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Locals Know Best: Madison, Wisconsin

By Liza Weisstuch updated Aug. 2021 BT staff
January 12, 2022
capital building at night
Jenvejvoda/Dreamstime
There's no better guide to a city than someone who lives there, so we asked local news anchor Hannah Flood for her take on culture, food and drink on the town she calls home.

Hannah Flood moved to Madison in 2015 to anchor the morning newscast at NBC15 WMTV, the local NBC affiliate. (Ms. Flood now works for KMSP in Twin Cities, MN) It didn’t take long for her to feel at home—which is especially convenient considering that a newscaster's job depends on knowing the people and places around the city. In the beginning, recommendations from co-workers came at her at lightening speed. But now she’s become so familiar with the area that she can offer her own in return. We checked in to hear her tips on how to make the most of your time in Wisconsin's vibrant capital city.

Good Eats

In addition to University of Wisconsin's huge student population (nearly 30,000), Madison is home to Epic, a massive medical software company, so there’s a steady influx of young people, and where professionals with disposable income go, a hip dining scene follows.

In many urban hubs, “farm to table” and “hyper-local” designations are worn as badges of pride. In Madison, it’s practically a necessity, what with Wisconsin being a huge agricultural state. It's a “super-foodie city,” Hannah assures—almost anywhere you go to eat, staff will tell you that the cheese is from a creamery 30 minutes down the road, and the beef is from a farm not much farther.

Hanna's many favorites run the gamut. When the night calls for a high-end yet still casual meal, Graze, a modern restaurant near the capitol building, answers. The chef, Tory Miller, broke onto the national culinary scene when he appeared on Iron Chef Showdown, winning out against Food Network star Bobby Flay. At Graze, his dishes are Korean-inspired but, this being Wisconsin, cheese curds make a few cameos on the menu. Cheese curds also show up at Lucille, a sweeping warehouse-chic eatery retrofitted into an old bank and known for its craft cocktails and wood-fired pizza. The deep-dish and thin-crust options are both fine, but the absolute necessity is the pan nachos. Yes, cooked like a deep-dish pizza, with Wisconsin cheese.

If you’re looking for an ultra-casual meal, check out the Plaza Tavern off of State Street, a main thoroughfare. With leather booths, old-school arcade games, and a frenetic open kitchen, it looks as though it’s been untouched since the 1970s, says Hannah. “It’s very Wisconsin,” she asserts. The spot is known for its burgers, slathered in creamy Plaza sauce. (The owner allegedly keeps the recipe locked up in a safe-deposit box).

Then there are the supper clubs, Wisconsin’s answer to the steakhouse. They were a new discovery for Hannah when she moved here and, she suggests, something any guest visiting the region should explore. One of her favorites is the Tornado Steak House, a true classic with a speakeasy element to it: If you didn't know to look for it, you might miss the discreet entrance, despite it being on a busy street. Like the Plaza Tavern, it looks like it’s been unchanged by time. “The first time I took my boyfriend there, he seriously said he felt like a mobster,” she says. And pro tip: After 9 p.m., menu prices are slashed. A sirloin, for instance, is less than $15.

A City of Neighborhoods

Everly-Madison-Wisconsin.jpg?mtime=20190418155932#asset:105558(everylymadison.com)

Madison’s geography is distinctive: It’s situated on an isthmus between Lake Mendota and Lake Monona, and there are four lakes located downtown. The capitol building is in the center, and all the neighborhoods radiate out from there.

Locals refer to Madison as the most liberal place between Berkeley and Brooklyn, and that long legacy is perhaps best personified by the moment, in the late '60s, when the city erupted in protest against Dow Chemical, maker of napalm gas. The neighborhood known as Willy Street, on the near east side of downtown, perhaps best typifies that free-spirited past. (Hannah describes it as “artsy, eccentric, and granola.”) Home to many young creative types and families with small children, it’s a vibrant destination for nightlife. Start with pre-dinner cocktails at Gib's Bar, a converted old house that's so cozy it reminds Hannah of hanging out in a friend's living room, then dinner at Texas Tubb’s Taco Palace. Wrap the night across the street at Alchemy, a low-key joint with a dependable calendar of local bands.

Across town, the Monroe neighborhood embodies a different vibe. Situated near Camp Randall Stadium, home of the university’s football team, its winding streets are lined with longstanding houses, architectural eye candy. The area’s businesses are a little more “uptown,” so to speak, than Willy Street. The Everly, for one, serves California-style fresh meals, a far cry from the region's classic meat-and-potatoes fare. Small independent businesses abound. Hannah suggests visiting Zip-Dang, a husband-and-wife-run shop specializing in funky prints, many of which are inspired by the husband’s obsession with Wisconsin folklore. And don’t leave the neighborhood without stopping by Bloom Bakeshop for cupcakes. The presence of all these cute newer shops, however, doesn’t mean the neighborhood has abandoned its history. Mickies Dairy Bar is a relic that Hannah adoringly describes as a hole-in-the-wall. Diners committed to the eatery’s milkshakes, malts,and classic breakfasts dependably form lines out the door on weekends.

Day-Tripping

Devils-lake-wisconsin.jpg?mtime=20190418155819#asset:105557(Ralf Broskvar/Dreamstime)

There is plenty to keep a visitor busy throughout a long weekend—or more—in Madison, but it’d be a faux pas to travel here and not explore the surrounds. One place Hannah always insists her out-of-town friends see is Devil’s Lake State Park—by her estimation, the most beautiful thing the state has to offer. The lakeside park, rimmed by colossal cliffs, offers paddle-boarding and hiking trails for all skill levels. It’s best known, however, for Devil’s Doorway, a colossal boulder precariously balanced on a cliff. There are two roads that lead there from Madison, each of which delivers its own rewards. Route 113 runs through Lodi, a sweet little enclave with a downtown worth stopping for, not least because of Buttercream Bakery, a local favorite. But Hannah prefers the 40-mile drive along Route 12, which cuts through Prairie du Sauk, where there is an eagle-watching center nearby.


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Inspiration

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Oui Wine Bar + Restaurant (Maya Stanton) A small-scale urban winery with a cozy dining room and repurposed wine-barrel decor, Division/Clinton’s Southeast Wine Collective has been around since 2012, but during the past year or two, it's really upped its food game, thanks to a recently revamped menu from chef Althea Grey Potter. We popped by toward the end of service for snacks and wine, and even at that late hour, everything we tried was impeccably presented and utterly delicious, from the flight of deviled eggs (above, $8) to the “surprise” flight of wine ($14) selected by our bartender. We eschewed the menu's leafy-green salad section in favor of comfort food, adding an order of chicken-liver mousse and a simple, unexpectedly satisfying baguette, served warm with a dish of salty, smoky, peppery butter pooled with maple syrup. 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Inspiration

Confessions of a Lifetime Hotel Concierge

Cynthia Van Zandt has seen a lot from behind her desk—guests panicked because of lost luggage, couples euphoric from a recent engagement, families excited for a graduation ceremony, businessmen and women anxiously on their way to give career-making presentation. As concierge at Sofitel Washington DC Lafayette Square for 11 years (and other hotels for several years before that) she’s met—and helped out—people from all over the planet. How, you ask? Let us count the ways. She’s zoomed to the airport to deliver a left-behind iPad, and tracked down where to buy catheters and rare European game meat. She’s made such an impact throughout her career that she was awarded membership in the Les Clefs d’Or, a national professional society of hotel concierges that only accepts people based on recommendations. Ask Cynthia about her work, and she will tell you how lucky she feels, how there’s never been a doubt in her mind that she made the right career choice in her life. She’ll also tell you that it comes with intense challenges. “I’ve always worked in fancy hotels, but the job isn’t as glamorous as some might think. It’s the hardest profession there is," she says. "You have to love people and love taking care of people. You’re seeing them at all of their moments, high and low.” We checked in (no pun intended) with Cynthia to get the skinny on some of her more memorable moments and astonishing feats she pulled off. 1. A Wizard in Disguise One morning, two little boys and their parents were checking in. They had clearly never been to a hotel before, and they were trying to grasp what it meant to have access to the comforts of home while they were so far away from home. Cynthia greeted them, explained that she could help them if they got hungry or if they wanted an extra pillow. She could help them get anyplace and answer any questions about where to go in the city. “So, you’re like a wizard?” the boy asked matter-of-factly. Cynthia still laughs when she tells that story. 2. Baby’s Very First Hotel Stay Cynthia has met no shortage of couples on their honeymoon in the nation’s capital. Babymoons are a tad less common. A young pair was visiting from Europe, their final trip as a party of two. Soon after, they returned to D.C. as a party of three and checked in again. To welcome them back, she gave them a toddler-size Sofitel bathrobe. They thanked her and went on their way. Less than two years later, they emailed her a photo of the baby all dolled up in the robe. “It was so lovely to know that they remember us. I had to take a minute,” she said wistfully. 3. A Last-Minute Valentine’s Day Triumph Few days of the year are busier for the hotel industry than Valentine’s Day. One year, a high-rolling man wanted to surprise his girlfriend, but he made the unfortunate mistake of waiting to the last minute to figure out how to do that. Well, in a rookie’s hands it would have been unfortunate. But Cynthia did not balk when, at 4:30 p.m., he asked for his room to be filled with 1,000 red roses. By that point in the afternoon of Valentine’s Day, it’s slim pickings for flowers in any city. But Cynthia’s connections run deep and wide, and within 30 minutes, the roses were delivered and his room transformed into a romantic fantasy world. 4. Detective Work A good concierge never reveals her secrets. If you don’t believe us, just ask Cynthia about the time a family that was staying at the hotel for their son’s graduation from George Washington University. The parents asked her to get hold of the graduate's kindergarten picture for a celebration they were throwing for him. And get hold of it she did. “The world is much smaller than we think,” she said in response to us asking her how. “You just have to do a little detective work and be creative in your thinking.”