Top Picks for March Madness in Madison

By Pat Dillon
Special to

Madison’s an original and the buy local attitude is no passing trend here. Its restaurants back area farmers. Many shops have renewed the resale concept. Museums bridge local art and sustainability. This reverberates throughout the city. Its merchants are good at it. Its residents support it. Its local economy thrives on it. So, like the age old adage “When in Rome”, if you’re one of so many families filing in and out of Madison’s Kohl Center for the WIAA State Tournaments, you should at least have a list of local options in your pocket to do the city the Madisonian way. Shop along State Street, walk the UW campus trails, take in some local art. Here are some townie favorites.

Eat at Local Favorites

Aldo’s Cafe is the newest in a long line of slow food restaurants to fill Madison’s downtown and UW campus area. It’s named for Wisconsin’s beloved environmentalist, Aldo Leopold, befitting for a restaurant focused on local and sustainable sources and business practices. Located in the newly erected Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, the menu offers ample sandwiches, hearty homemade soups and baked-that-day bakery. It’s a mile walk from the Kohl Center if you’re up for it, and since parking is tricky, you may want to. Then have a no-guilt dessert. 

Madison brags some pretty good pizza but the fare at Monroe Street’s Pizza Brutta is stone-oven authentic and among the best. Figure this into the equation as you walk the 1.3 miles from the Kohl Center – its mozzarella is hand-stretched and smoked on site, its prosciutto comes from an Iowa family farm and its sausage is Wisconsin-made. And if you’re saving the heavy meal for later, Pizza Brutta has a generous selection of fresh salads that are as true to the salad world as their pizza is to its less-sauce-is-more, crispy-crusted pizza one. 

Walk straight down Frances Street to State Street, head east about a block and you’ll find the Sunroom Cafe – up one flight of stairs. It’s serving food as true to its slow, fresh food philosophy today as it was the day it opened in the eighties. Get a window table for great March on State Street people watching.

Looking to stretch your legs, grab a cup of coffee or sandwich and get back to the game? Indie Coffee is a three-minute walk down Regent Street. You can get good, fair trade coffee, a sandwich or one of its trademark waffles. Later come back for local music or an indie film. Call in your order if you’re in a hurry.

If you decide to take a break from the madness to visit one of the most inventive children’s museums on record, the Madison Children’s Museum (see below) is within eyeshot of Bradbury’s Coffee, which serves strictly crepes. Its small Chelsea-style loft space is a little close quarters so avoid peak times, but the crepes – both sweet and savory – are consistently good and you can grab a latte or even a beer if you’re so inclined.

Interested in dinner around The Capitol Square? Here are three local favorites: The Merchant: an urban grocery/restaurant that sells its menu ingredients on-site; Graze: Small plates and wine on tap; The Great Dane: Family-friendly brewpub serving local burgers and lots of other stuff. 

St. Patty’s Day Specials

St Patty’s In Madison may bring more March madness than you signed up for, but the Irish will find a pint and some good traditional music throughout the day at Brocach Irish Pub. Coopers Tavern will be serving a traditional Irish menu. Both located on the Square. 

Places to Tour

Take a break and tour the UW Geology Museum where the kids can see everything from glowing rocks to mastodon tusks to meteorites. 

Get some fresh air by walking the UW Arboretum’s 1200 acres of prairies, wetlands and woodlands or head to the Memorial Union (where you can get a scoop of Babcock Ice Cream or sit on the terrace with a Rathskeller Ale weather-permitting) and follow the Lakeshore Path along Lake Mendota. 

Parents Magazine rated the new Madison Children’s Museum one of the top 10 in the nation. Its inventive displays are designed by area artists and are made of toxic-free recycled or renewable materials. It’s a not-just –for-kids kind of museum.

At the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, changing exhibits of contemporary and modern art are free so stop in to take a look. In the same complex, the Overture Center for the Arts, the James Watrous Gallery shows the work of Wisconsin artists on the second floor. 

Take your history buffs to the State Historical Museum to see Civil War Memories and Mementos, an exhibition that commemorates how the past 150 years have changed perceptions about the war.

The Orpheum is Madison’s beloved downtown indie movie house and just might have the best unconventional Friday night fish fry in town. Call ahead for movies and times. 

Shop Like a Townie

A walk down State Street is in itself a fun break in the day with its many niche-y shops, local and otherwise, but don’t miss ReThreads. This top notch consignment clothing shop has college students and west-siders rifling through Chanel bags and Gucci boots. 

The kaleidoscope of merchandise in Anthology comes directly out of its owners’ (two local sisters) detailed, high chroma imagination. It’s a vibrant collage of craft goods, hundreds of which are made right in the store. Stop in with your girls and make a funky button for a buck. 

You’ll smell good after just stepping inside The Soap Opera where you can load up on soap, candles, and all kinds of herbal lotions and remedies. 

Iconi Interiors is a little shop on West Washington that has polished up the reclaimed furniture and gift concept so brilliantly it’s sometimes hard to tell old from new.