Madison, Wisconsin is the city taught me how to be a foodie. While I don’t live there anymore, I will forever be grateful for what I learned about food in Madison. My passion for delicious food started by working at the Dane County Farmer’s Market, blossoming from there into a full blown food obsession.
I’ve eaten at many of the great restaurants in the city, and have tried just about everywhere at least once. Madison has a blossoming food scene that is recognized throughout the Midwest as a cutting edge, ingredient focused town. There seems to be new (and great!) places opening up monthly. The best restaurants tend to cluster in the downtown Isthmus area, so it’s easy to explore many of them by foot or bicycle.
If you are a foodie visiting Madison, Wisconsin, these are the 15 quintessential Madison restaurants that you need to try!
Mint Mark — 1929 Winnebago St
Serving up what I would argue is the best meal in Madison right now, Mint Mark was opened up by the team from Robin Room as their first foray into the dining arena in the Atwood neighborhood. Their constantly changing small plate menu offers creative takes on classic dishes, as well as out-of-box combinations that work every time. Brunch is a great option, but their chef’s table for dinner is where it is at. Their tropical Palm Springs-inspired decor is a refreshing change of pace from the normal “Madison” look, and their cocktail list is topnotch.
The Heights — 11 N. Allen Street
One of my favorite new openings in Madison is the Heights on the near-west side of the city. Serving New American bistro cuisine, this daytime eatery is brought to you by Underground Food Collective of Forequarter and Underground Butcher. Its beautifully decorated interior is full of natural light and minimalist decor, but the star of the show is their spacious outdoor patio behind the restaurant. You can order food to eat in the restaurant, or you can pick up deli meat and fresh bread to take home.
Heritage Tavern — 131 East Mifflin Street
A great spot for cocktails and late night, Heritage Tavern is the brain child of Dan Fox. He dishes up a creative menu featuring unique combinations and flavor profiles. If you’re drinking, definitely order the Angostura Sour. By far my favorite. For late night snacks, I like the ham sandwich, grilled cheese or waygu burger.
Old Fashioned — 23 North Pinckney Street
While my Madison friends tease me relentlessly about my love for the Old Fashioned’s cheese curds and beer cheese soup, I stand by its placement on this list. The Old Fashioned is a Madison staple that is usually packed with tourists and out-of-towners, but it is a quintessential Wisconsin place. If you want a taste of the state, this is where you should go. Order the curds with the roasted garlic sauce, and if it is your first time in Wisconsin, you have to try a Wisconsin Old Fashioned.
Banzo — 2105 Sherman Ave
Banzo, which started as a food truck, quickly turned into a brick-and-mortar restaurant in 2011 because the demand for their delicious Mediterranean food outpaced what they could supply from the cart. This place is so tasty that one of my close friend’s even had it at her wedding! I always wind up ordering the falafel, but the menu also has locally sourced lamb, sweet potato falafel and pillowy pita wraps.
Ha Long Bay — 1353 Williamson St.
A charming family-owned business in the heart of the Willy Street neighborhood, Ha Long Bay specializes in Thai, Vietnamese and Laotian food. Their generous serving sizes of rice and noodle dishes are all delicious with a very authentic flavor profile. It is a popular spot for takeout, but it is also has a spacious dining room if you want to eat in person.
Brasserie V — 1923 Monroe St.
My favorite spot on Monroe street, Brasserie V is a Belgian style restaurant with an incredible beer selection. Even though I’m not much of a drinker, the owner loves sour ales and packs his menu with them, so I’m always excited to try what’s new. He even has a special fridge to keep the sour ales at the right temperature! Their food is pretty top-notch as well, especially their traditional mussels and choose-your-own-cheese-board.
Paul’s Palmeni — 414 West Gilman St.
Tucked away on a quiet street off of State Street, Paul’s Palmeni offers a unique option in Madison — polish cuisine! The menu has approximately 3 choices of beef or potato dumplings which you can, and should, order with “The Works”. Your dumplings will show up topped with butter, curry powder, sweet chili sauce, cilantro, and sour cream on the side. They are piping hot and a perfect late night meal or quick lunch on the go!
Osteria Papavero — 128 East Wilson Street
Honestly, I forget about this place a lot because the location is a little odd but it’s well worth a visit. Osteria Papavero offers some of the best rustic and authentic Italian food in Madison, prepared with an elevated approach. The restaurant is small and doesn’t take reservations, but the shareable dishes pack a punch. I highly recommend ordering their charcuterie board!
RED Sushi — 316 W. Washington Ave
This is a restaurant that me and Sam used to frequent when we lived in Madison, because RED sushi offers the best sushi in Madison. Hands down. The house roll combinations are super creative and unlike any I’ve had before. For simple rolls, my favorite is the Amigo and Negi-toro. For the specialty rolls, well where do I begin– red & black, crunchy tuna, and firecracker top my list. There is almost always a wait, even on Sunday nights, so be prepared to wait.
Salvatore’s Tomato Pies — 912 E. Johnson St
Easily the best pizza in the city, Salvatore’s Tomato Pies is a cozy eatery perfect for laid back date night or an excellent option for take out. They only use the best local ingredients to top their pizzas and they hand-toss their housemade crusts. Plus, you can order half and half styles! My favorite pizzas from Salvatore’s are the forza and forestiere, but the carbonara is also pretty delicious.
Fugu — 411 W. Gilman St.
Very unassuming from the outside (and very sketchy from the website), Fugu serves up the most authentic and flavorful Chinese food I’ve had outside of mainland China. Dishes run quite spicy, so take it easy on your first visit. Dishes I love include the dandan noodles, eggplant in garlic sauce, pork dumplings, and sichuan beef.
Chocolate Shoppe — 468 State Street
This is not the place to go if you are on a diet, and you will be reminded of it the second you walk in with their painted mural on the wall talking about all of their full-fat dairy and rich ingredients. The extra creamy ice cream at Chocolate Shoppe is WELL worth the extra calories, and their wide-ranging assortment of flavors is bound to please everyone in your group. Zanzamint, This sh*t just got serious and heaps of love are a few of my favorite flavors!
Pig in a Fur Coat — 940 Williamson St.
This was the restaurant that taught me about Michelin level cuisine for the first time, and this quickly became me and Sam’s go-to date night restaurant. Chef Dan cooks up rich meat-laden dishes that are well-worth the calories. Small and cozy combined with the friendly and approachable staff makes this foodie mecca’s pork inspired dishes go down easy. The menu changes fairly frequently based on the season, but if the lamb carpaccio, oxtail ragout or the duck egg ravioli are on the menu, you should order them.
Sardine — 617 Williamson Street
Sardine offers hands down the best brunch in the city, and without fail, I eat here on every.single.visit to Madison. It is popular, so you can expect to wait if you do not make a reservation in advance. The ambiance in this restaurant is to die for, thanks to the airy and subway tiled space on the edge of lake Monona. It is easy to let the hours slip away here while sipping on drinks with friends inside Sardine. I am in love with the crab cakes and I order them every time. But I’ve also had the brie omelettes and the baked eggs, both of which are delightful. Make sure to order frites on the side — they are delicious!
This post was originally published in March 2015 and revised in August 2016 and September 2019.