The Dane County Farmer’s Market, which rings Madison’s Capitol Square, begins selling the state’s freshest produce, sweetest bakery and creamiest cheese at 6 a.m. each Saturday from mid-April through early November. A visit to Madison would be incomplete without starting the day early amid the towers of sweet corn, bushels of vine-ripened tomatoes and bunches of wild flowers available from the market’s 150 stalls.
In fact, it’s possible do an entire Capital City culinary tour in microcosm without leaving the square or its environs. Madison has one of the highest restaurant-per-capita ratios in North America, and the dining diversity is endless. Within the past decade the square has again captured the city’s heartbeat, and some of the finest dining – breakfast, lunch and dinner – is within easy reach of the Capitol.
Those not content to stroll the square with hot coffee, fresh fruit or Amish bakery in hand can stop in at the Marigold Kitchen, 118 S. Pinckney St. Whether your tastes run to the chile-poached eggs with French rosemary toast, prosciutto ham and manchego cheese ($6), or French toast brioche drizzled with pastry cream, seasonal berries and pure maple syrup, Marigold’s breakfast will awaken your taste buds with delightful sensations.
Mornings can be spent browsing the market stalls or sifting through the eclectic shops on State Street, which connects the square to the UW-Madison campus a mile away. State Street is loaded with fine restaurants, but a trip back to the square yields some special lunch experiences.
Thirsty for a little local brew? (It’s 5 p.m. somewhere.) Stop in at the Great Dane Pub & Brewing Co., 123 E. Doty St., Madison’s oldest brewpub located in the former Fess Hotel. Try some of brewmaster Rob LoBreglio’s Stone of Scone Scotch Ale or Crop Circle Wheat while sampling some Inner Warmth Peanut Stew from the extensive pub menu. You won’t be disappointed.
If your tastes run toward international beers, The Cooper’s Tavern, 20 W. Mifflin St., part of the local Food Fight Restaurant Group, has a wide selection of brews, as well as one of Madison’s best reuben sandwiches. If you’re lucky, you may be seated in the “snug,” a room-within-a-room patterned after the historic sections set aside in British pubs for female drinkers.
Other nearby options include the Capital Tap Haus, 107 State St., which exclusively serves beers from Middleton’s Capital Brewery, and Brocach Irish Pub & Restaurant, 7 W. Main St., about as genuine a taste of the auld sod as you can find stateside. (“Brocach” is Gaelic for “badger’s den.”)
Walk off your libation with a visit to the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Monona Terrace Community & Convention Center,
1 John Nolen Dr., a tour of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, located in Overture Center for the Arts at 227 State St., or a look inside the Wisconsin Veterans Museum, 30 W. Mifflin St., with its database of Wisconsin service men and women dating back to the Civil War. You can visit all three in one afternoon.
Dinner is when the Capitol Square restaurants really shine, and the options are many. Madison restaurants helped pioneer the use of local sustainable agricultural products on restaurant menus, and L’Etoile, 1 S. Pinckney St., was at the forefront. Current owner/chef Tory Miller makes some of Madison’s most memorable meals, while L’Etoile’s sister gastropub Graze, located across the aisle in the U.S. Bank building lobby, follows the same ethos, but in a casual, lower-priced atmosphere.
A decade or so ago L’Etoile’s “chief forager” Tami Lax split off to create Harvest, 21 N. Pinckney St., which also partners with local farmers, allowing chef Derek Rowe to create award-winning dishes. Recently, Lax also chose to return to her rural Wisconsin roots and create The Old Fashioned, 23 N. Pinckney St., highlighting the best of Wisconsin’s regional cuisine as its own unique genre. If you crave Sheboygan bratwurst done right, this is the place to go.
We’ve already mentioned Food Fight, and the city’s premier restaurant group also owns three downtown eateries of very different style. Meat lovers should visit Johnny Delmonico’s Steakhouse, 130 S. Pinckney St., which serves certified Angus beef and robust, classic dishes with dashes of seasonal flavor. Seafood lovers can step right around the corner to Ocean Grill, 117 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., which receives fresh seafood shipments six days a week. (Check out the champagne bar.)
For a truly special treat, try Fresco Rooftop Restaurant & Lounge, located high atop MMoCA. Dine indoors or outdoors on cuisine as contemporary as the art on the two floors below while enjoying a rooftop city view dominated by an illuminated Capitol dome. It’s a perfect way to end your trip along Madison’s downtown foodie trail.