthly food columnist with a conservation biology and sustainable development master’s degree and two young children at home. Now she’s a part of the community she always admired, making a living doing what she loves while generating tens of thousands of dollars each year for restaurants here at home.

“They’re getting fed by this, too,” she says. “There is a mutual kind of [sentiment], like, ‘Let’s lift each other up.’ And they do that for me as I hopefully do that for them.”