The map of Madison's dining landscape has been dotted of late with event meals, ticketed suppers, and pop-up services lasting one night only. This has been the trend in American dining for the last few years, a style as thrilling as the speakeasy.
But there's another trend at work: more humble, less flashy. Places like the bar on the corner with a knockout sandwich, or the little cafe with the unexpected specialty, or even a hot room with a hidden menu. Restrained ambition allows these operations to exist quietly, without a need for promotion, but no jewel glitters in the dark. Let's shine a light on the best dining secrets in town.
Some of the best burgers in Madison can be found in bars. The Caribou, Oakcrest, Brothers Three and, of course, the Plaza's eponymous cheeseburger - local legends all. Maybe it's because Chief's Tavern is a newcomer to the bar scene (having replaced the vintage Packer Inn) that it doesn't have a reputation for bar food. But it will soon enough, if there's any justice in the world.
One thing Chief's has that no other bar or restaurant in town does is table service from Buck's Pizza-East. Heck, Buck's Pizza-East doesn't even have table service from Buck's Pizza-East. The bartender at Chief's will take your order, place it to Buck's right across Cottage Grove Road, and then personally retrieve it. Just like that, you have a fresh Buck's pizza - thin crust, thick cheese, little squares - without so much as having to stand up.
There's also a little grill at Chief's, and you can get a decent bar burger with a side of potato salad or coleslaw. The Reuben is fine, too. But a specials menu holds the true genius of Chief's: the TLT. Leaf lettuce, a thick slice of tomato, and sizzling bacon are elevated by a griddled fillet of smoked trout. Tender, oily and even deskinned if you're squeamish, this is a nicely proportioned sandwich.
Some of the old-school regulars and young pool-playing dudes may look askance at your fish sandwich, but for under six dollars it's worth having to explain the appeal. The iconic Plazaburgers may get all the press, but there's no bar sandwich in town like the TLT, either.
There's a strange nexus of Russian cuisine in Fitchburg (historically, if not currently). From 2006 to 2010, Arbat served a menu of common-folk Russian classics. Its closure was met with much sadness, but there's an old saying about God closing a door and opening a window.
Around the time Arbat closed, the EVP coffeehouse on Lacy Road in Fitchburg became home to Paul Schwoerer and his Russian dumplings, which had previously been sold out of the Pel'meni storefront on State Street. Now the shop is called the Oasis Cafe, owned by Schwoerer and serving bowlfuls of his signature dumplings, called pelmeni.
The dumplings themselves are simple: thin, translucent skins stretched around either soft potato or seasoned Black Earth ground beef. The toppings are what make Schwoerer's recipe special. He combines sweet curry powder, chopped cilantro, butter and a gentle hot sauce made primarily of sriracha, with a small ramekin of sour cream on the side.
Yes, there are also sandwiches and soups at Oasis, but if you're making a special trip, do it for the pelmeni. By the time you're reading this, Schwoerer hopes to be operating a full-fledged storefront on Gorham Street just off State. The secret's about to be blown; Oasis Cafe is your chance to get there before pelmeni gets huge in Madison again.
Here's where I really blow your minds. Ever heard of a little place on the Capitol Square called the Old Fashioned? Har har, yes, the place known for its 90-minute waits. What if I told you that I knew a time to go to the Old Fashioned when the menu's unique and there's not only no wait, but often no other diners at all?
On weekends, the Old Fashioned does brunch. But since expanding in late 2010 into the space next door, there's also a weekday breakfast.
I have friends who live downtown and like to go out to eat, and even they had no idea the Old Fashioned served breakfast. Of the handful of times I've been there for breakfast, I've seen a total of maybe five other parties. What started as a small, "everything's five bucks" menu is now a pleasant little rainbow of small dishes, sides and big breakfasts.
The pancakes are great, the bacon is from Bavaria Sausage on Nesbitt Road (so, great), and the fried-to-order mini-doughnuts are the kind of breakfast item you've been waiting for since Saturday morning cartoons.
Heartier fare includes huevos rancheros with Green Bay-style chili, and a supremely salty corned beef hash with eggs and roasted potatoes. And there are little surprises like a house-made tart/sweet ground cherry jam. Old Fashioned staff say they see plenty of breakfast rushes, but there are seats for the taking; take one.
At Sardine, some of the restaurant's best work is written in chalk.
The vibe and decor at Sardine are almost as strong a draw as the food and drink, and the bar is a great place to linger. If you're sitting anywhere else in the restaurant, you have the standard menu available to you. But at the bar and its adjacent tables, there's a special chalkboard menu found nowhere on the Sardine website - and it's not just filled with the excellent house cocktails.
There have been minor changes over the years, but the bar menu is always sandwich-centric. The house burger is a slightly fancified cheeseburger, but the Sardine burger is topped with a fig and onion jam, Gorgonzola and arugula. It's not tidy, but you're not dining on a white tablecloth, either.
The best thing this menu has going for it, though, is the bistro dog - one of the best hot dogs in Madison. A beefy frank and crusty roll are blanketed by melted Gruyere, with pickled onions, wincingly hot mustard, and both greens and French fries alongside. All this comes your way for $7. You won't find a better light meal with drinks at a prettier bar in town.
Late-night dining can be an exercise in disappointment. You walk in, wait for a seat, and by the time you're ready to order, the grill's off and all the things you wanted to eat are gone. But at the Tornado Steakhouse, if it's late night, you're right on time.
Oh, but look at the crowd at the bar, you say. The banquette seats are all taken! This is when you head to the stairs and mosey down to the Corral Room - a low-slung, dimly-lit rumpus room where the jukebox is fake but the burgers are for real. The crowd filters down here much more slowly; at 9:30 p.m. on a Friday, I found most tables unoccupied.
Don't even ask for the late-night menu until 10 p.m. Order a drink (a Cadillac old-fashioned with Pierre Ferrand cognac, perhaps?). Then, at the magic hour, order a bacon blue cheese burger, or one with smoked Muenster, fried shallots and Russian dressing. With its ingredient profile, the latter seems like a distant relation to the Plazaburger. But whereas the thin Plazaburger is undergrad, the imposingly vertical Corral Room burgers (with beef by Knoche's Butcher Shop) are graduate level.
Obviously, these meals aren't so hidden that no one knows about them. They have their devotees, and sometimes they're so popular they're inaccessible (pelmeni run out, bar stools fill up, menus change). But the food's just so good, and so many seats are open, that giving up the secret is excused by sharing the joy.
There's an undeniable thrill to being able to turn to a group of friends and say, "Hey, I know this place...."