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August 25, 2005 5:50 PM   Subscribe

We just moved to Madison, Wisconsin -- now what?

As of three weeks ago, my wife and I are residents of Madison, where I'll be teaching at UW. Madison MeFites -- what do you wish somebody'd told you about when you first moved here? Favorite dry cleaner, dentist, restaurants and foodie shops, haircut (especially for women with curly hair!), stand at the farm market? Place to someday buy a house? Winter survival tips? (These are examples chosen at random -- please share all your local wisdom!) We live just west of campus, so west side stuff is of slightly greater interest. Extra points for information relevant to parents of young children, which we will very shortly be.
posted by escabeche to Grab Bag (25 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Welcome to town! I'm academic staff at the UW (as is my husband) and we're both Madison natives. I grew up on the west side but now live on the east side. A few suggestions:

-check out the Willy Street Coop (a natural foods cooperative on Willy, or Williamson, Street on the near east side). You don't have to be a member to shop! On the west side, there's Magic Mill and Sentry. Whole Foods, too, is on the west side, though I avoid that store like the plague. Fraboni's deli (Italian) on Regent or Relishes Deli (French-ish) on Monroe are great little gems.

-Devil's Lake State Park is less than an hour away and a great day trip for swimming/paddling, hiking, and rock climbing (if it floats your boat).

-Some excellent restaurants: The Great Dane brew pub off the square, L'Etoile (for an extra fancy occasion), Lao Laan-Xang on Atwood or Willy Street, Monty's Blue Plate Diner (on Atwood), the El Dorado Grill (on Willy Street). My family's bar and grill, Alt-n-Bach's town tap (Whalen Lane, off the beltline) does a great Friday Night Fish Fry--I'm not just saying that!

-Students are back so the Union Terrace is crowded now, but try to hang out there on a mild weeknight to get a feeling for why Madison can be a great place to live.

-If you have not already done so, hit Michael's Frozen Custard (Monroe Street) asap. The turtle sunday was recently written up in the NYT.

-Biking to campus from the near west side is very doable, if you're so inclined. Check out the Captiol City paths and trails. There's also great walking/biking opportunities in the arboretum

-There's a good indoor climbing gym on the far east side called Boulders, if you're so inclined.

-If you can get to Farmers right away in the morning, find the Summer Kitchen jam stand and see if they're selling onion rolls. He doesn't make many, they go fast (if he has them that week), and it's about $6 for a bag of six, but it's so worth it!

-Madison politics often have a car-wreck quality: it can be weird, frustrating and amusing to read the paper on any given day. Triple that when you're talking about the relations between the UW and the state legislator. Get used to it.
posted by handful of rain at 6:07 PM on August 25, 2005 [1 favorite]

Not sure about your wife's style, but the store Bop has a lot of my money, particularly for higher end jeans. There's a reason their website is so successful.
posted by awegz at 6:37 PM on August 25, 2005

What handful of rain said!
-Warning about the Willy St Co-op, though - they're mostly very nice but nonetheless have an extraordinary supply of surly, judgy clerks. Also, six dollars is too much to pay for a red pepper. Whole Foods is nice, but always very busy. If you're not vegetarian, they have excellent meats. The Jenifer Street market is good, too.

-If you like wine, check out Barrique's Wine Cave on Monroe. They're very friendly and helpful, and have a wall of one hundred wines for $10 or less. Plus, frequent tastings with great cheese pairings.

-If you like to cook, your new toystore is Orange Tree Imports, also on Monroe Street.

-NPR's Whad'ya Know is broadcast from Monona Terrace most Saturday mornings, and tickets are very reasonably priced.

-Real Chili just opened a Madison location on State Street. Yum!

-The Hoofers Club at UW rents boats and such.

-Knit? Lakeside Fibers is a dream, as is Susan's Fiber Shop (in Columbus) and The Sow's Ear (in Verona) is open at 6am on Sunday.
posted by mimi at 6:44 PM on August 25, 2005

I don't live up there, but a friend of mine did for many years. We frequented Cafe Montmartre quite a bit -- nice place, older crowd. And I second the Blue Plate recommendation.
posted by me3dia at 6:59 PM on August 25, 2005

A couple of other random thoughts:

-How could I have forgotten about Cafe Montmartre? Monday (or Tuesday?) night is 1/2 price bottles of wine.

-the west side has two good arty-ish theaters, the one at Hilldale and the one at Westgate. Not quite avant-garde, but they show movies that the big chains won't touch.

-if you're not used to snow, do yourself a favor and put a shovel and some sand or cat litter in your trunk before winter driving season begins. Also, if you're responsible for exterior work where you live, remember you can get a ticket if you don't shovel within 24 hours. The city has a web form for reporting non-shovelers if you're feeling evil. If you park on the street there is alternate-side parking in effect from November (I think) to spring EVEN IF IT DOES NOT SNOW. You can read about it on the city's website (, but it's a ten-dollar ticket even if there's not a flake in sight. And they love to give them out.

-Finding winter activities helps make the season go faster. There's lots of public skating (on rinks and lakes) maintained by the city, and several reasonable (for the midwest) ski hills nearby. You can cross-country ski and snowshoe on the public golf courses. There's also a kites on ice festival in January, which combines the thrill of kites with the friendly environment of ice.

-My dream neighborhoods would be University Heights (i.e. between Regent and University), Vilas/Monroe area, Tenney-Lapham, and the Rutledge Street area. However I'll be dreaming on as prices have jumped astromonically in past years. Still, there are lots of good starter areas. Try if you haven't seen it already.

-If you need junky furniture, hippie christmas comes every year on August 14/15 when all the leases on the isthmus end and begin. It's also a very good time to avoid driving downtown.
posted by handful of rain at 7:33 PM on August 25, 2005

Sorry I missed you! I just left Madison after living there for seven years.

To quickly address your specific questions:
- dry cleaner: the ubiquitous Klinke's really does do a fine job, and they use the "earth friendly" cleaning method, whatever that is.
- I already miss my dentist, who is really thorough and friendly. At the Dental Health Associates' east side location, ask for Judy, and tell her Ethan sent you.
- the Saturday farmers' market is great, but don't neglect the very nice East Side Farmers' Market (page designed by MeFi's own rocketman!), and consider joining a CSA. I did this last summer and really loved it. You are in the heart of farm country - take advantage of the amazing produce.

Dunno if you're interested in record stores, but Madison has lots of 'em. You can read a very dopey piece about local record shops, written by yours truly, here.

- for Laotian, Lao Laan Xaang for slightly fancy and delicious, and Vientiane Palace for somewhat grittier (in the metaphorical sense) - and very hot - food, plus the most hilariously surly service in town.
- Casa Bianca is the best pizza in town, bar none. Don't let nobody tell you different.
- awesome Ethiopian food here
- good Middle Eastern food at Lulu's, Caspian Cafe (try the Lubia Polow on Mon and Thurs), Dardanelles, and The Casbah.
- in my opinion, the best burger can be found at The Blue Moon. Dotty's is fine, but not nearly as good.
I am very hungry now.

The High Noon Saloon is by far the best venue for live music in town.

Buy bikes for everyone. Madison is one of the bikin'est places you'll ever come across. Bike trails abound, and nearly everywhere in town is biking distance from everywhere else. Leave the car at home, except for grocery shopping at Woodman's, which has the best selection and lowest prices in town. For organic/natural stuff, I like the Magic Mill on University - cheaper and fresher stuff than Whole Foods, and Willy St Coop is hugely overpriced. Also, consider supporting the struggling Mifflin Street Coop - I was a member there, and they need someone to replace me. They could use the scratch.

However, Whole Foods has excellent breads and cheeses. Relish Deli on Monroe St, though, has the best cheese selection in town. Which is saying something.

Four Star is one of the greatest video stores in the world. Rent only from them!

I'll post more stuff when it occurs to me, but fear not - Madison's a pretty easy town to figure out. Within a month or two, you'll have picked up on its ins and outs, no problem.
posted by Dr. Wu at 8:25 PM on August 25, 2005

Former student/resident here.

-3rd or 4th or nth the Monty's recommendation. I crave this from far away, always. Their meatless meatloaf is amazing, and I guess the real meatloaf is super good too.
-Another food place I get cravings for from far away - Ian's Pizza. They have two locations now...lots of creative pizzas by the slice. Yuuum.
-Okay, and one more food place - Himal Chuli on State St. Nepalese food, extremely reasonably priced, never disappoints. There's also Shatara (sp?) a couple doors down, which is owned by the same people but is more fancy.

My friends swear by the Amish cinnamon rolls at the farmer's market.

I have lots of bar recommendations too, but I don't know if that's what you're going for.

oooh, also. The coffee shops! There are a lot of good favorite was Michelangelo's on State St. You might want to check out the Catacombs sometime when you're on campus - it's close, liberal, welcoming, and CHEAP. $1 house coffee, $2.50 lunch.

My apologies if these are mostly based around the poor college student scene.
posted by jetskiaccidents at 9:57 PM on August 25, 2005

alas, Catacombs closed its hipster doors recently. Michelangelo's is definitely nice, and I'm quite partial to Electric Earth, on W Washington. Very friendly.
jetskiaccidents is totally right about the Nepalese places on State St: they're terrific.
posted by Dr. Wu at 10:22 PM on August 25, 2005

A year ago, we moved back to Madison after having lived in Connecticut for 8 years. Every year spent out there, we said to each other: "You know, some day we should move back to Madison." There's no other place like it.

Some of my favorites:
-- Saturday morning Farmer's Markets are the best. My family is vegetarian, and there's no better place to get the good stuff.

-- While you're down there, eat lunch at Frida's on State Street. Good Mexican food.

-- Go see shows at the new Overture center, but don't forget to get tickets for the Orpheum.

-- At one end of Willy Street is Atwood, on which resides Monty's Blue Plate Diner. The folks that own Monty's also do Bluphies (near Edgewood College) and the Hubbard Avenue Diner (in Middleton). Each place has its own charm, but it's all damn good food.

-- You haven't had pizza until you've had Glass Nickel.

-- Walking up and down State Street is full-day's activity.

-- 45 minutes north of here is the Wisconsin Dells: Nothing closer to Las Vegas. And, there are more roller coasters.

-- Don't forget that Madison isn't all about downtown. Madison, in the last 10 years, has gotten freaky large. My brother now lives in "Bowling Green", a neighborhood that we used to call "open land". I now live in "Hawk's Landing", a development that, when I lived here before, wasn't claimed by anybody but a couple of farmers. If you're not convinced, drive down University heading west and do some shopping at the posh shops in Greenway Station -- then, take the beltline around to EastGate cinemas off of 151. After that, you could go see some homes in Bishop's Bay.
posted by thanotopsis at 8:11 AM on August 26, 2005 [1 favorite]

If you have not already done so, hit Michael's Frozen Custard (Monroe Street) asap. The turtle sunday was recently written up in the NYT.

Blasphemy! Culver's is so much better. :P
posted by thanotopsis at 8:14 AM on August 26, 2005

Extra points for information relevant to parents of young children, which we will very shortly be.

The dock right next to the terrace is where a lot of folks bring their kids during a long day of walking State Street. Good rocks for throwing in the water, you can feed the ducks, and ...well, there are a lot of kids around.

There's a playground in Fitchburg off of Highway PD that has to be seen to be believed. It's near the intersection between PD and Fish Hatchery Road.

If you're interested in getting your kids into martial arts (or are interested in taking classes yourself), Zhong Yi Kung Fu up on East Washington teaches a self-defensive and classic style of southern Shaolin. The kids classes are attended by kids as young as 5 years.

Ella's Deli, also in East Washington, is a fascinating place to eat for parents and kids alike.

As your kids grow older, they'll be happy to know that there's an Ultrazone (Laser Tag) outfit over by West Towne Mall.
posted by thanotopsis at 8:20 AM on August 26, 2005

I have lots of bar recommendations too, but I don't know if that's what you're going for.

Please commence with the bar recommendations. I am an ├╝ber-beer snob that will be in Madison over Labor Day.
posted by goethean at 8:56 AM on August 26, 2005

Response by poster: This is fantastic, folks, keep it coming!
posted by escabeche at 8:59 AM on August 26, 2005

If you're in a store or in a restaraunt, and you're curious about the root beer brand "Sprecher", wonder no longer: It is, indeed Mana From Heaven. It's from Milwaukee, so being from Wisconsin, it's still good.

In fact, Tom from Queer Eye For the Straight Guy just recently overhauled their corporate offices in Milwaukee, and showed the results on the Today show. I was all hyped.
posted by thanotopsis at 9:44 AM on August 26, 2005

Ugh... now I am quite homesick for Madison. Thanks a lot.

BTW: My sister runs the bakery at L'Etoile. Say hi if you run into Katy :)
posted by o2b at 9:52 AM on August 26, 2005

for goethean: beer snob, hmm. You should try some New Glarus beers if you haven't yet, if only for the fact that you can't get them outside of Wisconsin. I love Spotted Cow, and it's available at pretty much any bar. There's the Great Dane...they brew their own, but I actually haven't tried much there. The Essen Haus is an awesome German beer hall where you can get beer in a boot! Also known to me and some of my friends as the "happiest place on earth".

Ok, and then my personal faves: Genna's on the capitol square and Paul's Club on State St. near the capitol. Paul's gets really crowded but has one of the best jukeboxes I have even seen. Genna's too.

Dr. Wu - Are you sure the Catacombs isn't just closed for the summer? I feel like I would have heard about them closing. And it's not like they were ever really making money, either...
posted by jetskiaccidents at 10:46 AM on August 26, 2005

jetskiaccidents: yeah, pretty sure. I think it was the fact that the church didn't renew their lease. If MeFi user tulseluper is somewhere out there reading this, he can confirm or deny it for sure - he is/was a Catacombs regular.
posted by Dr. Wu at 11:18 AM on August 26, 2005

Oh, beer things.
-Don't drink a boot alone. Ever.
-Be up very early the morning of May 1 (double-check that date!) to camp out in the parking lot of your local purveyor of Great Taste of the Midwest (a/k/a Beerfest). 400+ to sample, but tickets sell out crazy fast.

Glass Nickel pizza is great but the new Roman Candle on Willy Street is better.

-The Zoo at Henry Vilas park is quite large, quite nice, and - quite free. Also, it's right in the middle of town, so easily accessed by bus or bike.

-There are several beaches for swimming.

Nearby things:
-Spring Green/area: canoe or tube on the Wisconsin River, Shakespeare and bats at American Players Theatre, House on the Rock, Cave of the Mounds.
-Mount Horeb: Mustard Museum.
posted by mimi at 1:01 PM on August 26, 2005

If you live on the east side, shop at Woodman's (I'm not so enamored of the west side store, but I guess it's probably better than anything else on the west side). Better selection and better prices than any other grocery store in town, employee-owned, their liquor store was just voted second or third favorite in town, and I believe it's the only place in Madison that sells a fullish line of Faygo products. They don't take credit cards, but they did recently start taking debit. And I'm really serious about the price difference -- my wife and I probably could not get by here on our grad student and working artist incomes if we didn't shop there (or move to cruddy, tiny apartment).
posted by aaronetc at 2:09 PM on August 26, 2005

Yes, Woodman's is cheap. And their liquor store carries Powers Irish Whiskey, at $15.

They are, however, built dirty. Just so you know.
posted by mimi at 5:51 AM on August 27, 2005

I've been in town for nearly a decade, so I feel like I've got this town largely figured out. *WARNING*: severe snobbery ahead.

Monty's is okay, but overpriced. The brunch at El Dorado Grill on Sundays is much better, much more original. Go to Monty's once, to say you've been there. Know that you can make a better pie at home. I can.

My fiancee used to be L'Etoile's pastry chef (hi o2b!). The high quality there is no accident - try a baked good on Saturday mornings (though be prepared to wait in line), and if you decide on dinner there, just plan on dropping at least two benjamins. You won't regret it. Also check out Harvest, on the same block as L'Etoile and possibly a better restaurant.

Those two might be the finest dining in town, but the best restaurant is Lombardino's. You can have fine dining there, or a pizza at the bar. Great cocktails, friendly and professional service, and you cannot get better beef in Madison. It's also right by the westernmost edge of campus, basically right in your neighborhood.

As far as beer goes, New Glarus makes great beer, but Spotted Cow is the Miller Lite of microbrews. It's pale, lacks any kind of hop flavor, and is generally boring. Don't believe the hype.

Similarly, don't believe the hype about Michael's: they're overpriced. You can get better ice cream/shakes/malts/sundaes at The Chocolate Shoppe, with more locations around Madison.

If you're a foodie (like me), check out Star Liquor on Willy (Williamson) Street. It's a very friendly neighborhood shop - slightly higher prices, but the staff are helpful, and can point you to good deals in the shop. Plus, all wine is 15% off on the 15th of every month.

What kind of pizza do you like? If it's New York style, Dr. Wu is correct - Casa Bianca is where it's at. If you like "creative" slices, do try Ian's: it's quite good. Outside of that, Glass Nickel is probably the best delivery pizza. The Roman Candle is overpriced, but friendly for families (also, it's on Willy Street).

A note about parking in Madison: all of the city's meters are checked from 8am-6pm, Monday through Saturday. Meaning you can park for free after six every night, and all day Sunday. You have no idea how many people I see plugging meters with quarters at 8pm on Friday nights or on Sundays near State Street.

Farmer's Markets: they're all over town, all week long. If you're serious about being a foodie, you'll recognize that buying direct at markets is where it's at. I'm partial to the Tuesday East Side Farmer's Market, but that's probably inconvenient for you - try the new Saturday market at the Hill Farms DOT parking lot, on the corner of Segoe Road and Sheboygan, right behind Hilldale mall (there's a market at Hilldale, too, but we don't like that one anymore. The manager is... unpleasant).

My fiancee runs a food cart on Capitol Square selling organic southwestern food, Tuesday-Saturday, so check out her grits and refried beans some market Saturday!

Now, the real deal on Saturday market stands you have to visit (this is referrring to the big market, on the square): Future Fruit Farm is the only organic fruit orchard in the Midwest that doesn't turn its product immediately into juice - though they do some of that too - and their pears are To. Die. For. Get some of the pear butter (it's a pint of gold!), or sign up for their fruit CSA (you'll have to do that next year, it's too late for 2005).

Willow Creek has the best pork (though it's also expensive), Pecatonica Farms is more affordable, and has the best Farmer Bologna on the square. Fountain Prairie Farms has the best beef. Matt Smith (a/k/a Blue Valley Gardens) grows delicious oyster mushrooms, and his chickens are the best in my opinion (though everyone else is crazy about JenEhr chickens, which are good too). Matt also has great asparagus in the spring.

Harmony Valley Farm is like the Wal-Mart of organic farms - they're huge, successful, and have everything. Their produce is quite good, and you'll pay for it. There are some products you can only get from them, like ramps (a/k/a wild leeks), romanesco, and beauty heart radishes. Shop from them, but know that there are other vendors who sell just as good a product for a little bit less.

I've got to head to market right now, but I'll be back, and I'll write more!
posted by rocketman at 6:24 AM on August 27, 2005

Okay. I forgot to mention the free parking for the Saturday market on the square - it's a private ramp on Wisconsin Ave., right off the square. Normally it's for the businesses in the building attached to it, but on Saturday mornings they leave the gates up and you can drive in and park wherever, free of charge.

Also, the market continues through most of the winter: after October, they move into the Monona Terrace for a few months, and then when the coldest months hit, they move it to the Madison Senior Center on W. Mifflin Street. Once it's in the senior center, there's usually a breakfast available for $5/plate, proceeds going to charity, and made with local ingredients by local chefs. It's a good deal.

More food stuff:

Himal Chuli is good, but if you're at all experienced in South Asian cooking, you can make all that stuff at home.

When I said above that Monty's was overpriced, I guess I meant to say overrated too. They worked very hard to establish a reputation as a quality, original diner, and then in the past four years or so have totally slipped. I don't know what's happened, but I like that place less and less each time I go there. Plus you always have to wait for half an hour just to get a table.

I don't know if you're interested in gleaning at all, but Madison's an excellent city for it. We just found a plum tree that nobody picks, so we're busy making plum sauce, plum jam, candied plums, etc. There are apple trees all over the city, same thing: nobody picks the fruit. There are Concorde grapes all over town, blackberries hidden behind big box shopping stores, crabapples off John Nolen Drive, and elderberries everywhere. If you're into preserving/canning/pickling, this city is the jackpot.

And food's not the only stuff you can get for free/cheap here. I needed to get a bike, and just found a Gitane bike in somebody's trash, all it needs is a tune-up and some air in the tires.

People claim it's expensive to live here, but there's so much waste from others' lives, you can get by on very little. One of my friends makes $6000/year, and lives comfortably. He works very little, and spends his free time biking around town, gathering free food, repairing unwanted bikes and selling them, going camping, etc. Now, he doesn't have a cell phone or cable TV, but how necessary are those things, really?

You can find cheap computers/office furniture/chemistry supplies/etc. at the SWAP shop. Check out their online inventory.

There are free events all summer long and all winter long - check out some of the things the Children's Museum puts on, or some of the free events at Overture Center, on State Street. On Friday nights there are the Dane Dances on top of the Monona Terrace, and there are a ton of local festivals, like the Willy Street Fair, Atwood Summerfest, and the Orton Park Festival, which is going on as I type this.

For housing (at least purchasing), it's kinda expensive, but there are some pockets of affordability: check out Bram's Addition and Burr Oak neighborhoods - they're not tony like University Heights or the Monroe area, but you can still get a house there for close to 100K. Most folks think it's the ghetto but here's a little secret: there are no ghettoes in Madison.

Welcome and good luck! Hope to see you at the meetup!
posted by rocketman at 9:02 AM on August 27, 2005 [1 favorite]

One more thing: Wonder's Pub is the best bar in town, as far as beer selection and ambience.

It's a total East Side establishment, on Schenk's Corners (intersection of Winnebago and Atwood), but if you like wood floors and railings, and microbrewed beer, it's the place to be at.

The best local beer, in my opinion, is from Lake Louie. They only sell it in 64 oz. growlers, but it's so divine.
posted by rocketman at 9:14 AM on August 27, 2005

Just in case you are still reading this: Cha Cha hair salon has the best haircuts in the city and they're totally reasonable. Both I and my curly-haired boyfriend went to Jason and loved him. Now we're in NYC and missing those $30 awesome cuts.
posted by ch1x0r at 2:18 PM on August 27, 2005

there are no ghettoes in Madison.

Off of 151, right south of the around behind the McDonalds.

Sorry about that, but there are.
posted by thanotopsis at 9:32 AM on September 3, 2005

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