There is, of course, just one reason to purposefully wake up at dawn—to experience the madness of a home football game at the University of Wisconsin. Madison is, after all, the Midwestern equivalent of Athens, Georgia—a college football hotbed where the university drives the city’s economy and culture. And so, on roughly seven Saturdays each autumn, tens of thousands of locals, students and alums (all wearing at least one element of red) descend upon Camp Randall Stadium, where they spend their first few waking hours fortifying themselves with encased meats, locally brewed beer and tales of the Madison they know. It is a special place. The onetime home of The Onion, Madison hosts one of the country’s oldest annual craft beer festivals as well as the first campus chapter devoted to the locavore movement. It is also where all of Wisconsin’s laws are made, doubling as the state capital. But on Saturday mornings in the fall, all roads lead to Camp Randall and the Wisconsin Badgers football team.
9 A.M. In Big Ten country, where kickoff is normally 11 a.m., a 2:30 p.m. start time (such as this weekend’s game against Purdue) is considered late. Fortunately, an afternoon matchup means more time for tailgating. Find a parking spot as far to the south or west side of Camp Randall as possible. Spaces fill up quickly, so arrive early—hence, the ungodly wake-up time—and be willing to pay as much as $30 for prime real estate. Once there, unpack your portable grill and prepare a regional staple—bratwurst (preferably from nearby Black Earth Meats). Prepare them in true Wisconsin style—simmered in beer and onions and finished on the grill. In these parts, any other method will likely inspire ridicule.
5:37 P.M. Win or lose, the afterparty spills out onto Regent Street on Camp Randall’s south side. The roped-off parking lots turn into makeshift beer gardens. Age, sex and socioeconomic status don’t matter at this party; keg cups of local microbrews such as New Glarus’s Spotted Cow and Capital Brewery’s Oktoberfest fuel Badger-pride-inspired solidarity.
6:17 P.M. Downtown Madison, geographically an isthmus bound by lakes Monona and Mendota, is a city of waterfront terraces. As you make your long stroll toward the Capitol Square from crowded Camp Randall, the ever-popular Memorial Union Terrace—an historic college union building, concert venue and beer garden—is always a good party. But walk a bit farther east to one of Madison’s most revered architectural places. Initially designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1938, the Monona Terrace building—functionally a funky convention center—was finally constructed in 1997. Wright wanted his gently curving white building with high, arched windows to visually unite the lakefront with the high-on-the-hill Capitol building. Viewed from across the water you see how well he succeeded. Despite being three blocks away, the Mo looks like the Capitol’s front stoop.
7:34 P.M. Now that the sun has set, it’s time for a drink that isn’t served in a plastic cup. Head downtown to Merchant, an informal craft cocktail bar with a full roster of homemade foams, syrups and cordials. There are also six brandy drinks on the menu, including the brandy old-fashioned, the unofficial state cocktail. Instead of starting with bourbon, Wisconsinites begin with brandy, then add sugar, bitters, orange and lemon oil, and serve it on the rocks. The menu acknowledges that the cocktail wasn’t invented in the Badger State, but it has become a Wisconsin classic nonetheless.
8:26 P.M. One block west of Merchant, on the central Capitol Square, you will find Graze, which offers an insane view of the capitol dome. Its executive chef, Tory Miller, took home a James Beard Award for Best Midwest Chef in 2012. (His second Madison restaurant, the fine-dining L’Etoile, is in the same building.) He can be found most Saturday mornings making deals with local growers at the Madison farmers’ market. Start with the seven-dollar pickle board (bread and butter, daikon, beets, escabeche, kimchi and sweet potato), which reflects Miller’s tendency toward Asian-heartland fusion. Another delicious heartland touch: Graze’s macaroni and cheese, featuring 10-year-old cheddar from local cheese maker Hook’s and a topping of herbed bread crumbs and smoky-sweet pulled pork.
10:01 P.M. Venture off the beaten path to Willy Street, the neighborhood that has been Madison’s cultural heart for decades. The area is a nexus of urban renewal and the blight that preceded it. Disparate neighbors co-exist down a mile-long stretch of 20th-century industrial buildings and 100-year-old homes. There are homeless shelters, a craft spirit distillery, methadone clinics, the city’s premier LGBT dance club and the best new restaurants around. Be sure to stop at the Crystal Corner, a dive bar that moonlights as a music venue for local favorites such as the Hometown Sweethearts and the Brown Derby. A couple of heavy pours from Troy or Patti, the house bartenders, and you’ll make friends in no time.
12:12 A.M. Several of the city’s food carts stand at the ready for the mass exodus from the bars on State Street. But for higher quality late-night eats—as well as a nightcap—head to the Corral Room, located underneath Madison’s preeminent steakhouse, the Tornado Room. This after-dinner bar is open only on Fridays and Saturdays and service doesn’t start until nine p.m., but the kitchen stays open until one a.m. and you won’t get kicked out until two. The curved white booths and brick and wood paneling give the joint a Rat Pack feel. The steak sandwich, made with beef tenderloin topped with sautéed onions and horseradish sauce and served with au jus, is arguably the best food deal in the city, at eight bucks. Order one for late-night sustenance, because you’ll need your energy in the morning. Sunday’s NFL tailgate starts bright and early.
Photo courtesy of Dave Kreisman