HandPicked Trips: Madison, Wisconsin

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Editor’s Note: HandPicked Trips is a new series in which we interview a local food establishment about their restaurant and their town. It’s summer and we’re going on the road! 

In this one, we’re checking out Madison, Wisconsin with our friend Daryl Sisson, owner of the revered Daisy Cafe and Cupcakery.

Read what he has to say below.

Tell us about the cafe. What can we expect when we come for breakfast, for lunch and for dinner. Describe the vibe for us.

Daryl Sisson: When the Daisy Café & Cupcakery opened more than five years ago, people asked us, “Why did you open in the middle of the great recession?” We answered, “Well, there was so much bad economic and political news at the time and we just thought we could create a positive space, a refuge from worries, and a place for people to talk about a better way forward, or at least just hang out and feel good for a while.”

That’s what we wanted for our customers and for ourselves, and that’s what we got. Back then, we painted with warm colors, put in recycled tables and chairs that might be what you would recognize from your grandma’s house, and installed about 30 pieces of local and original art, including oil paintings, black and white lithographs, metal sculptures, and lots of mosaics. The daisy motif was a great starting point to making everything feel happy. (Since then, we’ve added more than 80 original artworks inside and out, mostly created by us owners, but also by employees, customers and relatives of the Daisy.)

Plus, we built our menu to always have appeal to traditional eaters, but even more to people who wanted something fresh and new—always keeping in mind that we needed our food to be affordable to most people. We set out to make an inclusive décor and food environment for all, to be sure.

And from a service standpoint, we wanted to exude a sense of being welcoming; as I always put it, we wanted to put a virtual arm around the shoulder” of each customer. When Madison’s most popular “People’s Choice” survey awarded us “Madison’s Favorite Wait Staff “ in each of our first three years, we knew we achieved that goal. (After that, it’s not that we stopped winning—the category just went away. We think our staff now is better than ever!)

What is the cafe known for? I’m sure that the cupcake is king, but what else?

DS: We were Wisconsin’s first gourmet cupcake seller, so early on we caught that buzz and that drove about a third of our business. Since then, perhaps partly due to our success, gourmet cupcakes are offered throughout (not just Madison), but all of Wisconsin. But we always aimed to be a great restaurant first, with a specialty dessert second. What we are known for now, more than anything, is our café food. Cupcake sales are stable, despite competition from local businesses and national chains, but our café sales have grown so much that cupcakes are now just about 15% of our total sales.

Our food is known for being made entirely from scratch, and always from fresh ingredients. We aren’t “hyper-local,” because we are so busy that we can’t adjust to seasonal markets fast enough, but all of our suppliers are local and they always bring us the most “regional” products they can. All of our coffee, tea, and beer are from Wisconsin companies. The only food we don’t make in-house is our bread, which is made from scratch by our wonderful partners less than three miles away at Madison Sourdough Company. We are also popular with vegetarians and gluten-free diners, and every day we offer gluten-free and vegan cupcakes.

I’m particularly proud of how many people from Chicago have said, “I wish we had a place like this in our neighborhood.” I mean, really? With all of the great restaurants in Chicago, people wish they had the Daisy there? That’s quite the compliment.

What is your favorite dish coming out of the kitchen at each meal?

DS: Our most popular breakfast item, and my personal favorite, is our Huevos Rancheros de la Daisy. Most huevos rancheros have a tomato component, but we like to put a “Daisy twist” on every menu item we have, so ours is a little different: we serve corn tortillas topped with seasoned black beans and roasted vegetables, topped with Pepperjack cheese and two eggs to order, with a side of our fantastic tomatillo-avocado salsa, and served with fresh fruit.

Our Daisy Burger on the lunch menu is unique in Madison. It’s the only ground chicken burger I am aware of. We add sun-dried tomatoes and bacon to give it a more meaty flavor–it’s a favorite for many of our regulars.

At dinner, this being Wisconsin, our Fish Fry is our best seller. Most Wisconsin fish fries are reserved for Friday nights, but we have such demand that we serve it each night we’re open. Ours is different from most because we use a seasoned panko breading (instead of more traditional beer batters) and we pan fry and then bake our fish (no deep frying). So we have a lighter, crispier version. Plus, and this is crucial, we start with cod from our good friends at Bering Bounty, based in Madison’s neighboring town of Verona.

The owner himself goes to Bering Bay in Alaska and uses sustainable, gill-netting practices to bring us back wild-caught, delicious fish. We also offer wild-caught King Salmon at dinner, served with different variations of pesto made from our own community herb garden most of the year.

Describe the relationship the Cafe has to the community that is Madison, Wisconsin- are you part of the local flavor? Do you source ingredients locally when possible? What are those relationships like?

DS: We started our restaurant by picking our favorite neighborhood in Madison and making sure what we offered was a good fit for them, and we couldn’t be happier with response. Our clientele is progressive and well informed about local and national issues, they appreciate art, and they care about healthy and flavorful food. That starting point translated well beyond our original goals of being a great neighbor. We hear from people from towns 45 miles away saying they love to make the Daisy a destination. Many of our local customers make sure the Daisy is a stop for their out-of-town guests.

I’m particularly proud of how many people from Chicago have said, “I wish we had a place like this in our neighborhood.” I mean, really? With all of the great restaurants in Chicago, people wish they had the Daisy there? That’s quite the compliment. Our inside/outside art collection has become part of the experience for many customers, especially families. Kids love to explore our restaurant, and parents love to “curate” their visual experience. It’s part of the reason we’ve been on the list of “Madison’s Favorite Family Restaurants” in poll after poll.

We’ve also built a community herb garden for summer months—we have about 15 commonly used herbs, and they are hearty each year. We use those herbs at the restaurant and at home, of course. But we encourage anyone to harvest from us, because we want everyone to cook fresh and eat well.

Let’s talk about Madison. It is a town we plan to visit, but we know nothing about it! What is Madison known for? What do farmers grow around there?

DS: Let me just start by saying that Madison is all-around wonderful. Sure, winters are cold and snowy and can seem long. But aside from that, it’s an amazing city for food and recreation, and for friendly and engaged people.

Madison is Wisconsin’s state capitol and the home of the University of Wisconsin, people are super-well informed about issues in general and political issues in particular. Madison also has a national reputation for being very liberal which is a part of its appeal. I like being around smart people!

As the home of the University of Wisconsin, we get the constant influx of youthful ideas, as well as a generally scholarly class of citizenry.

We have one of the highest ratios of restaurants to population in the country. We certainly show off midwest food most–lots of meats, cheeses, pickles, and beer, but we also have outstanding Italian restaurants as well as many high-quality Asian, Middle-Eastern and Mediterranean places.

What do we grow around here? TONS of stuff. We are the largest dairy producer in the country, and we have our fair share of award-winning cheese-makers. (As we say, “Blessed are the cheese-makers.”) Door County cherries are renowned. Wisconsin produces more cranberries than any state, by a long-shot. To see the full range of local meat and produce offerings during the summer, there’s no better place than our Saturday Farmers’ Market, situated on the square around our grand and historic State Capitol building—among outdoor markets, it’s one of the tops in the country. (Because of its success, the city has committed to building a permanent, year-round, indoor farmer’s market to supplement it.)

Beyond that, our farm-to-table and farm-to-restaurant offerings have exploded. There’s an annual bike-to-farm event. There are neighborhood farmers’ markets throughout the city. At our many farm-to-table restaurants, there’s less pretentiousness than conscientiousness–just a lot of commitment from chefs to support local farmers and support local partnerships with vendors of all kinds.

When the weather is good, Madison is a wonderful city for getting around without a car. There are any number of neighborhood walking trips that would include great restaurants and bars, walks through parks, and interesting retail options, all in one.

You could pick several neighborhoods and decide to spend a day in any of them and be happy. We are also one of the best bicycling cities in the country (#7 on Bicycling Magazine’s list, and #4 according to the USA Today readers poll). With bike paths throughout the city and all around the Madison area, you can explore so many places. And with our very affordable B-cycle program of public, self-serve rental bikes—there are pick-up/drop-off stations across the city–you’d never need to rent a car to get to wherever you’d like to go.

If I’m planning a long weekend in your town, where are the best 3 places to stay- the first one on the cheap, the second one moderate, and the third- deluxe…

DS: On the cheap, let’s go incredibly cheap. It’s bare bones, but the Madison Hostel is just between the Capitol Square and Madison’s iconic Williamson Street—one of the top-ten neighborhoods in the country—and walking opportunities abound! With prices starting at $25.00/night for a dorm room and just $30.00/night for a single room, it’s hard to beat the prices.

The moderate price range is, I’d say, subjective. And it’s trickier to find low-range moderate in Madison—the best rates are farther away from downtown. The best I found was about $150.00/night (always dependent on seasons and events, I’m sure), at the pretty-darned-close-to-downtown Sheraton. It’s reliable accommodations about 2 miles from the heart of the city—you could walk or bike, or take a fairly inexpensive cab ride.

At the high-end, the recently rebuilt Edgewater Hotel promises to extend the reputation of this long-time favorite space and become the gem of Madison hotels. It is opening within weeks (August, 2014). Located directly on Lake Mendota, you can enjoy the views of the biggest of Madison’s five area lakes and be in close proximity to Madison’s downtown and many great neighborhoods.

Aside from the Cafe, where else do you like to go to eat? Who’s doing the best farm-to-table inspired menus? Where do all the cool people go at night when they get off work?

DS: Madison has so many high-quality restaurants that it’s hard to choose. I love Taqueria Guadalajara for Mexican food. I love Inka Heritage for Peruvian food. I love Ha Long Bay for Southeast Asian food.

For farm-to-table inspired menus, there are any of James Beard award-winning-chef Tori Miller’s restaurants. Currently, he runs the gorgeous, high-end L’Etoile and the mid-priced Graze next door. (He is also developing a new, exciting Korean concept within about a mile of his current ventures.) The newer Heritage Tavern is run by a chef that also owns his own farm—he raises his own pigs, so pork of all sorts is well represented on the menu. Speaking of pork, A Pig In A Fur Coat, close to downtown on Williamson Street also specializes in local sourcing. And I’ve only scratched the surface—there are any number of other places that take great pride in sourcing locally.

When Madisonians get off work, they often think of beer. We at the Daisy aren’t a bar, but let me tell you a story about beer. When we opened the Daisy Café, we started featuring six “Oktoberfest cupcakes” during October (duh), all using great local beers as primary ingredients. Those breweries then were within 30 miles of Madison. By last year, we were able to offer our six “Oktoberfest cupcakes” from microbreweries no farther than 3.2 miles from the Daisy. Meanwhile, other breweries have started and those original six regional breweries have only improved and expanded.

As if that’s not enough, Madison has had a surge in restaurants and bars that feature specialty cocktails. We have it so good that many of Madison’s bartenders have since “graduated” to new ventures in New York or New Orleans or Austin, which in turn, opened the doors for new creative bartenders–and we still have our stalwarts.

Is there a music scene in Madison? Where do you go to hear the best bands?

DS: Yes, there’s music, and lots of it! It helps being a major college town, but we have music festivals of all kinds that cater to all styles and all ages. In June, we at the Daisy acknowledge all of the music festivals that go on by dedicating our deluxe cupcake theme to cupcakes “Inspired by Musical Genres”—you’ll have to use your imagination, but we theme them on rock ‘n’ roll, the blues, reggae, folk, electronica and more.

Since I’ve moved here, I’ve seen the likes of Mission of Burma and the New Pornographers and The Head and The Heart (among many others). My favorite venue is the High Noon Saloon, which features indie rock of all types, in many styles, from local bands to national touring acts, in a not-too-big setting.

Our neighbors at the Barrymore Theater feature more eclectic offerings, from folk to an upcoming King Crimson show, as well as progressive political events.

Our major arts center, the Overture Center for the Arts, brings in Broadway shows and other major-production performances, as well as one-of-a-kind performers like David Sedaris reading from his own material (one of their most popular annual performances).

Other venues—the Majestic Theater, the Orpheum Theater, and The Frequency, etc.—are near to the student population and bring in a whole other set of established and up-and-coming bands. (Admittedly, we miss some of the biggest arena bands because they play Chicago, Minneapolis and Milwaukee and sometimes skip Madison. But if one of them is a priority, we know that we can get to Milwaukee in just over an hour.)

What else do people do in your town? Can you give me three “not to miss” things to do in Madison? 

DS: There is a walk I love. Directly off of Madison’s capitol square is Williamson Street, voted one of the top-ten neighborhoods in the country. Extending from “Willy Street” to our own Atwood Avenue, there are 50 independently owned restaurants in just a three-mile stretch.

Every business on the street is independently owned, and the neighborhood has a decades-old culture of progressivism.

There are terrific retail sites as well—an outstanding butcher, pet stores, art sellers, specialty craftsmen, etc. Plus, any stroller will notice the social-justice and social-aid groups that help define the personality of this stretch of road. At the end of it all, there is Olbrich Park, a large and lovely area situated along Lake Monona where you’re likely to find people throwing Frisbees, playing tennis or soccer, or just enjoying the lake and city views. Across the street, at the Olbrich Botanical Gardens, there are both indoor and outdoor gardens that show off the best of Midwest flora and more (and they boast a fantastic Thai Pavilion on their outdoor grounds).

If you like beer, tour the breweries in and around Madison. Ale Asylum has a sleek, urban facility right next to our airport. About 20 miles out of town, New Glarus Brewing—Wisconsin’s most prominent microbrewery—has a grand and lovely “estate” feel, and it’s in a nice town that is proud to show off its Swiss roots.

Other Madison notables are any of the Great Dane brewpubs (there are several) and other smaller places like our neighbor two blocks down, Next Door Brewing, and the also-close-by-to-us Karben4 Brewing and One Barrel Brewing.

Visit the UW’s Memorial Union to enjoy the architecture and the art inside it. Take in a free band on the terrace in the evening—they bring in music that might appeal to anyone, but since it’s set on Lake Mendota, it’s likely to be a pleasant night no matter what. And the terrace chairs themselves are iconic!

Thank you, Daryl for this terrific trip through Madison. We look forward to visiting you and the Daisy Cafe and Cupcakery soon!

DS: This was really fun! And after reading this, my wife said, “Hey, I want to visit Madison!” We love where we live and are happy to share our thoughts on the best of Madison. Thanks for asking.

Have you ever been to Madison, Wisconsin? A show of hands, please!

Photo credit: HandPicked Nation