Madison is still short on outside dining. While the options have improved dramatically with the recent sidewalk expansion around King Street, the city lags behind in the waterfront and rooftop scenes developed by other cities in the past decade. There are high hopes for the renovated Edgewater Hotel, which promises beachy enjoyment beyond the beer and college vibe of the Union Terrace.
But Madison does offer a number of outdoor hidden gems that are relatively under the radar compared to, say, Sardine's patio, the Great Dane beer garden downtown or Fresco's stellar rooftop views. These are spots to visit with family and friends -- places you may have forgotten about or never even knew existed.
In what must be the oddest, most urban-feeling outdoor patio in the city, Rising Sons Deli on State Street has a thin strip of outdoor tables in an enclosed courtyard that is an oasis of repose near campus. The high brick walls and funky atmosphere make it feel more like Brooklyn than Madison, and eating Thai/Lao cuisine in an area that's mostly burrito and sub shops feels downright subversive. The Drunken Noodles for $8 are a spicy good deal.
For more near-campus calm, the tree-shaded back patio at Indie Coffee on Regent is the spot to sit and read while devouring one of the shop's signature waffles. The friendly, relaxed-yet-speedy staff ensures that this is an ideal patio before or after a meeting, or for a breakfast with mom. A big, classic Belgian malted waffle will set you back a mere $4.25.
Barriques, just off the Square on West Washington, warrants inclusion in any list of patio sleepers simply because it offers bottles of wine at retail cost rather than at restaurant markup. This counts as one of the best-kept secrets downtown for what to do on a lazy afternoon, before dinner, or following a visit to the Farmers' Market. There's always a decent, relatively inexpensive rosé waiting in the cold case for under $15. Beware, there can be a corkage fee.
Perhaps downtown's best hidden gem is the shady back patio at Plaka Taverna. It isn't mentioned on the restaurant's website, so even longtime Madisonians may not know about it. The larger-than-expected wooden deck is peaceful and comfortable, and the beautifully plated Greek cuisine makes for perfect al fresco nosh. The patio transforms Plaka into a magical summer world of wine and stuffed grape leaves, consumed as they are meant to be -- outdoors.
Another great deck is at Lakeside Street Coffee House. A glimpse of how beautiful Madison could be if it got its waterside dining act together, Lakeside is a coffee spot offering everything from Lazy Jane's scones to Asian Peanut Tofu sandwiches, right on Monona Bay. Have an iced coffee under the weeping willows and watch meditatively as the standing paddle-boarders try to stay aloft.
Why there aren't more accessible rooftop views in Madison is a real mystery, but the problem is partially solved by the third-floor terrace at Brickhouse Barbecue. There's better barbecue in town, but you're here for the huge tap beer list and the view anyway. If only there was a pool.
The Spot on East Johnson opened this winter only to immediately face the challenges of summer road construction. But you won't be bothered by it on the restaurant's cozy, secluded back patio. A nicely curated wine list is reason enough to bike or find parking on a nearby street. Bottles are half off on Mondays.
On the west side, Tony Frank's has more than doubled its outdoor seating this year, and the patio changes the feel of this otherwise dark tavern into a serious summertime scene. The well-known burger somehow tastes even better in the sun, and the big patio will put this beloved institution on the summer hangout map.
Veranda Restaurant and Wine Bar in Fitchburg is one of the few places you can get carpaccio and an Italian balsamic and strawberry cocktail outside, and it is the place to stop on the way to the utterly serene patio at the artsy Creamery Cafe in Paoli. The cafe's bucolic balcony overlooking the Sugar River is a treasured outdoor lunch spot that again underscores what Madison proper is missing: more restaurants on the water serving modern food with well-curated beverage lists.