Chef Joe Papach knew exactly where to go when he decided to open his own restaurant. As a six-year veteran of the Michelin-starred Napa Valley stalwart French Laundry, he could have debuted his kitchen anywhere. Forget San Francisco, Chicago or L.A., though. He opted instead to open his Harvey House in Madison.
The fact that the Wisconsin capital was the hometown of his wife, Shaina Robbins Papach — herself an accomplished chef who had collaborated with farm-to-table pioneer Alice Waters— was only one reason for the choice. Papach also knew that Madison had become an Upper Midwestern dining hub in its own right.
The city's Dane County Farmers' Market, the largest producer-only market in the country, has been a locavore bastion since the 1970s. Circling the Capitol Square, and dense with vendors selling everything from just-harvested fruits and vegetables to Dairyland cheeses, it is a showcase for Wisconsin's bulging larder. Yet Madison offers more than heartland cuisine. The university town draws a global population of savvy diners who expect their hand-pulled noodles and Thai curries to be on point. The result is a network of independent, chef-driven kitchens that drive an eclectic smorgasbord.
New kids in town
Where to start? For pure sense of place, the Harvey House — opened last fall after pandemic delays and already dubbed by Esquire as one of the top 40 new restaurants in the country — is worth a side trip to Madison alone. Located in the two-story baggage claim of a historic train station, the restaurant teasingly plays with the Wisconsin supper club tradition. The menu starts off with an elevated relish tray; the deviled eggs come topped with trout roe and sit next to pastrami-style smoked sturgeon. The kitchen's version of meat and potatoes materializes as an all-day-braised short rib paired with glazed root vegetable and celery root cream, and a classic roast duck playing a duet with roasted fennel. For dessert: an apple pie pavlova, the cloud of meringue billowing above spiced Honeycrisp apples. Just as good: a butterscotch banana pudding.
But the Harvey House isn't the only noteworthy Madison restaurant debuting recently. At Fairchild on the near west side, the menu from co-chefs Itaru Nagano and Andy Kroeger changes weekly, focusing on the best of the local harvest with Mediterranean twists. If you're lucky, it will feature a creamy lobster bisque, a veg-centric risotto tossed with butternut squash and king trumpet mushrooms, and an organic pork loin sitting in a Romesco sauce.
Just off the Capitol Square, the Settle Down Tavern is already famous for its creative cocktails, such as an Old Fashioned spiked with Campari bitters. The diner features comfort food all day, but the best time to come is Friday, when the fish platter includes a lager-battered and fried Alaskan cod sharing space with peppadew relish, pickled jalapeno and lime slaw.
Farther east, Mint Mark features veg-forward small plates. The crowded cauliflower dish includes bagna cauda, golden raisins and crispy sarvecchio, and an acorn squash is roused by madras curry, spiced nuts and smoked honey.
Some things don't need any updating. Among Madison's longstanding restaurants, Tornado is the very image of a classic Midwestern steak house. The interior feels like a cozy North Woods log cabin, and the juicy New York strip and tenderloin come with your pick of sides (choose the crispy hash browns).
Lombardino's, another classic local favorite, does right by Italian dishes. Even something as basic as a perfect al dente spaghetti bolognese is worth a stop, but the regularly changing menu is too ambitious to just fall back on standards. Among recent appearances: a lobster and Icelandic zuppetta; a seafood tagliatelle thick with mussels and shrimp; and mushroom, fontina and chickpea crespelles. Ceramic murals of Italian scenery add to the la dolce vita vibe.
The playful maki at Red can veer toward overwrought; consider the Tsunami roll (shrimp tempura, avocado, jalapeno cream cheese and spicy aioli topped with spicy tuna, king crab, coconut-garlic sauce, scallion and tobiko). But Red's nigiri will win back sushi lovers, and Muramoto, across town, dishes up a classic black cod in miso.
Closer to the University of Wisconsin campus, Pizza Brutta turns out pizzas that could pass in Naples. And L'Etoile — founded by Odessa Piper, the Madison icon who initiated local sourcing from the Farmers' Market— remains the splurgiest haute kitchen under chef Tory Miller.
Yet maybe the restaurant most emblematic of Madison's culinary ascendance is Sardine, overlooking broad Lake Monona. Opened by Chicagoans John Gadau and Phillip Hurley in 2006, the restaurant was part of a culinary wave drawing creative chefs to Madison, lured by relatively low rents and a hungry market. Located in a historic, renovated Machinery Row warehouse, the dining room makes for a handsome, airy space. An alfresco terrace, jutting off a long, buzzing bar, overlooks the lake.
What continues to draw diners, though, is Sardine's evolution. After starting out with a Madison-on-the-Mediterranean menu, it has settled into a smart, seamless take on the best of the local bounty. Braised beef cheeks in a red wine reduction come plated with caramelized Belgian endive, roasted butternut squash ravioli, sauteed green grapes and walnuts. A grilled harissa-marinated half-chicken leaches flavor from roasted red peppers and kale.
Still packed with diners 16 years on, this place is heartening proof that Madison can support the most ambitious kitchens.
Food and travel journalist Raphael Kadushin writes for Condé Nast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler and other publications.