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There is no shortage of exciting restaurants and amazing meals within the city limits of Madison (or on the outskirts of town, for that matter), but foodies who never leave Dane County are seriously missing out. Some of the state’s best meals are being served in smaller towns like Viroqua, Delafield and New Glarus. From innovative barbecue to rustic farm-to-table fare, catch-your-own fish lunches to perfectly crafted cocktails alongside the Baraboo River, the culinary creativity and prowess around this state are outstanding. Jump in the car and head out on a summer adventure, because these 11 spots are definitely worth the trip.
There’s something happening in Viroqua. It’s been building for a while. Home to one of the densest concentrations of organic farms in the country and the corporate headquarters of humble but mighty Organic Valley, Vernon County is the epicenter of some major shifts in U.S. agriculture, and Viroqua finds itself right in the middle of the action. It makes sense then that Luke Zahm, Driftless Café’s co-owner (with wife Ruthie) and chef, would come home to western Wisconsin to open a restaurant focused on supporting local farmers and celebrating their passion. “Good energy = good food” is scrawled on a chalkboard above the kitchen window, and that about sums up the ethos of this restaurant, which is where Zahm earned a nomination as a 2017 James Beard Award semifinalist for Best Chef: Midwest. Open for both lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday, Driftless Café changes identities between shifts. The lunchtime vibe is laidback and casual with a fun, brief menu of soups, salad, pizza by the slice, sandwiches and a few comforting entrees. The dinner menu changes nightly and focuses on regional flavors and products in a more upscale, refined manner (though the atmosphere is still resoundingly friendly). Reservations are not available for lunch (you shouldn’t have a problem finding a table), but they are strongly recommended for dinner. 118 W. Court St., Viroqua, 608-637-7778 $ (for lunch), $$ (for dinner)
Cow & Quince
When farmer, yogi and Milwaukee native Lori Stern opened Cow & Quince in September 2014 with the help of her wife and farm partner, LeAnn Powers, she knew one thing for certain: She wanted to create a space that supported and elevated the small local producers in her region. Fast-forward four years and it’s abundantly clear that she’s well on her way to accomplishing this feat. Because this restaurant spends 94 percent of its food budget on products grown or raised within 50 miles of the restaurant, the food just tastes different here. You’ll experience a true taste of place at Cow & Quince, where quality local ingredients are cooked simply with the utmost respect. Warm and easygoing, bright and unfussy, Cow & Quince is everything you want a day-trip destination to be. Brunch, which is offered Thursday through Monday from 9 a.m. to 2:45 p.m., is the real specialty. Chef Jared Austin serves up unique dishes that are as creative and elegant as they are comforting. The savory French toast on Madison Sourdough brioche with pork belly, cherries, gouda, apple-onion jam, spinach, maple roasted garlic vinaigrette and a sunny-side duck egg is not to be missed. The restaurant — which offers dinner service 5-8 p.m. on Thursdays and 5-9 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays — also recently added a small bar focused on craft cocktails made with all-Wisconsin spirits (with the exception of tequila, which is sourced from two small female-owned distilleries in Mexico). 407 Second St., New Glarus, 608-527-2900 $
Bob’s Bitchin’ BBQ
For owner and barbecue gourmand Bob Page, the story begins long before he dreamed of opening a restaurant. As the general manager of the Lands’ End corporate headquarters’ kitchen and a longtime local caterer, Page has been experimenting with food and flavors for decades. More than 30 years ago, he began making his own barbecue sauces and rubs as gifts for family and friends. Somewhere along the way he realized he was onto something with these beloved and, dare we say, “bitchin’” barbecue flavors. He created seven more sauces and launched a product line at farmers’ markets in April 2011. What began as a retirement strategy evolved into a restaurant that keeps Page busier than he ever imagined. Packed full of locals and tourists year-round, Bob’s Bitchin’ BBQ is like your favorite Wisconsin tavern crossed with a southern barbecue restaurant. There is no shortage of tender pork, sausage, ribs, chicken and brisket smoked in-house, but there are also cheese curds, deep-fried pickles, pretzels, burgers, Reubens and other important Wisconsin classics. Those eight signature sauces (Original, BrewBQ, Carolina, Habanero, Honey Chipotle, Mango Red Pepper, Razzberry and RBQ, which is made with Sprecher’s root beer) sit on each table. The bar is also well stocked, featuring local craft beers and monthly tap takeovers. 167 N. Iowa St., Dodgeville, 608-930-2227 $
When the fate of Delafield Hotel was uncertain in early 2015, it was hard to imagine what would become of the 38-room luxury hotel and adjoining restaurant located off I-94 between Madison and Milwaukee. It turns out, the opportunity for change might be one of the best things to ever happen to historic Delafield. The hotel and restaurant began a new chapter when it was purchased and fully remodeled by Hendricks Commercial Properties in June 2015. Its “randomly inspired” restaurant, I.d., would take modern sophistication to a new level, offering innovative and outstanding small plates in a laid-back atmosphere in the heart of southeastern Wisconsin’s iconic Lake Country. The menu at I.d. is as fun and inventive as it is delicious, with former Madison chef Joe Heppe at the helm. With snacks, salads, flatbreads, pastas and shareable small plates all packed full of bright flavors, unconventional pairings and seasonal influence, there is something for everyone. The space, too, has been transformed with a modern flair that doesn’t feel stuffy. Abstract art, impressive light fixtures, a textured ceiling and a show-stopping bar all take second place to the open-concept kitchen with a wood-burning grill and hearth. I.d. is open nightly for dinner and brunch on Sundays. In the summer you can enjoy an evening on the patio or at the counter where you can watch your food being made. Reservations are recommended, especially during summer. 415 Genesee St. #1, Delafield, 262-646-1620 $$
The Trout House at Rushing Waters
There are many reasons to visit the Rushing Waters Trout Farm outside of Palmyra: It’s a beautiful, 80-acre property filled with lush, spring-fed ponds where you can fish year-round without a fishing license or equipment, and it’s surrounded by the rolling hills of the Kettle Moraine State Forest, where you will find some of the best hiking and scenic drives within a couple hours of Madison. All of this certainly makes Rushing Waters — the largest trout farm in the state (all done without chemicals) — worthy of a visit, but that’s without even mentioning the restaurant that opened in late 2013. It serves fish from its ponds (either freshly caught and cooked or smoked on-site in their smokehouse), plus produce from area farms and myriad other high-quality seafood. Wednesday through Sunday you can bring your catch to the kitchen and it is cooked for you for lunch. The Friday night fish fry served with house-made potato pancakes, applesauce, coleslaw and tartar sauce is one of Wisconsin’s finest. Come for a visit. Stay for a meal. You won’t regret it. N301 County Road H, Palmyra, 262-495-2089 $$
Bushel & Peck’s
In downtown Beloit, just off the Rock River on one of the city’s busiest streets, sits Bushel & Peck’s — a restaurant, market and preservation kitchen. The combined retail store and restaurant, opened in 2008 by farmers Jackie Gennett and Rich Horbaczewski, resembles a rustic warehouse. With high ceilings and an open floor plan, the space is filled with shelves of books, beer, wine, Wisconsin cheeses, snacks and dozens of house-made products alongside tables for dining or relaxing. Bushel & Peck’s preservation kitchen yields 5,000 jars of jams per year, hot sauces, pickles and relish, including a cherry bomb hot sauce and a beet ketchup. The dining menu here is simple and nourishing: soups, salads, burgers, sandwiches and cheese curds all prepared with high-quality ingredients. There’s a weekly trivia night on Thursdays, and on weekend mornings the restaurant serves brunch. The space feels as much like a community living room as it does a market or restaurant. It’s a great place to linger, sample and celebrate all the ways that downtown Beloit has reinvented itself over the past 20 years. 328 State St., Beloit, 608-363-3911 $
The Black Sheep
After attending culinary school, chef and former farm kid Tyler Salisbery moved to Whitewater to pursue a four-year degree in business, only to realize his next great business venture was staring him right in the face: His new hometown didn’t seem to have anywhere good to eat. In 2012, Salisbery opened The Black Sheep with a focus on doing things differently than other local restaurants. Here, the menu changes monthly to highlight area producers, and everything is made from scratch. The style is Wisconsin classics refined — think meat-forward dishes that are a bit more elevated than what you’re used to at a traditional supper club. Salisbery relishes the challenge of using ingredients local farmers usually find hard to sell — he says he often calls and asks if there are products that farmers need to sell that they wouldn’t otherwise have a market for. “It’s hard to support the farmer if you are trying to pick and choose which parts of each animal to use,” he says. The food is delicious at The Black Sheep, the space is quaint and the location overlooking Cravath Lakefront Park is perfect for a post-dinner stroll. But this restaurant is worth the drive for another key reason: It gives you a front-row seat to an inspiring movement of young people reclaiming small towns and bringing high-quality farm-to-table food to rural America with a focus on inclusion and respect for place. 210 W. Whitewater St., Whitewater, 262-458-4751 $$
Twisted Willow & TreeHouse Lounge
This swanky yet relaxed restaurant not more than two blocks from Lake Michigan is a gem in Ozaukee County. Located inside a historic brick building that was once home to the Wisconsin House Hotel, the restaurant serves food with elegant presentation, but with a Midwest influence of large portions, modest prices and comforting flavors. Many of the ingredients for the farm-to-table dishes are grown in nearby Grafton on a farm of the same name, while others come from the gardens at co-owner Jill Bunting’s house located about five minutes from the restaurant. Bunting’s brother Dan Wiken, co-owner, executive chef and farmer, has been cooking in the Milwaukee area and growing heirloom varieties of vegetables in his garden for nearly 40 years. Those skills are apparent in the food here — duck liver pâté, grilled flatbreads, chicken marsala and wild mushroom and spinach stroganoff to name a few offerings. The TreeHouse Lounge sits on the third floor and provides a much-needed spot for the restaurant’s bustling craft cocktail bar. This funky, snug set of rooms serves cocktails that sprang from the Prohibition era and offers a full restaurant menu. If you make the trip, keep in mind that the restaurant can be packed on weekends and reservations are recommended. 308 N. Franklin St., Port Washington, 262-268-7600 $$
Understated elegance is the theme at Trixie’s, a natural-wine bar featuring responsibly sourced small plates intended for snacking and hand-selected wines featuring female winemakers from across the country. On the northern shores of the Door County peninsula just off of Highway 42 sits a simple, white-wood storefront. Opened in Ephraim in May 2017 by Sarah Holmes, co-owner of the Wickman House in Ellison Bay, Trixie’s boasts a vibe that’s more intimate than that of its sister restaurant. The space is feminine and romantic with attention to detail, from the flatware to the barstools to the flowers on the tables. Ryan Klawitter, former chef at the Wickman House and a skilled forager, is bringing big flavors to this small town. The house-made burrata has been a staple on the menu since the restaurant opened. The menu goes all over the world, with dishes inspired by Japan, Peru, Korea and France, among other places. Keep an eye on the website for hours and the most up-to-date information. Trixie’s is open seasonally and often requires reservations. There is also walk-in seating available outside and at the bar. 9996 Pioneer Lane, Ephraim, 920-854-8008 $$$
Janesville’s quaint downtown streets have needed a good restaurant since the Orleans Restaurant and Monterey Hotel were sold and subsequently closed in 1989. Since then, the city of about 60,000 residents has seen openings of many restaurants, but few locally owned. Lark is different and worthy of attention. Opened by Richard and Joan Neeno in the summer of 2017 in a building that sat vacant for nearly a decade, Lark focuses on “seasonally driven dishes made with locally sourced ingredients that reflect the wide influences that drive American cuisine.” And it does so beautifully, bringing much-needed joy and innovation to the local dining scene. Executive chef Jennifer Tillou delicately balances elegance with comfort on a menu of snacks, small plates and large plates that run the gamut of flavor and creativity. The cocktail menu is just as fun, inviting and seasonally inspired. This sweet new spot is certainly worth the drive; just be sure to make a reservation in advance on weekends as they do not take walk-ins outside of the bar seating area. 60 S. Main St., Janesville, 608-563-1801 $$
Driftless Glen Distillery
Many spots on our list have great locally inspired cocktails, but none are as showstopping as Driftless Glen Distillery. This family-owned distillery serves incredible drinks with its own bourbon, rye, vodka, brandy, moonshine and gin in a stunning windmill-inspired facility on the banks of the Baraboo River. The Maple Old-Fashioned, made with rye whiskey, maple balsamic and walnut bitters, is served with a piece of Nueske’s bacon. The Oaken Margarita made with gin and the Jamaican-Me-Shine (a moonshine cocktail with coconut white balsamic and a triad of juices) are both incredibly tempting. The restaurant, bar, retail shop and tasting area are open every day of the week, but the barrelhouse across the street is what’s most impressive. The 3-year-old distillery filled its 4,000th barrel in late 2017. Thursday through Sunday, you can tour the barrelhouse and distillery for $12 a person. 300 Water St., Baraboo, 608-356-4536 $$
These small-town restaurants aren’t wildly successful by happenstance. In addition to boasting talented chefs, locally sourced fare and creative menus, many of these spots are ideally situated in some of Wisconsin’s most picturesque areas on or near rustic roads and scenic drives.
Consider taking Highway 23 from Spring Green to Bob’s Bitchin’ BBQ — a beautiful stretch of road that journeys through the hardwood valleys and ridges of Wisconsin’s Driftless Area before passing Governor Dodge State Park.
On your way to Trixie’s, be sure to hop on Highway 57 (also known as the Door County Coastal Byway)
just north of Sturgeon Bay to follow the Lake Michigan coastline. Follow this to Sister Bay where you will turn onto Highway 42 to head south to Ephraim.
Your GPS will most likely send you to Driftless Glen Distillery via highways 12, 78 and 113, and you should not deviate. This beautiful route traverses farmland near Middleton toward Sauk City, follows the Wisconsin River and then winds through some of Wisconsin’s most beloved state natural areas.
The entire 115-mile Kettle Moraine Scenic Drive is worth your time, but the southern segment begins only 12 miles south of The Trout House at Rushing Waters before meandering by the farm and restaurant. This popular scenic drive then continues north past pristine public lands full of marshes and oak savannas, and it warrants a post-lunch stroll before bringing you into Delafield, where you may be hungry enough for drinks and small plates at I.d. Find the full route on the web or at area state park offices.
Some spots require much more than a daytrip. If heading to Door County to visit Trixie’s or Viroqua to dine at Driftless Café, try to make time to stay the weekend.
In Door County, book a night (or two) at the nearby Eagle Harbor Inn. Grab a morning coffee at the innovative Discourse Coffee in Sister Bay before hiking the trails at Peninsula State Park or visiting the Cana Island Lighthouse outside of Baileys Harbor. A longer visit warrants a ride on the ferry to Washington Island and a stop at the Island Orchard Cider House.
In Viroqua, be sure to start your stay on a Friday night when local caterer Dani Lind of the Rooted Spoon opens up her event space at 219 S. Main St. with tacos, Ping-Pong and cocktails from 5-11 p.m. Camp nearby at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve or Wildcat Mountain State Park, but first stock up on quality coffee from the recently opened Kickapoo Coffee Roasters Main Street Cafe and snacks from the newly expanded Viroqua Food Co-op. If you are up for a longer drive, head north where the hills get grander and you’ll find a quaint little music venue just past Norskedalen Nature & Heritage Center between Coon Valley and Bangor. Leo and Leona’s Tavern and Dance Hall is just the place to dance your troubles away.
Lauren Rudersdorf is a freelance writer and food blogger at “The Leek and The Carrot.” She is co-owner of Raleigh’s Hillside Farm in Brodhead.