Why Everyone Should Eat Their Way Through Madison, Wisconsin

With funky traditions, award-winning chefs, and access to some of Wisconsin’s best produce, Madison is a must-visit city for the food obsessed.

A spread of dishes offered at Harvey House.

Hit up Harvey House, behind a historic train depot, for an array of culinary delights.

Photo by Nicole Franzen

I’m what you would call a food-motivated person. When I wake up in the morning, one of the first things I think about is that day’s food possibilities. (Will I make kimchi noodles or curry? Will we dine at the new Laotian place or get our favorite burritos?) When I’m traveling, this goes from about a 10 to, oh, 10,000. (My partner pretty much goes along with this, so long as I “walk” her between meals.)

Which was why I was so delighted by a recent trip to Madison, Wisconsin. I was there last June for a conference but was able to extend my trip and explore. And I was bowled over by what I found: new spins on the Wisconsin tavern, creative chefs, and a seemingly endless supply of fantastic produce. It’s a college town, yes, but it’s also one of the most inspiring cities I’ve eaten my way through recently. And it should come as no surprise, given that it’s surrounded by an impressive farming culture headlined by young farmers, has a strong Hmong (Indigenous Southeast Asian) community that has contributed greatly to Madison’s Laotian food scene, and is drawing such acclaim that some of the latest season of Top Chef: Wisconsin is set there.

Here’s where to eat—and where to “walk” it off in between.

Where to eat in Wisconsin

Supper clubs, Laotian restaurants, and cheese shops—oh my! This isn’t an exhaustive list, but there are many local highlights. And a note about drinking: You should! Madison has a fantastic beer and burgeoning distillery scene—it’s too much to get into here, but for a taste of the city’s best beer, try the Spotted Cow at New Glarus Brewing Company or one of the high ABV brews at Giant Jones Brewing Company, and for spirits, I recommend a little day trip to the J. Henry & Sons bourbon tasting room in Dane, about 30 minutes north of Madison. (And for the stories behind these places, check out the Pour Another Round podcast.)


For a taste of Lao, look no further than Ahan, a busy spot on Williamson Street. Executive chef and co-owner Jamie Brown-Soukaseume grew up in the food industry—her family owns another popular Madison spot, Ha Long Bay—and her mother, who was born in Laos, passed down her recipes. They now form the base for some of Jamie’s most to-die-for dishes, including rich, brothy khao soi and sweet and savory papaya salad. Don’t miss the Lao egg rolls.


It’s almost too overwhelming to step into this cheese shop, but when we’re traveling we must persevere. Fromagination is where you come to taste Wisconsin in cheese form, whether you want to try an aged cheddar with a streak of blue (Dunbarton blue from Roelli Cheese Haus) or a creamy goat cheese (Linedeline from Blakesville Creamery). The friendly cheesemongers can guide your purchases—grab a bunch of cheeses, along with the crackers and other treats they sell, and make a picnic, or walk around the corner and order a bottle of wine at Square Wine Company for a true feast. Want something more substantial? They also make sandwiches, mac and cheese, and salads—plus “cakes of cheese” that look like legit wedding cakes.


This market-driven restaurant—meaning that Wisconsin-grown ingredients are the stars of the show—is an absolute must. At Fairchild, the vibes are mellow but luxurious, the cocktails are fabulous, and the ever-changing dishes that chefs Itaru Nagano and Andrew Kroeger send out—such as pan-fried sweetbreads with pickled sunchokes and a Door County cherry and shiso puree—are reason enough to relocate to Madison. And if accolades are your thing, the chefs took home the award for best chef(s) Midwest at the 2023 James Beard Awards.

The interior of Harvey House, Madison, and a dish that the restaurant serves.

Harvey House is a place “where the history, culture and cuisine of the 19th century collides with modern design and culinary inspiration”.

Photos by Nicole Franzen

Harvey House

The supper club is a classic Wisconsin experience, offering ambience, cocktails (including the brandy-based Wisconsin Old-Fashioned), and a relish tray with cheese dip and pickled and fresh veggies. The Harvey House took that concept and ratcheted it up a few notches, adding a dash of train travel glamour. It’s located behind Madison’s historic train depot, and chef Joe Papach and his wife, Shaina, embraced the rail history, even fully restoring a train car that’s available to book. It’s one of those happy, sparkly places you want to linger all evening. I started with a relish tray outfitted with deviled eggs and a smoked salmon dip and an ice-cold martini, one of the best I’ve had in recent memory. Then I worked my way up to the Harvey’s wedge salad and the superior walleye, the restaurant’s take on a classic Wisconsin fish fry.

Butterbird specializes in fried chicken— and has plenty of games to keep the kids entertained, too.

Butterbird specializes in fried chicken— and has plenty of games to keep the kids entertained, too.

Photo by Nicole Hansen


For something a little more low-key, turn to Joe and Shaina Papach’s newest endeavor: Butterbird, an ode to fried chicken. Yes, you will wait in line, but it moves quickly and it’s worth it to chow down on mac and cheese bites, fried dill pickles, and fried or rotisserie chicken prepared to juicy perfection. It’s also a great place to bring the kiddos: There are games, a claw machine, and a photo booth to keep them entertained.

Lao Laan-Xang Restaurant

This institution was Madison’s first Laotian restaurant when it opened back in 1990, and it’s still a local favorite. Christine Inthachith and her mother, Bounyong, opened Lao Laan-Xang to share the flavors of their home city, Luang Prabang, which you’ll find in dishes like the squash curry (four different kinds of squash, Thai eggplant, and basil) and moak pa, catfish steamed in banana leaves.

Mint Mark

Mint Mark has been heralded since it opened in 2018, and for good reason: Chef Sean Pharr—a multi-year James Beard semifinalist—crafts small, creative plates using only what’s in season. People wax poetic about his divine buttermilk biscuits and the roasted cauliflower, which is tossed with bagna càuda and white wine–plumped raisins; both items have been on the menu since day one. Everything else ebbs and flows with the season—right now you might order duck frites, an endive salad, and a proper meat pie, filled with tender braised beef.

Muskellounge and Sporting Club

If you want to drink like chef Sean Pharr, pop into his Muskellounge and Sporting Club, also known as the Musky. He says it’s like a Wisconsin 1970s parents’ basement/fishing club. And it looks the part, with lots of wood paneling and fish painted on forest green walls. This is where you come to play shuffleboard or darts while sipping a whiskey neat or one of the many local beers on tap. Next door is Hank’s, a to-go burger and fish fry joint that Pharr opened in 2023 so that Musky drinkers could grab a shrimp po’boy and cheese curds to soak up the good times.

Pig in a Fur Coat

Yes, Pig in a Fur Coat is another champion of Wisconsin’s impressively varied and delicious seasonal cuisine. But here chef Dan Bonanno brings his Italian roots to bear, though I wouldn’t classify it as a fully “Italian” restaurant—you’ll find dishes like Parisian gnocchi with short ribs and mushrooms, but also jerk rabbit with spinach and parsnips. And you have to come back during the day for a sandwich (meatball? pastrami? mortadella??) at Alimentari by Pig in a Fur Coat, Bonanno’s Italian deli right around the corner, which was inspired by the one his dad worked at for years.


This 48-year-old restaurant has been called the Midwest’s Chez Panisse: L’Etoile is the city’s original farm-to-table spot, and many a local chef has worked here before moving on to their own spot in town. Founded by Odessa Piper, it’s now owned and run by chef Tory Miller, one of the city’s most celebrated chefs. The real move is to opt for the ever-changing tasting menu—right now, you’ll find chèvre agnolotti with spring nettles and New York–style strip steak with celery root and black trumpet mushrooms. But you can also choose à la carte, or go for the more casual vibes at Graze, a restaurant that combines Miller’s Wisconsin and Korean heritages.

Short Stack Eatery

You’ve gotta find a good breakfast spot on the road, and Short Stack, a busy one near the capitol, is where I would happily ensconce myself time and time again. Given the name, pancakes are absolutely a star here—go for sweet potato oatmeal or the classic blueberry stack. But there are plenty of savory options, including pulled pork with cheesy grits or corned beef hash. Risk-takers: Order the Blind, an always-changing dish that comes with a discount if you don’t ask what it is. (The only question you can ask is if it’s sweet or savory.) I love that they have strong gluten-free and vegan options, too, like a vegan hash and gluten-free buttermilk pancakes.


A travel-oriented bookstore where I can also drink late at night? Hello, my new home. I was so enchanted by Leopold’s that I visited twice, once (by bike) for a midday coffee and book perusal (all the shelves are organized by country) and once in the evening to sip a Black Walnut Manhattan and eavesdrop on conversations flowing around me.

Cyclists in Madison, Wisconsin

There are hundreds of miles of bike trails in and around Madison—perfect for working off all (some of) that food.

Photo by Aislyn Greene

Where to work up an appetite in Madison

Madison is an outdoor lover’s dream, offering plenty of ways to enjoy the sunshine and the lakes—and rebuild your appetite.

Dane County Farmers’ Market

Wisconsin has an incredible farming community, meaning that perfect produce is only a stone’s throw away. And the 52-year-old Dane County Farmers’ Market is where Madison’s food action happens on Saturday mornings. The largest producer-only farmers’ market in the United States (meaning that only vendors who grow their own produce are allowed), it surrounds the Wisconsin State Capitol building from mid-April through early November. It’s the best possible place to stroll on a Saturday morning—though the crowds can be intense after 9 a.m.—and get a taste of Wisconsin’s bounty, from Door County cherries to cheese curds.

Madison Adventure Tours

Madison is a platinum-certified cycling city with more than 60 miles of bike paths within the city proper and more than 200 miles in the city surrounds, and an ideal way to see all of it in one (or two, or three) gulps is on two wheels. The city has an excellent bike-sharing program, BCycle, but I recommend starting with an e-bike tour with Madison Adventure Tours, ideally on the first or second day of your trip. On its two-hour city tour, you’ll get the lay of the land, while also learning cool facts about the capital city (like, it’s built on an isthmus between two lakes—one of only two major U.S. cities with this distinction). And because they use e-bikes, people of all ages can join and pedal happily.

Kosa Spa

Sometimes, you just need a break from everything. After a busy week, I had a chance to cocoon myself in Kosa Spa, an Ayurvedic wellness center in the Garver Feed Mill (also a great place to eat and drink). Ayurveda is a highly seasonal system of traditional Indian medicine, and owner Shilpa Sankaran has infused her spa with those tenets—you could easily spend a day here getting a consult, resting in the sauna and steam room, or getting an Abhyanga massage using customized oils. Plus, there’s good food here: hot golden milk (an oat-based turmeric drink), decaf chai, and khichdi, a rice and dal dish based on a recipe from Sankaran’s family.

Olbrich Botanical Gardens in the Madison, Wisconsin area.

The beautiful Olbrich Botanical Gardens hosts live music, plant sales, and other events throughout the year.

Photo by Aislyn Greene

Olbrich Botanical Gardens

Not far from the Garver Feed Mill: the 16-acre Olbrich Botanical Gardens, a perfect (and free) place to lose yourself in between meals. There’s the traditional English-style Sunken Garden with a reflecting pool, a shady birch walk, and a 10,000-square-foot conservatory ($6 admission). Don’t miss the gorgeous, gilded Royal Thai pavilion, a gift from the Thai government and the only such feature in the United States.

Kayaking—and log-rolling

There are five lakes in Madison—part of the Chain of Lakes connected by the Yahara River—and come summer, you shouldn’t miss an opportunity to engage with at least one of them. Lake Mendota and Lake Monona are the largest (the city is built on the isthmus between them), and you could easily spend a summer weekend kayaking and lolling about on the beaches. Rent a kayak through Madison Boats, which has three locations on the lakes. For a quintessential Wisconsin experience, get in touch with your inner lumberjack at a log-rolling class on Lake Winga.

This story is part of our Meet Me in the Middle series, which celebrates the singular towns, cities, and outdoor spaces that lie in wait for travelers between America’s well-trodden coasts. Read more from Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Utah, and the Midwest.

Aislyn Greene is the associate director of podacsts at Afar, where she produces the Unpacked by Afar podcast and hosts Afar’s Travel Tales podcast. She lives on a houseboat in Sausalito.
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