College Town Tours: The Best of Madison, WI

The capital building in downtown Madison

To many, Wisconsin is simply known for its cheese and beer. But the lively city of Madison truly has some delicious, unexpected places to eat. Since Madison is the capital of the great state of Wisconsin, the area that surrounds the capital building has many elegant and sophisticated restaurants, which serve fresh and local ingredients. Madison also has a great mix of American, Italian, Mediterranean and many other ethnic cuisines that keep both college students and residents of the city constantly full.

Most students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison tend to eat the majority of their meals on State or Regent Street, since this is where the bulk of the housing is located. Many students also tend to cook at home, since there are a number of groceries stores in a close proximity to campus and it is a good way to save money. Since there is such an emphasis on farming and dairy in Wisconsin, many of the restaurants try to incorporate seasonal and fresh ingredients into their dishes. Menus in Madison are constantly changing based on the time of year, which causes customers to never get tired of going to their favorite restaurants.

–Ian Rice, Small Kitchen College Ambassador

**SKC Picks**

Best Parent’s Weekend Restrurant
L’Etoile
1 South Pinckney Street, Madison, WI // (608)251-0500

L’Etoile is considered one of the finest restaurants in all of Madison. They just recently switched locations to a larger and more elegant space on South Pinckney Street. Many of the tables have a great view of the Capital building, making it one of the hardest reservations in Madison to book. Their menu consists of the best local farm ingredients, and their unique menu is constantly changing based on the seasons. Chef Tory is very creative and makes dinner at L’Etoile a true experience for his diners.

Best Seasonal Restaurant
Harvest
21 North Pinckney Street, Madison, WI // (608)255-6075

Similar to L’Etoile, Harvest places an emphasis on using an assortment of local and organic farm ingredients. It has been recognized by both Organic Style magazine and by Gourmet Magazine as one of the best American Farm-to-Table restaurants in the country. Not only is their food superb, but also it has a very family oriented and relaxed atmosphere, which would make any visitor of Madison immediately feel welcome. Located on the Capital Square it is an easy drive from anywhere in Madison and a nice walk if you already live in the downtown area.

Best Italian
Lombardino’s
2500 University Avenue, Madison, WI // (608)238-1922

Lombardino’s is a great Italian restaurant, which has a very family-oriented and neighborhood-y feel to it. Since it is located far down University Avenue, it is hard for many students to get to, so it is not as well known as some of the other restaurants on this list. However, given the chance to venture out, we highly recommend Lombardino’s to any Italian food lover. Some of their signature dishes are their Eggplant Napoletana (which is personally my favorite dish), Spaghetti alla Bolognese and their assortment of pizzas. Additionally, the olive oil that they serve with the home cooked bread is truly spectacular.

Best Steak
Tornado Steak House
116 South Hamilton, Madison, WI // (608)256-3570

The Tornado Room is an unspoken gem. Located a mere stones throw from the capitol building, the restaurant serves up mouthwatering sizeable steaks, chops, and other prime cuts of meats. The atmosphere at the Tornado Room is unforgettable; as the doors open customers are faced with a large classic bar that looks like the “Dresdin” in Swingers. Behind the bar, table and booth seating is offered complimented by dim lighting and an experienced wait-staff. The Tornado Room is also known for having great late-night sandwich specials, offering an affordable way for college students to taste their menu.

Best Sushi and Lunch Special
Muramoto
106 King Street, Madison, WI // (608)260-2680

If you are looking for sushi and an Asian fusion restaurant in Madison, Muramoto is your place. While the Midwest is not known for having great sushi since it is not located near a coast, Muramoto rivals any sushi restaurant we’ve found in New York City.  We recommend their lunch specials, especially the sautéed shrimp that comes with peanuts in spicy coconut sauce with red onion and bell peppers. This is one of the best dishes in all of Madison, and we make an excuse to walk to the capital at least once a week just so we can go to Muramoto.

Most Trendy Restaurant
Fresco
227 State Street, Madison, WI // (608) 663-7374

Fresco is located on the rooftop of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art right on State Street. It offers its customers an amazing view of the city and the Capital building. It is more trendy and modern than most restaurants in Madison, and has a very adventurous menu. It also offers some of the best cocktails in Madison. We highly recommend going to the Museum of Contemporary Art in the late afternoon and then going directly up to Fresco on the roof for dinner. Not only will you have enjoyed some art, but you will also have a terrific dinner all without leaving the building.

Best Overall Restaurant Experience
Sardine
617 Williamson Street, Madison, WI // (608)441-1600

Sardine is located at the beginning of Williamson Street, better known as Willy street to students, and is right on Lake Monona. Besides from the amazing food at Sardines the atmosphere is one that you could only find in the Midwest. It feels as if one is inside a modern day industrial warehouse. Besides from their great dinner menu, Sardines also has a delicious brunch on Sunday mornings.

Best Saturday Morning Excursion
Madison Farmers Market

People come from all over the state of Wisconsin to Madison on Saturday mornings to experience the best farmers market in the area. It is set up surrounding the capital building, which is a beautiful backdrop to showcase Wisconsin’s finest foods. Everything is beautifully packaged and presented, with many offering sample foods for potential customers to try. The market has fresh fruits, pies, jams, organic food selections, a huge assortment of cheeses, cookies, and many other food items. People often spend their entire Saturday morning during the Fall at the market and then tend to spend the rest of their day exploring Madison, going to restaurants in the area, or even trying to catch the Football game in the afternoon or night. The Madison Farmers Market is one event that you will regret missing.

Best Liquor Store
Rileys
402 West Gorham Street, Madison, WI // (608)257-0400

A reliable and convenient liquor store is very important for many college students. Rileys is located right off State Street and is truly located in the heart of downtown Madison. Compared to the other liquor stores in town, Rileys definitely has the biggest inventory and makes it very easy to rent and return kegs. The employees are usually very friendly, and are willing to accommodate your preferences if they happen not to carry the brand you are looking for. Additionally, Rileys often has promotional discounts, making it cheaper than many of the other liquor stores in Madison. While Rileys is known for carding harder than some other liquor stores, it is your best bet if you are over twenty-one.

Best Movie Theatre
Sundance Cinemas
430 North Midvale Boulevard, Madison, WI // (608)316-6900

Sundance is more than just a movie theater, since it also contains a café, rooftop bar, and has many restaurants in walking distance. It is located in the Hilldale Shopping Center, so one can make an entire day of shopping, eating and enjoying a nice movie. Since, the theaters are equipped with stadium seats, customers know that they will have a comfortable and pleasant movie experience. It is a very warm and cozy environment, and after seeing a movie here it is difficult to replicate the experience anywhere else. Sundance Cinemas is also the closest movie theater to campus, so when it gets cold and snowy out, its convenient location makes it another great reason for students to stay indoors.

Best Bar During Week
Johnny O’s Restaurant & Bar
622 University Avenue, Madison, WI // (608)251-0943

One thing that any student at Wisconsin can be assured of is if they are looking to go out and have a good time there are many bars and house parties to choose from. During weekdays many bars have great drink specials and food deals to entice customers. Johnny O’s on Thursday is the best weekday bar, since it combines great drink specials, dancing, and an unforgettable crowd. When the weather is still warm, Johnny O’s has a great rooftop to drink and hang out on. It also has a great dance floor and has local student DJ’s come in to perform on multiple nights of the week.

Best Bar on Weekend
Kollege Klub
529 North Lake Street, Madison, WI // (608)25-3611

Kollege Klub also known as just KK, has become a landmark in downtown Madison over the years. It is the best Wisconsin sports bar in Madison, decorated with old memorabilia from past Badger legends. On Friday and Saturday nights there is often a line to get in, but don’t get discouraged–it moves very quickly. Often current athletes from the Wisconsin basketball and football team are in KK on the weekend partying with the students. Most of the athletes are very nice and have no problem talking or answering any questions from students. Additionally, former Badger legends often go to KK on the weekends when they are visiting, such as former Heisman winner and giant, Ron Dayne.

Best Grocery Store
Fresh
703 University Avenue, Madison, WI // (608)287-0000

Fresh is a new grocery store that just opened in the last year on the first floor of the Lucky Apartment building. Since it is located on University Avenue it makes it very convenient for students to shop before, after or even in between classes. Since Fresh has free delivery, many students take advantage of this luxury and simply pick out what items they want and schedule a time for Fresh to deliver it to their house or apartment. It is stocked with all the essential foods, but also has a great cold and hot salad bar, and a sushi chef that is constantly making fresh rolls. It is a great place to grab a quick lunch, and weather permitting there are even tables to eat at directly outside the store.

Best Bar Food
Amy’s Cafe & Bar
414 West Gilman Street , Madison, WI // (608)255-8172

Whenever a group is having difficulty deciding where to eat, it is known that Amy’s is a fair compromise that everyone will be happy with. They have a great variety of bar food ranging from delicious hamburgers, to amazing Caesar chicken wraps and Mediterranean dishes. Located right off of State Street it is convenient for almost all students, and people are constantly calling in to place an order.

Best Thai
Rising Sons Deli
617 State Street, Madison, WI – (608)661-4334

Whenever we are in the mood for Thai food or are simply tired of the other restaurants on State Street, our pick is Rising Sons Deli. The food is terrific and the atmosphere inside is electric, since they never changed the decor after they took over for a 1950s themed diner that occupied the space prior. Some of their most popular dishes are the chicken pad thai, the chicken penang, the drunken noodles, and the summer spring rolls. Additionally, it is a family run restaurant and the entire staff is very friendly.

Best Burger
Dotty Dumpling’s Dowry
317 North Frances Street, Madison, WI // (608)259-0000

Dotty Dumpling’s is known around Madison for having the best burger in town. Their signature English Garlic sauce is a must, and it a great place to bring visitors or family for dinner. It has an exciting and welcoming atmosphere and is a great place to enjoy a meal while surrounded by friends and sporting events. While all of their signature burgers are delicious their most popular is the Melting Pot. This unbelievable burger comes with Cheddar, Swiss, and Provolone cheese, bacon, their English garlic Sauce, and lettuce and tomato. It is the perfect meal after walking back from Camp Randall Stadium after a football victory, or for someone looking for a filling meal at a reasonable price.

Best Pizza
Ian’s Pizza
319 North Frances Street, Madison, WI // (608)257-9248

Ian’s Pizza is a great hang out spot for students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. With two prime locations, one on State Street and the other on North Frances, Ian’s leaves customers very satisfied with their adventurous slices and delicious salads. Many of the vegetables used in the salads are locally grown so they are extremely fresh, and their maple balsamic dressing is unbelievable. Since Ian’s is open late night, it becomes very popular at 2am when people begin to leave the bars in search of food. Ian’s is also a great lunch or snack to get when one does not have a lot of time before class, or is coming back from the gym.

Best Mediterranean Food
Mediterranean Café
625 State Street, Madison, WI // (608)251-8510

Mediterranean Café is located right on State Street, and always has a line out the door since they are only open from 11am through 4pm. The tables still turn over very fast cause of the great and efficient work of the waiters, so no one is ever waiting very long to sit down and enjoy the great value of a home cooked Mediterranean dish. It is the best restaurant to eat lunch at on campus, and the owner is the friendliest around. The food is simply amazing, and the majority of the dishes come with their signature hummus. Some of their most popular dishes are the lamb and chicken plate, the spinach pie, and the chicken chutney. The inside is very authentic and one does not feel that they are in Madison, but rather a restaurant on the Mediterranean.

Best Place to Eat on Campus
Der Rathskeller at The Union
800 Langdon Street, Madison, WI // (608)262-8093

Der Rathskeller is located in The Union, which is in the center of campus. It has delicious wraps, salads, and soups and it a great spot to grab lunch in between classes. A large projector is set up in the middle of the seating area, so it is great to come for during Sunday since they televise all the football games on the large screen. Since, it is located right on Lake Mendota it is a great place to eat outside if you can find an open table during the warmer months. Students often come to the union all day when it is warm outside, and enjoy themselves in the sun with a great sandwich and local beer.

Best Deli
Mctaggarts
230 West Lakelawn Place, Madison, WI // (608)251-0911

Located under a building right off of Langdon Street, Mctaggarts Deli is one of the best kept secrets in Madison. They offer delicious sandwiches and salads that are often prepared in less than five minutes. They have so many different options of vegetables meats, cheeses, and sauces to put on a sandwich that no other deli in Madison can compete with. They also have the most amazing breakfast sandwich in the city that many people get at 2am after a night of partying.

Best Casual Dining
Old Fashion
23 North Pinckney Street, Madison, WI // (608)310-4545

Old Fashion is your classic Wisconsin restaurant, which pride themselves one their cheese curds, burgers, and beer. Not only is the food terrific but also it always has a very lively and exciting crowd. People who come to the Old fashion are looking to have a good time, and they rarely leave disappointed. Located on the Capital Square Old fashion gives its customers a great view of the Capital building and the other surrounding streets. This is a great place to eat when you are tired of going to the same places on State Street and are looking to venture a little farther downtown.

Best Wisconsin Experience
Mickies Dairy Bar
1511 Monroe Street, Madison, WI // (608)256-9476

Anyone who has ever lived in Madison has heard of this great local gem. Wisconsin is known for their dairy products, and I can personally promise that cheeses, milkshakes, and chocolate milk rivals the best you have ever had. The portions at Mickies are humongous so we recommend sharing with friends if you are ordering the Scrambler, or pancakes. Their omelets are also amazing and the bacon is cooked to perfection. It is often very crowded since it is so well known, but the tables turn over very quickly so don’t get discouraged.

Best Bagel Shop
Gotham Bagels
112 East Mifflin Street, Madison, WI // (608)284-7145

Ask anybody in Madison where to find the best bagel, and their answer will be Gotham Bagels. The owner, a New York native has brought a little taste of home to Madison. Whether you are looking for premium smoked fish, delicious deli meat, incredible bagels, or fresh squeezed juices. Gotham truly does it all. The Bagels themselves are gigantic, and coupled with their texture they truly taste like one of New York’s finest. They have also become well known for the designer breakfast and lunch sandwiches.

Best Late Night Food (after a night of drinking)
Sabras Latinas

Sabras Latinas has become known by Madison locals and students for providing some of the best Mexican Street food in town. The owner, a gentleman by the name of Jose, more commonly known as “taco man” has brought his Mexico City roots to Madison and has been serving unrivaled tacos, burritos, and quesadillas, to students and faculty during the day in Library mall as well as the late night weekend crowd. His unmistakable green food cart has become one of the most recognized trucks in town, and his extremely affordable traditional gastronomic food items have continued to put smiles on faces. Stop by Jose’s Sabras Latinas and try an “al pastor” taco and you won’t be disappointed.

Best Lunch Cart Food
King of Falafel

King of Falafel located in the center of campus in Library mall is a great snack or lunch in between classes. Everything on the menu is around five dollars, and the food is simply delicious. It serves the best falafels in town and also has a number of other Middle Eastern dishes that come with their scrumptious yogurt and hummus sauce. Since it is located right outside Memorial Library students often come outside for a study break to pick up a falafel for lunch or dinner if the cart is still out. Next time you pass this yellow and blue cart give it a try, and let your taste buds do the judging.

Originally posted on Monday, February 21st, 2011

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