Though the gay bars and clubs in Madison and around the world have long been invaluable places to build community, live it up, or just feel at home, they shouldn’t need to be the only game in town.
More and more people are aiming to make “queer space” mean something broader—because it can. Sometimes flying under the radar but always right under our noses, the countless food and beverage businesses owned and operated by LGBTQ folks in the Madison area are worth supporting and cherishing.
For night owls who are looking for the gay bar and club scene: you’re in luck, as there are plenty of great nightlife spots around town, with variety in location and flavor—and many are included in this list. But if you’re looking for an intentionally sober space, or simply somewhere to get a bite to eat or a cup of coffee—they’re also everywhere, more ubiquitous than you might have realized.
The businesses profiled here include farmers’ market vendors, food trucks, cafes, specialty food and beverage stores, and restaurants. From time-honored anchors of the Madison food scene to fledgling upstarts, from under-the-radar favorites of locals to those geared to dazzle your out-of-town guests (and overlap between the two), there’s something for everyone. While some of these spots advertise themselves directly to LGBTQ customers, others are more understated about their community connections. Many draw in a wide swath of the general population. Since it would be hard to go very far in Madison without running into one or more of these businesses, consider trying a new-to-you spot on this list the next time you’re wondering where to have a cup of coffee, meal, snack, or drink.
Of course, a list like this cannot possibly be exhaustive. If you know of other LGBTQ-owned-or-operated food and drink spots, please support those, too. Undoubtedly, more will only continue to spring up in our thriving, ever-changing food scene. Let this be a place to start.
Chocolaterian Café The café supplies sweets and then some: the iconic Ugly Cookie and Badger Bait live up to the hype, though they only scratch the surface. By all means, do the full survey of desserts; also try breakfast, weekend brunch, lunch, coffee, wine, and beer. Leanne Cordisco leads the café’s crew in Middleton. Also an event space, Chocolaterian hosts live music. Want to share the love? Ship some goodies—like an entire “Box of Ugly” for fans of this rock-star-status cookie—from the store or by ordering online.
java cat on Monona Drive, owned by Renee Raspiller, sits right on the cusp of Monona and Madison. The cafe strives to be a part of and give back to the community in a multitude of ways, from participating in fundraisers to featuring a house guitar customers can play. Come check out the art and live music—along with coffee, breakfast, lunch, and a rotation of more than 125 flavors of house-made gelato that customers rave about. Making good on the animal-loving implication of their name, they’ve also got a dog-friendly patio.
delta beer lab The bewery opened early this year following owner Tim “Pio” Piotrowski’s return from hiking the Appalachian Trail. As Pio told Our Lives in 2018 about the choice of name for his brewery, “Delta is the chemical and mathematical symbol for change, and Delta Beer Lab will tirelessly work toward forward change in our communities.” Pledging not only to offer high-quality beer but also to pay employees above a living wage and “work to stop sexism, bigotry, and racism in whatever ways we can,” the taproom on Badger Road is open to the public, and you may have started spotting their beers around town, too.
Harvest & the Old Fashioned Tami Lax owns Harvest and the Old Fashioned, Pinckney Street neighbors to one another, which offer between them the gamut of great downtown dining. The Old Fashioned, managed by Tami’s partner Jennifer DeBolt, boasts a Wisconsin-forward menu with tap beers aplenty; definitely try the cheese curds, but also don’t miss the addictive haystack onion strings. Harvest’s farm-to-table menu and upscale-yet-approachable ambiance make for fine dining indeed. The restaurants each offer something different enough to fill diverse dining desires—but are tied together by their devotion to excellent Wisconsin food.
Fromagination A downtown paradise for cheese lovers, Ken Monteleone’s Fromagination specialty shop on the Capitol Square showcases the finest of this state’s offerings—and since this is Wisconsin, that’s saying a lot. You will not go wrong any direction you turn, from one cheese to the next, and then on to delights to pair them with—crackers, of course; and meats, jams, and sweets. Don’t stop there; try a sandwich, send a cheese-of-the-month gift to someone lucky out of town, and pick up some accessories for the next time you’d like to feel fancy eating cheese at your own home.
Michael’s Frozen Custard Madison has been enjoying Michael’s Frozen Custard for 33 years this summer. Three locations span the Isthmus and then some. The dedication of Michael Dix over the decades has paid off; the Monroe Street flagship store, born in 1986, still serves custard there; and Schroeder Road and Atwood Avenue locations complete the trifecta. Come for dessert, but stay for dinner—burgers, hot dogs, and cheese curds round out the menu.
Shamrock Bar & Grille The bar resprouted in 2013 in the same spot where the original Shamrock Bar had been rooted since 1985, making it Madison’s oldest gay bar. Under the new ownership of Robert Mahr, who had been an employee of the original business, the new lease on life has come with an expanded seven-day-a-week food menu. Come by any day or night for a bite or a drink; at brunch time, catch a classic mimosa or turbo-charge your morning with their specialty “Shamosa.”
Cow & Quince You’ve heard of CSAs; now, it’s time to get excited for CSRs (community-supported restaurants). Cow & Quince in New Glarus, owned by Lori Stern, is open to the public—no membership required. But if you want to participate CSR-style, you can become an annual member at one of two levels, with invitations to member-only events, discounts, and other benefits. The restaurant offers a regular menu as well as several annual prix fixe dinner events. If you like what you eat there, check out their market, where you can buy many of the same ingredients that went into your meal.
NauTiGal, Captain Bill’s, Mariner’s Inn, & Betty Lou Cruises Robert von Rutenberg joined brothers Jack and Bill in the family business in 2000, and the three co-own the waterfront restaurant icons NauTiGal, Captain Bill’s, and the Mariner’s Inn. The three restaurants have got the north and west side of Mendota covered. But if you’re looking for something more like a getaway (no hotel required), try a Betty Lou Cruise; the public cruises, which run from April through October, will whisk you away on a yacht for a couple of hours (food and drinks included), with options on both Mendota and Monona—so pick your favorite lake or try both.
Square Wine Co. is perfect place to drop in for a bottle for Concerts on the Square, but visit any day of the week. Wine tastings are offered every Friday evening (6:00–8:00 p.m.) and Saturday afternoon (12:00–3:00 p.m.), along with special-event tastings sprinkled throughout other days. Andrea Hillsey, who owns Square with her partner Ashley Parr, brings on-the-ground experience in a vineyard and graduate-level hospitality studies to the table; rest assured you’ll get expert-level advice, no matter your budget.
Willalby’s Cafe Owner Nate Prince took over Willalby’s Cafe in 2010 after working there for a decade. A long-term player in the evolving dining and retail scene of Willy Street, this cash-only breakfast joint is an east side favorite. Willalby’s is known for its charm, its gigantic chocolate chip pancakes, and its vegan biscuits and gravy. Formerly open late nights, Willalby’s hours are now a little more standard—until 3:00 PM on weekends and 2:00 PM on weekdays, so plan accordingly and get your fix.
Fair Trade Coffee House Coffee houses open at night hold a dear spot in the hearts of many a student; but they can also be a respite for folks looking for somewhere to go and be among others without alcohol. Fair Trade Coffee House is one that can fill this niche. As their name suggests, 100% of their coffee beans (including espresso) are fair trade certified, critical to those invested in the well-being of farmers and producers around the world. Owners Casey Thompson and Thomas Beckwith-Thompson purchased Fair Trade Coffee House in 2017 and have been bringing you coffee, tea, and food ever since.
Cafe Social is about quality. Omar Lopez, who co-owns the cafe with his partner Doug Swenson, is from Colombia and envisioned a Madison with the kind of coffee he knew and loved. The cafe sources all its coffee, grown without chemicals, from family farms in Colombia—following the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation’s guidelines for quality. Breakfast, lunch, pizza, tea, and specialty drinks round out the menu at their Bedford Street location. You can also buy whole beans—including green, unroasted beans, if you are curious to try your hand at roasting at home.
Cargo Coffee & Ground Zero coffeehouses Lynn Lee co-owns both Cargo Coffee locations and Ground Zero coffeehouse with his twin brother, Lindsey; the three spots stretch from the near-east to near-west side of Madison, with the newer Cargo spot nestled among the new living, business, and entertainment development sprouting up along East Washington. As you sip your coffee or enjoy a house-made pastry or sandwich, sit back and appreciate the worldliness of the coffee trade and culture brought to mind by the world-map decor that ties the three locations together.
Greenbush Bar Starting more than 100 years ago, Italian immigrants made a home in Madison in the Greenbush addition. Since 1993, Anna Alberici has brought her memories of growing up in the neighborhood to life in culinary form (channelling her mother’s love of cooking) through Sicilian food at the Greenbush Bar. Come here for pizza (bring your creativity! the menu is all choose-your-own toppings), pasta, and wine or spirits—and taste a bite of Madison history.
Mediterranean Hookah Lounge & Cafe offers a chill environment with couches, low lighting, hookah in an assortment of flavors, and food and drink menus. Belly dancers perform weekly on Saturdays; karaoke is on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday nights with more than 15,000 songs to choose from. Tommy Hanna co-owns the lounge with his brother, Simon. Together, they’ve brought the culture of their family’s native Lebanon to Madison for a unique nightlife experience.
Fuegos Open since 2017 on Willy Street, Fuegos captures owners Oscar Villarreal and Jordan Wegner’s approaches to Latin-inspired food in a unique synthesis of dietary styles; as their website proclaims, this is “where carnivores and vegans graze together.” They offer complete all-vegan menus for each meal in addition to omnivore-oriented menus; tapas feature prominently on both. The brunch menus for each type of eater are also large and varied.
Prism Dance Club Spring this year brought change to an anchor for LGBTQ nightlife on the east side of Madison: The club formerly known as Plan B reopened under new ownership as Prism. New co-owner Rico Sabatini was a former owner and co-founder of Plan B. He is joined by co-owner Apollo Marquez and program director Lili Luxe; they’ve been making community-friendly changes for the new brand that include low or no cover charges, depending on the night.
FIVE Nightclub Dave Eick’s club, more than 20 years old now, remains a pivotal center for LGBTQ celebration of many flavors following a community-supported revival in 2015. Check out their gigantic dance floor if that’s your jam—but there’s also plenty else to do. Programming runs the gamut and includes burlesque and drag, Latin night, karaoke, sand volleyball tournaments, and even ZUMBA.
WOOF’S In a prime downtown location since opening in 2008, Dino Maniaci’s WOOF’S on King Street is a different variety of gay bar: one that features sports, synthesizing two cultures for those who would seek a home in both types of venues. A variety of events, including fetish-related and otherwise themed (who’s up for darts or pool?), populate their weekly calendar. While a sports-themed gay bar may seem slanted toward men, all are welcome at WOOF’S.
Daisy Cafe & Cupcakery Co-owned by Kathy Brooks, Daisy may lure you in with the promise of that last word in its name, and it won’t disappoint on that front. But plan to be there longer and have a meal, too. Brunch offerings include some uncommon and tasty options, like their specialty stratas—these “egg casseroles” include a wide range of flavor options from french toast to chorizo pepper jack. Also open for lunch and (seasonally) dinner, including fish fry on Fridays. Just make sure you saved room for that cupcake, after all.
Simply Served Personal Chef Jeanne Benink—serving Madison, Middleton, Sun Prairie, and McFarland—offers meals and more through Simply Served Personal Chef. Cooking lessons one-on-one or for groups, special event food preparation, and a simple pricing structure may entice you. Her menus are seasonal and flexible to omnivorous, gluten-free, and vegan diets. What does a personal chef do? Not just cooking; as she describes, “A personal chef will shop for the ingredients, prepare the meals in your home, clean up your kitchen, and store the meals in your refrigerator or freezer.” Sold.
Bee Charmer offers not just honey and beeswax products but also the source itself: bees! Consulting services are also on offer if you’re wondering just how to keep your bees or how to solve a sticky problem. Owner Mary Celley brings to the table experience at the U.S.D.A. Honey Bee Research Lab, decades of Wisconsin beekeeping, and a horticulture degree with a focus on entomology. If beekeeping’s not for you, but you’re a fan of honey? Stop by the Bee Charmer booth at the Dane County Farmers’ Market for a sweet treat or buy online.
Luna Circle Farm Luna Circle Farm’s memorable purple awning welcomes regulars and visitors alike to the Dane County Farmers’ Market on both Saturdays and Wednesdays, to which owner Tricia Bross brings more than a quarter-century of experience growing organic vegetables. Luna Circle also offers community-supported agriculture (CSA) market shares (two sizes available), where you pay upfront as with a traditional CSA, but you come to the farmers’ market and get to choose your own veggies from the stand each week.
Roots Chocolates Lisa Nelson is a fourth-generation farm owner, and with Roots Chocolates, she sources from the farm to create fabulous flavors in confectionery form. Based in Wisconsin Dells, Roots Chocolates are available at Metcalfe’s Hilldale as well as several other spots and online. While there’s no hurry to get through summer, with favorites like chocolate mint basil, it’s also hard not to look forward to their unique fall seasonals—including aronia (starting in September) and squash with Wisconsin maple syrup (starting in October).
Caracas Empanadas Caracas Empanadas will fuel you on your Saturday farmers’ market tour; during the week, you can find the food truck on the Library Mall. A common thread amongst their plethora of five-star Yelp reviews is the urging to try, in particular, the Guasacaca (green cilantro) sauce. Owner Luis Dompablo’s passion for Venezuelan cuisine comes through in the quality of the food and the devotion of Caracas Empanadas fans.
Stubborn Mule Catering Co-owned by Ryan Mueller, Stubborn Mule Catering runs on the belief in creating something unique: Menus are different for each and every event, so get ready to design something totally fresh with them. Got a big event? They’re on it. But they also cater for as few as two with their personal chef services, so go ahead—think big or small. If you’re wondering about the name, it’s the good kind of persistence; as they put it, “Quality is what we’re stubborn about.” When possible, they source from the farmers’ market and create their menus around local and seasonal food.