MDNGuide

The Best Restaurants In Madison, Wisconsin

If you think it’s all cheese curds and walleye, you’re wrong.
The Best Restaurants In Madison, Wisconsin image

photo credit: Nicole Hansen

Madison may be small (and basically frozen from December to March), but we’ve got the Badgers and the most beautiful state capitol building in the country. The city also punches well above its weight when it comes to great food—mainly because we’re surrounded by award-winning dairies and thousands of acres of farmland. Just visit the Dane County Farmers’ Market on a Saturday, where chefs hand-pick heirloom tomatoes and do QA on watermelons for that week’s menu. 

Whether you’re a local, UW student, transplant, or just stopping through on business, these are the essential restaurants in Madison. Find out where to get a dose of diner nostalgia, impress a date or your pickiest in-law, and satisfy your strongest cheese curd cravings.


THE SPOTS


photo credit: Nicole Hansen

French

Capitol Neighborhoods

$$$$Perfect For:Date NightHappy HourOutdoor/Patio Situation
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Sardine is the Madison restaurant that checks every box: the patio has a great view of Lake Monona, it’s the perfect place for a first date, and the French food is all excellent. Stick with Sardine’s staples, like the moules-frites, duck confit frisée salad, and the slightly unexpected gruyère-draped hot dog, which you can only get at the bar (a.k.a. the best seat in the house). Speaking of the bar, we love hanging there for Happy Hour when they do $5 Kronenbourg and discounted East Coast oysters.


Before 2020, if you wanted a fancy dinner, you’d probably have a fine time at L’Etoile. But then Harvey House opened in 2021, and became Madison’s best spot for fine dining. It nails the restaurant Holy Trinity: flawless (but not in-your-face) service, incredible food, and an atmosphere where you can feel comfortable wearing Levi’s or Loewe. The dinner menu has high-end takes on Wisconsin supper club classics, like Lake Superior walleye or a crispy chicken schnitzel as big as your dad’s Steely Dan vinyl collection. Another standout is the kale caesar, which is dressed generously (in true Wisconsin style) and topped with buttery croutons that will make you reevaluate all of your previous salad experiences.


If there’s one restaurant that celebrates the best of Wisconsin, it’s The Old Fashioned. The space is covered wall to wall in vintage photos, illuminated Schlitz and PBR antique signs, and a taxidermied lake fish or two. You should come here for a casual lunch or dinner to eat cheese in almost every form, and sip one of the 150-plus Wisconsin beers. The wait here after 5:30pm can be long, but that’s because things like fried cheese curds and walleye sandwiches are so good and cost less than $20 (along with most other things on the menu). Be prepared for the couple next to you to strike up a conversation—friendly chit-chat is the ultimate Wisconsin pastime, after all.


$$$$Perfect For:Date Night

A Pig In A Fur Coat isn’t for the salad crowd. Come to this cozy, dimly lit Willy Street spot to have a heap of beef tartare served in a marrow bone, or funky gnocchi made from huitlacoche and topped with hedgehog mushrooms. Dishes are rich and the portions are large, which makes them great for splitting with a date. Go heavy on appetizers and pastas, definitely get a cocktail, and skip dessert for another cocktail, like the balanced, bitter, and spicy My Maria. The tables here are communal or spaced close together, so the strangers sitting next to you are definitely eavesdropping while you and your partner are comparing astrological charts.


Fairchild, with its massive back bar and homey decor, reminds us of a Cheers-type of establishment where everybody knows your name. The key difference is this is one of the best places to eat dinner in the city, and the menu has more interesting stuff than a standard pub burger. They do dishes like cured hamachi, a bunch of excellent pastas, sweetbreads with sunchoke, and corn panna cotta that are plated like a Rothko painting. You’ll need a reservation, but they are usually pretty manageable if you plan far enough in advance and don’t have your heart set on 7pm on a weekend. Also, check out their large wine list that has a few fun picks from Portugal and Austria. 


Ahan does pan-Asian dishes made from locally sourced ingredients, which might mean your kung pao is loaded with asparagus and the coconut sticky rice gets topped with honeynut squash from a Madison-area farm. If we had to pick our perfect meal, it’d include the huge beet and tofu vegetable egg rolls and praram long song served with crispy tofu and a side of peanut sauce. Ahan is a great casual lunch and dinner move, and you should definitely stick around for the excellent dole whip and soft serve.


Mint Mark is a low-pressure spot that’s great for first dates. You can order as you go without having to commit to a full meal, in case the person across from you is a total weirdo. The small-plates menu changes week to week, but make sure to tack on a housemade pasta when it’s available, the cauliflower with bagna cauda and golden raisins, and the garlic-honey biscuit, which comes out warm and topped with a golf ball of whipped butter. Reservations and walk-ins are hard to come by during peak hours, but not so much at the kitchen counter or jade-green bar. That's why we sometimes like to just stop by for a few bites and a great cocktail like the Sky Rocket with mezcal, passionfruit, and dijon.


Mickie’s Dairy Bar is a spot with a retro interior where UW-Madison students, alumni, and families go before heading to a Badgers game (which also means there will be long lines on Saturday mornings). If that’s not your scene, just swing by for breakfast or lunch on a weekday. The best thing here is the scrambler: a mound of fried potatoes, eggs, meat, and cheese smothered in gravy. If you’re here to house this large, iconic breakfast, bring a friend for moral support, and order a milkshake, because what’s breakfast in Wisconsin without more dairy? 


The Square is Madison’s unofficial restaurant capitol, which can make it hard to find a table if you’re with a group. When you’ve got a lot of mouths to feed, head just off the main drag and get dinner at Little Palace, a large spot offering a range of American Chinese dishes. They do shareable stuff like Peking shrimp, moo shu, and crab rangoon, along with a fun selection of tiki-inspired scorpion and volcano bowls. It all makes a meal at Little Palace feel like a total party.


For the best Neapolitan pizza in town with a perfectly wood-fired crust, come to It’s Good for You. After years of slinging pies at the Northside Farmers Market, the owners set up shop in this small, mostly takeout space on the city’s near-east/north side. The best choices are the classic margherita, mushroom trifolati, and one of the special pies they’re doing that day. Make sure to grab the budino de caramello, which is basically the best butterscotch pudding you’ll ever have.


The only way you can go wrong at Lao Laan-Xang is by skipping the curry squash—it’s made from three types of squash and cooked in a mix of coconut milk and spices until completely tender. While that dish is as comforting as a hug from Meryl Streep, tack on some khao tod nam som lettuce wraps, which are another menu standout. The restaurant has been around since 1990, and recently its two locations merged into a single spot on Atwood Avenue. It’s a popular pre-dinner spot for people going to the Barrymore Theatre next door, so expect it to be busy between 6-8pm on show nights.


After taking 45 minutes to decide on your outfit, choose a commuting podcast, and find a parking spot to squeeze into, you might not want to make another decision about what to eat. Paul’s Pel’meni makes things easy, thanks to its simple menu with just two choices: potato or ground beef dumplings. Yes, you’ve got a couple choices for toppings—there’s sweet chili sauce, curry powder, butter, and vinegar—but let us make it even easier: Add them all, and get extra sour cream. The restaurant has moved around over the years, and its current home just off State Street has plenty of seating for a casual lunch or dinner. There's also a late-night scene that's mostly college students sharing dumplings and trying to prolong their inevitable hangover.


Located in a nondescript northside strip mall, this small Mexican grocery store and counter makes the best tacos in town. Go with the asada or rich and savory carnitas, and make liberal use of the red and green salsas that come with your order. You also can’t go wrong with any of the tamales, specifically the jalapeño and queso, which you can also buy in 12 packs for parties. It gets pretty busy during lunch and dinner, which is why we like it best for takeout, when cooking at home feels as daunting as performing brain surgery.


photo credit: Marie's Soul Food

Marie’s Soul Food only does takeout, but the collards, baked mac and cheese, and crispy, juicy chicken wings are worth eating on the roof of your car. The only bad part about Marie’s is that we can’t eat there every day: It’s only open Thursday through Sunday for lunch and dinner, with a late-night menu on Fridays and Saturdays. Weekends are when you can grab the restaurant’s chicken or catfish and waffles, which come out perfectly breaded even at midnight.

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