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Café Guide: Madison

The serious coffee city that doesn't take itself too seriously.

by Ashley Rodriguez | October 15, 2021

You’d have to work hard to avoid the natural beauty in and around Madison. Wisconsin’s capital city is an isthmus flanked by two bodies of water — Lake Mendota and Lake Monona — and is filled with parks, bike routes, and prairie fields with wildflowers growing everywhere.

Madison is home to the state’s largest school, The University of Wisconsin-Madison, so the city is also a cultural gathering hub. It’s regularly ranked as one of the happiest cities in the United States and hosts the state’s biggest farmers' market every Saturday. Residents across the state regularly drive into Madison to attend the market, which is located on the Capitol Square. Attendees can gaze at the state capitol building while picking out fresh produce and contemplating their idyllic surroundings.

If it’s not clear, I love Madison. As a lifelong “big city” resident, bouncing around from New York to the Bay Area to Chicago, I moved to Madison a few months ago and regret nothing. Nature is readily accessible, it’s easy to get around, and residents have come to expect great food from local purveyors — and coffee is no exception. Mad City mixes old-school espresso bars and innovative cafés, all with a touch of whimsy. Madison is a serious coffee city for the jovial at heart.

Bradbury's Coffee

127 North Hamilton Street; Madison, Wisconsin 53703

There’s no other coffee shop that represents the spirit of Madison like Bradbury’s. Located just off Capitol Square (or “the square”), Bradbury’s serves a rotating selection of coffees from roasters like Phil & Sebastian, Ritual, and Sweet Bloom, with Ruby Coffee serving as its anchor roaster.

I go to Bradbury’s for the coffee, but I stay for the food. Bradbury’s makes all of their food and pastries in-house, including a sweet and savory scone that changes daily and seasonal crepes. The crepes are designed to highlight peak produce — a tomato, mozzarella, and basil crepe with a balsamic reduction made a very quick appearance on the menu (according to their IG stories, the crepe was available for “the week where tomatoes taste good”) and the menu changes based on what’s in season.

Café Domestique

1408 Williamson Street; Madison, Wisconsin 53703

Madison is an incredibly bike-friendly city with well-established bike lanes on roads and 75 miles of bike paths. Café Domestique is a light-hearted place to grab an espresso while browsing bike gear or getting a tune-up in the adjoining bike shop space. Shop owner Dan Coppola, who has worked in the bicycle industry for two decades, doesn’t take himself too seriously, sharing testimonials on the website like, “Easily the third best espresso in Madison. Maybe second, depending on the day of the week,” from your brother-in-law who “knows a lot about coffee” to his own testimonial: “Pretty good. Not Bradbury’s, but pretty good.”

Although the mood is light, the coffee is serious. The folks at Domestique always have two different espressos on bar and bring in roasters both near and far, including Intelligentsia, Square Mile, and Superthing. Sip on your choice of coffee and grab a pastry at next-door neighbor Batch Bakehouse, one of the city’s best bakeries.

Wonderstate Coffee

27 West Main Street; Madison, Wisconsin 53703

Wonderstate started in Viroqua, a small town in the western part of Wisconsin. Since then, they’ve become a nationally recognized roaster and opened a location right on the square that serves both coffee and light food options like quiche and sandwiches.

Wonderstate’s roastery is 100 percent solar-powered and they have a giving program where 5 percent of their profits go to community-based initiatives like the Valley Stewardship Network, an organization that protects land and water resources in Wisconsin, and On The Ground, who Wonderstate works with to promote gender pay equity amongst coffee growers.

Johnson Public House

908 East Johnson Street; Madison, Wisconsin 53703

There’s a theme in Madison coffee shops: people make great coffee, but no one takes themselves too seriously. Johnson Public House is a Madison staple that’s been open for over a decade with a cleverly designed logo that utilizes the initials of the business (JPH) to make a happy face and has a drink called Zoom Zoom Juice made with chocolate and cold brew. JPH also roasts their own coffee under the label Kin Kin, which releases single origin coffees and blends with titles like “You Survived 2020.”

Colectivo Coffee

Multiple locations

Colectivo has been roasting coffee since 1993 and has since expanded to include 20 coffee shops in Milwaukee, Madison, and Chicago. Colectivo is a place to sit and hang out — each location has an all-day breakfast menu and they bake their pastries in-house. Recently, their staff voted to unionize, making Colectivo the largest cafe union in the nation representing 400 workers.

Finca Coffee

2500 Rimrock Road #105; Madison, Wisconsin 53713

Finca Coffee is a celebration of Salvadoran food and coffee. “Finca” means “farm” in English, and owner Marleni Valle opened Finca as a way to honor and showcase her background and culture to the city. Valle partnered with 4 Monkeys, a roastery based in El Salvador and owned by 2011 World Barista Champion Alejandro Mendez, along with local roaster JBC Coffee to supply coffee for the brew bar. Their menu is an ode to Salvadoran and Latinx food, featuring pupusas (griddled corn cakes filled usually with either cheese or meat), quesadillas, and tacos.

Ancora Cafe + Bakery

Multiple Locations

Believe it or not, Madison has a burgeoning specialty coffee scene before most major cities, and that’s mostly because of Ancora Cafe + Bakery. Ancora opened its first location in 1994 and has been part of Madison’s coffee landscape ever since, even after longtime employee Tori Gerding bought the cafe in 2013. Unlike other coffee shops that opened in the ‘90s — and still look exactly the same as they did the day they opened — Ancora has been able to shift and adapt as the city has grown. You can grab a quick coffee or enjoy a full brunch service since each location has a full kitchen.

Wildwood Café

218 South Forrest Street; Stoughton, Wisconsin 53589

Wildwood Café might seem far from Madison — Stoughton is about 20 miles southeast of the city — but Madison simply doesn’t have the traffic problems that most cities have. If you have a car and love coffee in a small-town setting, Wildwood is a must visit spot.

With coffee from Ruby and Wonderstate, Wildwood also makes all their own pastries and has a breakfast menu with standouts like their burritos and biscuit sandwiches. Wildwood is impossibly beautiful, with a stunning brick exterior and bistro-style tables. For-here items are served on ornate plates and cups, and the shop sells carefully curated local goods and provisions.