Keep it Hush-Hush
We love these six spots that feel like locals-only establishments.
Posh Dinner Party
Nook’s tiny dining room has just 12 seats available for a communal dining experience. The open space leaves no barriers between the chef and the guests. Claim your spot at the 12-person dining room for a tasting menu dinner a month in advance. If you’re looking to book Nook for a private event, be aware that you’ll have to check the website at 12:01 a.m. on the first day of the month to make a reservation for the following month — spots go fast. 2138 Atwood Ave.
An Irish Snug
Owner Mary D’Alton likes to refer to the basement bar at Spring Green’s Convivio as a “snug” — a term derived from 19th century Ireland that means a small, cozy and private section of a bar or pub. Beneath the espresso bar and wine retail space upstairs, Convivio’s snug lives up to this definition. While the snug has enough room for only about 20 people, and limited hours that change frequently — D’Alton says it’s always best to call ahead before stopping by — each evening that the space is open, either Convivio staff or guest bartenders run the bar, putting together a short menu of drink offerings. “We pride ourselves in quality ingredients, and we don’t rush through our process. … It’s very simple,” D’Alton says. 122 N. Lexington St., Spring Green
Plain Spoke Cocktail Co., a local cocktail producer, has an inconspicuous bar entrance on King Street. Head up the steep stairs and into a small retro lounge. Pro tip: Order the Miami Vice cocktail for a piña colada and strawberry daiquiri combo served in a funky glass. 110 King St.
It’s in the Bank
Knowing about Lake Ridge Bank’s Rotunda Café in the first place requires some James Bond-level intel, but once you’re inside, the regal rotunda ceiling flanked by white pillars — plus a large vault door that’s part of the bank in the back of the space — will definitely make you feel like you’re a real-life 007. Or at least a secret agent who loves espresso drinks, bakery items and Russian-style dumplings. 1965 Atwood Ave.
Despite being somewhat camouflaged as a residential home on Williamson Street, Lazy Jane’s Cafe is known and loved by locals, who line up to place their brunch orders. Get there early to avoid the rush, and be sure to check out the upstairs for a bird’s-eye view of the rest of the cafe below. 1358 Williamson St.
From the Green
You might be able to assume as much given this golf course’s name, but Pleasant View Golf Course offers one heck of a view from one of the highest points on the westside. Hang out on the remodeled patio around one of the fire pits and scope the scenery that stretches for miles and miles. 1322 Pleasant View Road, Middleton
Beyond the Bar
If you haven’t checked behind the far back right corner of the bar at Leopold’s Book Bar Caffè, you probably don’t know there’s a hidden “book nook” downstairs. It’s a sublevel private event space that seats 12, and an ideal rental for a book club or other small gathering. 1301 Regent St.
Under the Bleachers
After watching a Forward Madison FC game at Breese Stevens Field, you’ll find the most dedicated fans heading under the bleachers to Forward Club — an open-to-the-public bar that buzzes with energy, win or lose. A few players sometimes stop in after the match, too, and their appearances are usually met by rapturous applause. Forward Club is open to anyone before and after home games, and you can buy a Forward Club ticket to watch the game there, too. Mifflin Street side of Breese Stevens Field, under sections 104 and 105
Wait, Where Is That?
With little signage but lots of word-of-mouth buzz, these hideouts operate on an #iykyk basis.
Subtle spot for sushi
If you can spot Muramoto’s low-key entrance at Hilldale, head inside for upscale casual vibes and sit at the bar to watch chefs make your sushi. 546 N. Midvale Blvd.
Down-low red glow
Nattspil has been the OG no-sign spot in Madison since 2004. Under the awning and inside the brick walls of its nondescript building is a gathering place intended to emphasize camaraderie, according to co-owner Prentice Berge. Nattspil was originally envisioned as a sanctuary for those in the service industry — a place for cooks, waiters, baristas and other essential workers to enjoy a drink and a meal made with fresh, local ingredients after a hard day’s work. The atmosphere is conducive to human-to-human connections, without the typical distractions found in many other bars. “We wanted it to be free from any of the annoying trappings of many places,” Berge says. There aren’t any TVs, neon signs or harsh lighting. In fact, Nattspil has a characteristic red glow that encourages your eyes to adapt to a darker, chiller space. Business for this tiny restaurant comes from word-of-mouth exchanges rather than traditional advertising, says Berge. “[Nattspil] is the place that other service industry staff [find the] answer to the question, ‘Where do you want to go after work tonight?’ ” 211 King St.
Pre-concert secret spot
The obvious along-the-way eateries ahead of a concert at Breese Stevens Field or The Sylvee are Vintage Brewing Co., LJ’s Sports Tavern & Grill and Salvatore’s Tomato Pies. But if you want a more leisurely pre-show drink or dinner at a likely less crowded spot, grab a table at Jardin. The plant-based eatery is hidden in the back of Robinia Courtyard on East Washington Avenue. And if the weather is nice, you can sit in the outdoor courtyard that feels like a secret garden in the center of the city. 829 E. Washington Ave.
Behind the aisles
Tienda Los Gemelos is a restaurant concealed within a Mexican grocery store in a strip mall. Once you make your way through the aisles, a full-fledged restaurant magically appears. You can grab breakfast, brunch, lunch or dinner here. Go for the chilaquiles in the morning, a tostada for lunch and a quesabirrias plate for dinner. 6713 Odana Road
When you Google where to get ramen in Madison, Morris Ramen is going to be one of the top results — but if you’re standing street-side, you might never know it’s there. Despite its low-profile exterior, Morris Ramen is worth a try for its highly-rated Japanese noodle soups. 106 King St.
A few restaurant and bar owners spilled the beans on off-menu bites and special requests.
Dumplings? What dumplings?
If you were to ask Evan Dannells, chef and owner of Cadre, about off-menu dumplings, he would probably say something like, “Why would we have dumplings? We’re a French restaurant.” But you might want to request them anyway. (We hear they always have a meat and vegetarian option available.) 2540 University Ave.
Mix it up
There’s an off-menu hot drop soup by request at Little Palace, which is half egg drop soup, half hot and sour soup. That’s how co-owners Stephanie and Jacqueline Le ate the soup growing up — they’d mix the two together at their aunt Jean’s restaurant, China Palace. 225 King St.
No menu, no problem
There really isn’t an official secret menu at AC Lounge inside AC Hotel Madison Downtown, because there’s barely a bar menu to begin with. The drink specials live inside bartender Craig Spaulding’s head. The seasoned pro will make you any classic cocktail you ask for — or one he recommends. It’s quietly one of Madison’s most iconic cocktail spots. 1 N. Webster St.
Three quick things
There are three not-on-the-menu items you have to be in the know to order at 107 State, and lucky for you, we’ll let you in on the secret: They’re the “OG” Dairyland Bliss burger, the cacio e pepe and dry-aged steaks. 107 State St.
You’ll probably get an impressed look if you request the staff-favorite veggie/regular muffaletta mix at Bar Corallini. Also, those looking for nonalcoholic beverages will be happy to know the Italian restaurant’s bartenders here offer a handful of go-to N/A options that you won’t find on the menu. 2004 Atwood Ave.
Several secrets hide within and around The Harvey House, including the fine dining spot’s Monday night-only roasted chicken dinner. For $60, your dinner for two comes with chicken, Brussels sprouts and whipped mashed potatoes. 644 W. Washington Ave.
Worth the wait
This one’s for the late-night dining crowd: Legendary local spot Tornado Room Steak House offers an 8-ounce sirloin steak after 10:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays for $14. Usually that steak comes with soup and salad for $49. 116 S. Hamilton St.
Order an original
Score points at Cordial when you order the Bye Bye Yellow cocktail, a mezcal drink from the bar’s opening menu that they couldn’t say bye-bye to. Still, you won’t be considered a tried-and-true regular until owner and bartender Brett Marshall remembers your name (which he has a knack for). 516 S. Park St.
Take the risk
Order The Blind special at Short Stack Eatery for a dish that “can change anytime.” You’re allowed to ask if it’s sweet or savory, but that’s all the information you’ll get ahead of breakfast. 301 W. Johnson St.
Sunny Side Up
For a spin on your regular pizza order at Lombardino’s, ask for an egg (or two!) on top. 2500 University Ave.
The best way to find out about secret offerings? Ask. When you’re at a bar or restaurant, ask some questions. We’ve done it here, and you can, too.
You’ll have to use the Caesar cipher (start with the red letters) to decrypt these drink recommendations at places that definitely make you feel like you’re a secret agent in a spy movie.
1. ZEXOQOBRPB DOXPPELMMBO at PXOAFKB
2. DFK JXOQFKF at IB QFDOB ILRKDB
3. KBDOLKF at JXAROL
4. IVZEBB JXOQFKF at PTXDXQ in PRK MOXFOFB
5. YIXZH PNRFOOBI at LW YV LW
6. AXFNRFOF at OLYFK OLLJ
7. TFIA ZEFIA at KFQOL YBSBOXDB ILRKDB
Scroll to the bottom to check your answers.
Where are all the dance spots around here?
It might seem like there’s nowhere to go dancing in Madison, but there are a handful of spots where you can two-step … if you know were to look.
Salsa in the courtyard
Though a well-kept secret to some, Robinia Courtyard’s Latin dance nights are a regular activity for others. The Thursday night events rotate between different Latin bands and instructors teaching everything from salsa and bachata to Afro-Peruvian dance styles. 829 E. Washington Ave.
Don’t let Crucible’s plain brick exterior fool you — dance nights and other lively events are held inside this industrial venue. 3116 Commercial Ave.
Stop by Cafe Coda’s jazz lounge on Williamson Street for music, snacks and drinks. This place comes alive once the crowd starts swaying to the tunes. 1224 Williamson St.
Head downstairs to Sotto Night Club’s inconspicuous LGBTQ+ club. Don’t miss Latin dance nights on Thursdays. 303 N. Henry St.
Right on the square
Stop by Tavernakaya on Capitol Square at the end of the night. Who knew this izakaya with Japanese ramen and Chinese dumplings turns into a hot dance spot with live DJs when TK Late Nite starts at 11 p.m.? Now you do. 27 E. Main St.
Encrypted Cocktails Answer Key: 1. Chartreuse grasshopper at Sardine 2. Gin martini at Le Tigre Lounge 3. Negroni at Maduro 4. Lychee martini at Swagat in Sun Prairie 5. Black Squirrel at Oz by Oz 6. Daiquiri at Robin Room 7. Wild Child at Nitro Beverage Lounge
Celia Hiorns is a former editorial intern at Madison Magazine. Andrea Behling is editor at Madison Magazine.
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