It’s the list of all local lists. For 40 years the Best of Madison annual readers’ poll has put the power in the people’s hands to decide what’s the best in town. Now you can hardly walk into any of the city’s business districts without seeing a Best of Madison award hanging inside at least a few shops.
“Everywhere I go, people have their Best of Madison plaques up. I’m stunned by it. I shouldn’t be, because I think it’s a big deal for small businesses,” says John Roach, who’s not far behind the poll in terms of years with the magazine, as he marks 30 years in 2021 as our back page columnist.
The woman responsible for creating Best of Madison is Gail Selk, former owner of Madison Magazine along with her late husband, Jim. Inspiration struck while shopping with her daughter in Boston, where they kept seeing “Best of Boston” signs in store windows. She contacted the weekly newspaper behind the poll, and they were happy to share information so she could start a similar poll in Madison.
It was a smashing hit right from the start. The only thing more well received than the poll itself might have been the legendary Best of Madison parties the magazine held at The Edgewater — a business that happens to have won the most Best of Madison awards in the poll’s history.
Before the very first Best of Madison party, Selk told The Edgewater’s Scott Faulkner, “There will probably be a lot of people here.” His response, Selk recalls, was “no way.”
There were thousands in attendance, including the governor and the mayor, and they drank nearly every drop of alcohol the hotel had, Selk says. “We had five bands that first year — one on the roof, one on the pier, one in the ballroom and I can’t remember where the other two were,” she recalls.
For years to follow it was an illustrious and celebratory affair, especially for the hair salon folks. “It was their Academy Awards,” says Roach, who emceed a few Best of Madison parties. “They would all come so decked out.” Selk remembers one year when the staff from a large beauty salon arrived on motorcycles in dramatic fashion at the front doors of The Edgewater.
That wasn’t the only drama the parties played host to — Roach and former Madison Magazine Editor (and current columnist) Doug Moe remember vividly a behind-the-scenes moment from the 1994 party. Roach was co-emceeing that year with Kevin Farley. His brother, Chris Farley, had agreed to come, and the comedy icon joined Roach and Moe in the hospitality suite before the start of the show. “We turn on the TV, and sure as hell, it’s the OJ Simpson slow-speed Bronco chase,” Moe says. “To have either Roach or Chris Farley in the room would have been good and plenty, but to have the two of them — nobody else had to worry about keeping up their end of the conversation. To have those guys narrating the thing was quite something.”
It’s one of many Best of Madison parties Moe won’t forget — like the one attended by Kate Jackson, one of the original Charlie’s Angels — along with the year he decided to dress to impress. “I rented a purple tuxedo once; God only knows why,” he says.
In honor of the poll’s 40th anniversary, Madison Magazine is bringing back the Best of Madison party this year on Nov. 15 at (where else?) The Edgewater. We’re currently trying to convince Moe to rent another purple tux for old time’s sake. –AB
The Legacy Awards: In 1981, there were only 29 categories in our inaugural Best of Madison awards. Since then, the categories and the poll’s voting base have grown exponentially — 2021’s results named 458 winners and broke a record with 160,679 nominations and 481,378 final votes. Looking at four decades’ worth of winners’ lists, we noticed that a few businesses have captured so many gold, silver and bronze awards over the years that we’ve decided they’ve reached legacy status. In this first year of The Best of Madison Legacy Awards, we induct 49 gold, silver and bronze winners based on the number of Best of Madison awards they’ve collected.
The Gold Legacy Winners
These 12 businesses have racked up 50 or more Best of Madison wins over the last four decades.
* | 73
* | 51
The Silver Legacy Winners
15 businesses have broken the 40-mark for Best of Madison awards over the years.
Dotty Dumpling’s Dowry | 46
News 3 Now/Channel 3000 | 46
Pedro’s Mexican Restaurant | 46
Culver’s | 45
Barriques | 43
Porta Bella | 43
Imperial Garden | 42
The Mariner’s Inn | 42
Tornado Room Steak House | 42
Willy Street Co-op | 42
American Players Theatre | 41
Avenue Bar* | 41
The Madison Concourse Hotel | 40
Sardine | 40
Smoky’s Club | 40
The Bronze Legacy Winners
The following 22 businesses have snagged at least 30 wins in the annual readers’ poll.
Woldenberg’s* | 39
Felly’s Flowers | 38
ANiU Salon & Spa | 37
Marshall Field’s* | 37
Mickies Dairy Bar | 37
Charlie Shortino | 36
Klinke Cleaners | 36
Steve’s Wine Beer Spirits | 36
Fraboni’s Italian Specialties & Delicatessen | 35
Nitty Gritty | 35
Smart Motors Toyota | 35
Captain Bill’s* | 34
Glass Nickel Pizza Co. | 34
The Ultimate Spa Salon | 34
Lake Mills Cleaners and Dyers | 33
Liliana’s Restaurant | 32
University Book Store | 32
Jazzman | 31
Monty’s Blue Plate Diner | 31
Babcock Hall Dairy Store | 30
Michael’s Frozen Custard | 30
Orange Tree Imports | 30
*No longer in business. See more Best of Madison winners that are “Gone, But Still Some of the Best.”
Read more Best of Madison Legacy Award stories here:
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