If someone were to ask you what’s one of the best U.S. cities for farm-to-table dining and local foods, what’d probably say New York, Chicago, or Portland, right?
But Madison (yes Madison, Wisconsin) -- a city with fewer than 300,000 people--has one of the strongest local foods scenes in the country. But you'd never know it unless you visited because bragging about it just isn't their way.
Surrounded by farmland and natural resources, farm-to-table dining in Madison is a no-brainer. It's not a gimmick or a good PR move, as it has become in so many other places. It's just the natural state of things.
With so much farmland surrounding the city, almost every restaurant you walk into proudly displays a long list of the local farmers and purveyors they work with. Plus the city has some highly celebrated chefs, like Tory Miller of Graze and L'Etoile, who was named "Best Chef in the Midwest" by the James Beard Foundation in 2012.
And the craft beer scene is one of the best in the country. This is the home of Great Taste of the Midwest, the hugely popular annual beer festival that brings in the best breweries from all over the Midwest and has been doing so since 1987, long before the craft beer movement had any momentum.
If it's a foodie paradise you're looking for, look no further than Madison. Here are 10 places you need to check out:
1. Dane County Farmers Market
The Dane County Farmers Market is the largest producer-only farmers market in the U.S., which means all items are produced locally by the vendors themselves. You really can't get much more local than that. The market is held in Capitol Square Saturdays and Wednesdays during the summer (it goes indoors in the winter) and during peak months, the tables sag from the weight of all of the fresh produce. Get your meats, cheeses, breads, produce, honey, jams and more here, and just remember to walk counter-clockwise with the traffic flow. Be sure to get Stella's hot and spicy cheese bread fresh out of the oven…it's a Wisconsin thing.
2. Underground Food Collective: Forequarter, Underground Butcher
The Underground Food Collective is comprised of chefs Jonny and Ben Hunter, Garin Fons and Mel Trudeau. They work collaboratively (there is no "executive chef") along with their "community of partners, children and friends." Together they run the Underground Butcher, where they produce hand-crafted salami and cured meats sold wholesale to restaurants, markets, and directly to the consumer. In 2011, a fire shut down their then-flagship restaurant, Underground Kitchen. The restaurant community rallied around them, offering them space at the Dane County Farmers Market to sell their surplus product and space in their own restaurants (including James Beard winner Tory Miller's L'Etoile) to host pop-up dinners. Last summer they opened Forequarter, a small "neighborhood" spot that was just named one of the 50 best new restaurants in the country by Bon Appetit.
3. L'Etoile and Graze
L'Etoile is the flagship restaurant of chef Tory Miller, a James Beard Foundation award winner, who snagged the title of "Best Chef: Midwest" in 2012. L'Etoile has been named one of America's "Top 50 Restaurants" by Gourmet, one of Saveur's "Top 100," and one of Wine Enthusiast's "100 Best Wine Restaurants." At L'Etoile, Miller takes local farm-raised ingredients and old-world cooking methods to create an exquisite menu of house-made products (from the house-cured meats to the house-made breads, pastas, fruit preserves and pickled vegetables). At Graze he does more of them same, but is focused on serving comfort food made from local, sustainable ingredients in a much more casual environment.
4. The Old Fashioned
It would be an insult to the establishment to not order an Old Fashioned cocktail at the Old Fashioned, so do that. But also bear in mind, this is where Wisconsin in king--as in Wisconsin beer. And that is what you'll find in each of Old Fashioned's 52 tap handles, and the majority of the 100 brands it sells by the bottle. Wisconsin brewers, such as New Glarus, are known to keep beer for their fellow Wisconsinites and won't export beer out of the state. While that may be a bummer for the rest of us, you kind of have to respect that dedication to keeping the local products for local people (all the more reason to visit). At the Old Fashioned, you can try all of them. Plan on putting in some serious time here, and oh yeah, their menu of locally-sourced pub grub is excellent.
5. Cooper's Tavern
Owned by Irishman Peter McElvanna, Cooper's Tavern is everything you could want in a proper pub: rustic, locally-sourced pub food, cozy environment, soccer on the “telly,” and a monster beer list spanning the globe. Basically, it's all the beers that McElvanna likes. The staff at Cooper's is friendly – pretty much everyone in Madison is very friendly, but at Cooper's they are exceptionally so – and the whole experience is top-notch.
Craft cocktails have been experiencing a huge resurgence throughout the country in the last few years, and in Madison, the place you go for craft cocktails is Merchant. There's none of that "secret entrance, secret password" fanfare that dominates the big city cocktail bars. Here, there are just cocktails; really great cocktails, and ones that have garnered the attention of spirits enthusiasts across the country.
Let's be clear about something: Wisconsin is The Great Cheese State. You do not go to Wisconsin without partaking in its superior locally-made artisan cheeses. Other states are catching up, but cheese makers there are still behind those in Wisconsin. Fromagination is a chapel of cheese. Carrying all Wisconsin cheeses, this store is Madison's all-local answer to Murray's –New York City’s famous cheese shop. Sample before you buy, order through its online store, or just stop in for lunch for one of the best sandwiches in Madison. Fromagination also has communal fondue lunches during the winter.
8. Brasserie V
Brasserie V does not have a beer list. It has a beer bible. The owners have an extensive selection of beers from all over the world, but really specialize in hard-to-find Belgian labels. The locally-sourced, made-from-scratch gastropub fare is also very Belgian. It's located a bit outside of downtown. One of the easiest ways to get there is by bike. (Madison is considered one of the most bike-friendly cities in the country). Just hit up any one of several B-Cycle bike sharing stations downtown and use the dedicated bike trails to get to the Camp Randall B-Cycle station and walk a few blocks from there.
9. Death's Door Spirits
Death's Door Spirits was born in 2007 to use wheat grown on Wisconsin's Washington Island --a small island that was once known for its potato farming. Owner Brian Ellison saw an opportunity to launch a local distillery using the wheat grown to reinvigorate farming there, after the potatoes disappeared. What started as a sort of agricultural experiment is now the largest distiller in Wisconsin that distributes throughout the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Europe, and Australia. Check out their tasting room and new state of the art production facility in Middleton, a suburb of Madison. Call ahead to schedule a private tour.
10. A Pig in a Fur Coat
Chef Dan Bonnano of A Pig in a Fur Coat was recently featured on an episode of the Cooking Channel's “America's Best Bites.” Bonnano is known for make pigs pretty, and this nose-to-tail restaurant most certainly does that. He also does the same for duck, rabbit, lamb, quail and other animals of interest. Foie gras, roasted bone marrow, and lamb heart all make an appearance on the adventurous menu. They also have a large selection of regional craft beers from Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Canada.