Madison, Wisconsin is a marvellous place to visit on a budget. While we lack much in the way of youth hostels, there are a variety of places where you can sleep in your car.
Of course, if one is visiting Madison, food is a concern. While portions are large, prices tend to be as well - many seemingly "family-style" eateries are $10 a plate - plus drink - for most of the menu. This will not do for the traveller trying to see the wonders of the midwest on thirty of any dollars per day.
Here are a few of my favorite options for cheap - but edible - food.
1. Bagels Forever.
Bagel chains - you know, those schmucks who want you to spend $2 for a bagel with cream cheese?
Forget 'em. We have real bagels.
The main Bagels Forever is, in fact, a bagel factory - they make bagels on location, and when I say "make", I mean they start with flour, water, and eggs. And, unlike those that are pre-frozen and sold at supermarkets, they're delicious.
And best of all - $0.30 gets you a bagel, and $0.40 gets you a jumbo bagel! $0.50 gets you a can of soda (don't be tempted by the more expensive carbonated beverages - they're not that much better), and cream cheese or peanut butter can be had cheaply, too - but then again, you probbably brought peanut butter packets from some place that was giving them away for free.
Price for a meal?
$0.60 - 2 bagels (I reccomend egg - the protein is yummy!)
$0.40 - packet of peanut butter
$0.50 - drink
Total: $1.50 for lunch.
Alternately, their "Breakfast Bagel Sandwiches" - which are almost identical to those at McDonalds, except made with recognizable eggs, meat, and cheese - are great for lunch. At $2 each, they make a great way to beat the cold.
2. The Maharajah's Sunday Buffet
$7 does not seem like a bargain for a buffet. Anyone can get a buffet for $7.
But most buffets are not this amazing.
As a rule of thumb, expect tureens of above-average tandoori chicken, at least three curries (the saag is not bad at all), and several desserts - which always include the traditional gulab jamun, and often have at least one "dessert of the day", which is generally very complex and would sell for at least $4 a portion otherwise.
The trick with this is to eat no breakfast, pig out at about 1:30 PM (it lasts from 10:30 to 2 P.M, if memory serves) and eat no dinner. $7 ($9 after drink) is not so bad for a day of food.
3. Pizza de Roma
Pizza de Roma is one of my favorite restaurants. It has almost no atmosphere to speak of - while there are some nifty murals that appear to have been unchanged for a period longer than I've been alive, they're spoiled by the endless din of the not-quite-working-properly big-screen TV in the corner - but, trust me on this one, you won't care.
While the prices - between $2.60 and $4.50 a slice - seem high, a single wedge of pizza is a meal in itself. My particular favorite has vast amounts of eggplant, fresh mozzarella, and basil - real food! - and only costs $4.15 for a meal. The desserts and calamari, while not quite such an excellent value, are also similarly delicious.
If you want to go where the locals go, forget the Nitty Gritty (food only enjoyable when you're inebriated, it would seem) and other such hawked attractions. Pizza de Roma is the place to go.
Also, please leave a tip. These folks work dang hard, and actually heat up the pizza on the spot, so it's piping hot and bubbling gloriously when you eat it.
4. Yummy Buffet
Yummy Buffet is yet another MSG-enfused bad-asian-food extravaganza. Aside from its small side and less than amazing array of selections, it has two notable features: A proximity to downtown madison, and extremely low prices.
$5 for all-you can eat, $3 a pound for take out.
If you're in a huge hurry, just scramble in, load up a styrofoam tray with whatever looks least likely to cause gastrointestinal anguish, and run - $3 is not a lot of money. Or, get snacks for a group.