Out of Town - Madison, Wisconsin
April 3, 2009
Of mid-sized cities, Madison is one of the gay-friendliest in America. The regional political ethos is tolerance, and the city’s role as state capital and home base of the University of Wisconsin informs both the community’s attitudes and its styles. About 60 miles due west of Milwaukee, Madison occupies an enviable position along a narrow isthmus between two picturesque lakes, Mendota and Monona. Biking and hiking trails crisscross the city’s gently rolling hills. It’s easy to see why Money magazine once named Madison the best place to live in America.
Other notable rankings – and there have been many – include being one of Outside magazine’s “Dream Towns,” one of Utne Reader’s “Most Enlightened Towns”and one of Cosmo’s top cities for finding single men – presumably the focus was straight single men, but there are plenty of gay single guys here, too. And here’s yet another fact about Madison – it has among the most unified and visible feminist communities of any U.S. city. Women, including quite a few lesbians, occupy influential positions in all walks of city life.
Although regaled mostly for its livability, Madison (population 225,000) makes for a great visit. The museums are excellent, and the University of Wisconsin (UW) lands top-name speakers and performers. The dining scene is on par with any city its size, and while queer nightlife options are few, they’re also convivial and friendly.
Engaging State Street, a transit-and-pedestrian mall, connects Madison’s two most important institutions: the capitol building and the university. If you have time, take a tour of the particularly regal, granite-domed Wisconsin State Capitol, which dazzles visitors with its ornate murals, glass mosaics and marble detailing.
Up near Capitol Square, State Street is largely the domain of suits and politicos, but closer to the campus of UW you’ll encounter a more collegiate scene - cheap ethnic restaurants, bike racks, coffeehouses and scads of funky shops. Don’t miss A Room of One’s Own, a capacious, clean and comfy bookstore with a comprehensive selection of lesbian and feminist titles, local resources, and a considerable gay male section, too.
Also within the parameters of State Street are several museums that constitute Madison’s Museum Mile. The best are the Wisconsin Historical Society Museum, which traces the state’s progressive political history, dairy-farming traditions and rich ethnic heritage; the Elvehjem Museum of Art, which contains a tremendous range of works, dating as far back as 2300 B.C.; and the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, which occupies a striking modern building and adjoins the similarly dazzling Overture Center for the Arts.
In fact, Madison is noted for groundbreaking architectural achievements, perhaps the most famous being the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center, completed in 1997 according to the Frank Lloyd Wright’s ambitious blueprints. Take one of the building’s daily tours or head up to the rooftop garden for a free concert and lake view. Additionally, eight Frank Lloyd Wright buildings within a two-hour drive of Madison are open to the public. The must-see is Taliesin, Wright’s sprawling home and studio complex, about 45 minutes away.
Back on State Street, head away from the Capitol to reach the gracious lakefront campus of the University of Wisconsin, the domain of 40,000 students. Start at the Old Red Gym Visitors Center for campus tours and general information. Then drop by the Wisconsin Memorial Union. Out back, overlooking Lake Mendota, is the seductive Memorial Union Terrace, one of the Midwest’s most intellectual pick-up spots, gay or straight.
The Lake Monona Bike Trail Loop is one of several well-maintained trails in this incredibly cyclist-friendly city. Another great option, southwest of downtown, is the UW Arboretum Bike Trail. Pick this up at Henry Vilas Zoo and follow it through the esteemed and quite beautiful UW Arboretum, which has 1,260 acres of trails, forest, prairie and wetland. Another spot for taking in the outdoors, the Olbrich Botanical Gardens comprises 16 acres of lush plantings, plus a 50-foot-tall pyramidal conservatory.
The presence of a political scene has infused the city with a bounty of excellent restaurants at the high end and what feels like a thousand cheap eats for frugal budgets. Food buffs shouldn’t miss Capitol Square’s delightful Dane County Farmers’ Market (Saturdays and Wednesdays, mid-April through early November), one of the best in the country.
Across the street, you can sample many of those fine ingredients, put to highly creative use, at Harvest restaurant - a standout from the ever-changing menu is oven-roasted wild king salmon with fennel, tomatoes and rosemary with an olive vinaigrette. A couple of doors over, L’Etoile has been turning heads with its superb farm-fresh American (with French accents) cuisine since 1976, and it continues to hold its own against Madison’s many hip newcomers. Be sure to order a cheese course - L’Etoile has some of the most unusual artisan selections in the country.
One restaurant that’s turned nearby King Street into a dining destination, Cafe Continental charms patrons with an imported zinc bar and burgundy banquettes. The menu leans toward Mediterranean, with a variety of pizzas, pastas and grilled meats. A favorite lunch spot near the Capitol, Marigold Kitchen serves light, healthful salads, sandwiches and breakfast/brunch fare, including a tasty duck-confit hash with two eggs any style. Owned partly by Butch Vig, the musician from the queer-popular alternative band Garbage, Cafe Montmartre is a laid-back, artsy spot to listen to cool live jazz bands, sip wine and munch on quite credible bistro fare.
For fresh sushi as well as nicely prepared teriyaki, sukiyaki and tempura dishes, tuck into Wasabi on State Street. Noodle joints are another Madison specialty, a funky favorite being Wah Kee Wonton Noodle. And don’t leave town without stopping by Michael’s Frozen Custard to scarf down a cup of Madison’s favorite dessert - in addition to serving custard so thick you could anchor a flagpole in it, Michael’s serves up fries and juicy burgers.
Monty’s Blue Plate Diner is a fabulous homestyle diner serving both tried-and-true and more inventive fare, from roasted-veggie sandwiches to luscious vanilla malts. Near the Capitol, Michelangelo’s Coffee House effectively captures Madison’s boho personality. This elegant, art-filled space has comfy sofas and small tables and draws lots of “family” - you can also get savory veggie wraps bursting with lentils, rice, spinach and hummus.
Madison’s biggest and most popular gay night spot, Club 5 is a spacious spread offering a little something for everyone: a pulsing video dance bar; a patio and separate dart and pool lounges for both lesbians and leather-and-Levi’s guys. Downtown, the low-keyed Shamrock Bar is a draws a quirky mix of gays, lesbians and straights of all ages and styles. Madison’s StageQ is one of the nation’s foremost GLBT-themed theater companies, staging outstanding and often provocative productions throughout the year.
Among downtown hotels, the upscale Hilton Madison is a reliable choice with spacious and well-kept rooms outfitted with Wi-Fi, plush bedding and sleek, contemporary furnishings. An inexpensive lodging choice overlooking the Capitol, the Best Western Inn on the Park is also close to the Shamrock gay bar and plenty of good restaurants. Rooms at this very gay-friendly property have a slightly old-school look, but the location and prices make it an excellent value.
There are several gay-friendly B&Bs in Madison and the surrounding countryside. At Arbor House, innkeepers Cathie and John Imes have turned one of Madison’s oldest houses into a remarkably eco-friendly B&B. There are two buildings, an 1853 stagecoach tavern – with original wood floors and natural-stone fireplaces – and a light-filled contemporary annex outfitted with thick walls made with reused wood and concrete, ceramic tiles fashioned out of recycled glass and low-toxic building materials. Rooms are quite cushy, the top units with whirlpool tubs. Just south of town, the women-owned Hawk’s Nest Resort consists of a pair of beautiful, airy timber-beam cabins that are ideal for groups of friends seeking a getaway. Both units have three bedrooms and can sleep up to eight guests. A tranquil lake is just down the street, and this is a terrific area for biking. You’d never know you’re less than a 20-minute drive from downtown Madison.
The Little Black Book:
Arbor House 608-238-2981, arbor-house.com
Best Western Inn on the Park 608-285-8000 or 800-279-8811. innonthepark.net
Cafe Continental 608-251-4880, znbar.com
Cafe Montmartre 608-255-5900, themomo.com
Club 5 608-277-9700, club-5.com
Harvest 608-255-6075, harvest-restaurant.com
Hawk’s Nest Resort 608-838-4798, hawksnestresort.com
Hilton Madison 608-255-5100, hilton.com
L’Etoile 608-251-0500, letoile-restaurant.com
Madison Convention and Visitors Bureau 608-255-2537 or 800-373-6376 visitmadison.com
Marigold Kitchen 608-661-5559, marigoldkitchen.com
Michael’s Frozen Custard 608-222-4110, ilovemichaels.com
Michelangelo’s Coffee House 608-251-5299
Monty’s Blue Plate Diner 608-244-8505, foodfightinc.com/montys.htm
Shamrock Bar 608-255-5029, shamrockbar.com
StageQ 608-294-0740, stageq.com
Wah Kee Wonton Noodle 608-255-5580
Wasabi 608-255-5020, wasabi-madison.com
Andrew Collins is the author of Fodor’s Gay Guide to the USA and eight additional travel guides. He can be reached care at OutofTown@qsyndicate.com.