Listen up, because hordes of underground Madison diners are going to be demanding my blood for what I’m about to disclose.
Burn your Isthmus. Trash that Zagat guide. Yelp or Urbanspoon? Don’t even talk to me. We won’t be needing any of these “helpful” resources in deciding what to eat today because these next two restaurants don’t like to keep a public profile. They operate in the dark behind misleading facades and sometimes literally underground. They are the best at what they do. They are Madison’s best-kept secrets.
The first? Greenbush Bar.
Greenbush Bar does not have a Twitter. Nor does it have a Facebook or even run print advertisements. In fact, their only form of publicity is the warm, alluring smell of pizza permeating Regent Street on cool Madison evenings. The first time my friend and I tried to go, we walked right past it. It was only after some Googling and street number-searching that we were finally able to find the unobtrusive door, nestled under an Italian flag in a dingy-looking red brick building housing an Italian Workmen’s Club.
Once we descended the steps and ducked to avoid a strand of colorful Christmas lights hanging across the low door, we turned to each other in open-mouthed shock.
“What’s this”? I thought, echoing Jack Skellington as he enters Christmas Town for the first time in “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”
Greenbush Bar resembled a dark church basement lit up by Christmas lights, bustling with the good feeling of happy people who all know each other enjoying good food. It was a small-town miracle holed up in the big city, the type of place where children ran around in blatant disregard to the “No Persons Under 21” warning across the door, and – could it be? – yes, a coat rack. There was a coat rack, standing sentinel in the corner, a living memorial to a time when people trusted each other enough to hang their coats together and not steal each other blind.
After a short wait, we were seated. We ordered one pizza with spinach, tomato, basil/pesto, onion and garlic and one pizza with pepperoni, green pepper and mushrooms. The pies, when they came, were decent. The tomato sauce on the pepperoni pizza was brilliant enough to carry the umami of the mushrooms and the decadent saltiness of the meat. Although the basil stood out on the spinach/pesto pie, it could have used more salt. The crust, though burnt in places, was just the right balance of crispy, chewy and flaky. We all ate our fill.
It wasn’t the best pizza I’ve had in Madison (that prize is reserved for Pizza Brutta on Monroe), but as far as ambiance goes, Greenbush Bar can’t be beat.
So if you’re feeling lonely, homesick or just in need of some Christmas-like warmth and cheer, get some friends together and go to the ultimate home away from home: Greenbush Bar.
The second secret: The Caribou.
A while back, I wrote about the “best burger in Madison.” Ignorant diner that I was, I turned immediately to Internet ratings in discerning which places to try. The internet fed me Dotty’s. It fed me The Weary Traveler and the Nitty. It even fed me what, up until a few weeks ago, was the home of my favorite burger in Madison, The Old Fashioned.
Readers, please forget I ever wrote about any of these places, because none of them even come close to the best burger in Madison.
Let me explain. A few weeks ago, I passed under a sign with “The Caribou” scrawled in cursive red neon letters. It was a place I’d been before. A small, dark establishment crouched next to a Pepsi-branded Self-Service Laundry on East Johnson Street – the type of place you go for drinks after you go for drinks after you go for drinks. A place for true regulars, a place for rubbing shoulders with tightly-packed anonymous strangers in the dark.
Except this time, I was hungry. My friend ordered a cheeseburger from Tammy behind the bar; I ordered the same. It came. I bit.
Head, neck, arms, fingertips, legs and toes. The euphoric crackling under my skin blazed through in that order, exactly as though I had been struck by lightning.
I scrunched my eyebrows in helpless confusion as my taste buds plunged into an ocean of grease, cheddar cheese, charred meat, salt, buttery buns and the taste of a burger cooked upon a grill that had seen 1,000 burgers before it.
“You can definitely taste some of your last burger on this one,” Caribou regular Suzanne Liebergen said.
In that moment, I knew I could never go back. From here on out, this burger would be the gold standard, the measuring stick by which I would measure all other burgers.
Caribou, Caribou, Caribou. Forget every other name associated with a good hamburger because this is the only one you need to know.
But keep it on the down low, will you?
Sam Stepp is a junior majoring in journalism. Comments, questions, recipes, suggestions? Email her at [email protected]