La Crosse: The don’t-miss hotel
Exploring La Crosse as a food tourist is a lot of fun, and full of rewards. Compact and walkable, its streets lined with historic red brick buildings, the city’s downtown is more than a collection of watering holes targeting students at the nearby University of Wisconsin — La Crosse campus.
The neighborhood is undergoing a renaissance, and the influx of energy isn’t just apartments and offices. Several new hotels have sprouted in the past few years, none more impactful than the Charmant Hotel (101 State St., La Crosse, 1-608-519-8800, thecharmanthotel.com). The 67-room hotel is located in the former Joseph B. Funke Candy Co. factory, a four-story red brick beauty dating to 1898, and it’s the crown jewel of the city’s revival.
Like its Minneapolis sibling — the Hewing Hotel in the city’s North Loop neighborhood — the Charmant places an emphasis on food and drink opportunities.
There’s an open-air rooftop bar that seems to draw every in-the-know resident, who come for the fun cocktails and tasty wood-fired pizzas, and stay for the people-watching and the fine views of the city.
The hotel’s main floor is home to the kind of coffee lounge that makes a person want to settle in and relax, as well as a handsome lobby bar and a counter that displays handmade chocolates (from Milwaukee’s first-rate Indulgence Chocolatiers) like Tiffany & Co. displays diamonds.
There’s also a great-looking restaurant, where chef Kevin Micheli adheres to an appealing France-meets-Wisconsin mind-set.
He turns out what’s easily the city’s best breakfast (ask for a table with a soothing Riverside Park view), featuring fontina-fueled grits, golden cornmeal pancakes, hearty shakshuka, an excellent oat-quinoa granola, beautifully composed omelets and slices of fried Wisconsin-made ham.
La Crosse: breakfast, beer, coffee
Another daytime spot to bear in mind is Hackberry’s Bistro (315 5th Av. S., La Crosse, 1-608-784-5798, pfc.coop), the casual, second-floor breakfast-and-lunch restaurant operated by the People’s Food Co-op.
Chef Liz Lesser takes full advantage of the store’s bounty, serving an approachable, creative menu that emphasizes fresh seasonal ingredients: tacos stuffed with grilled salmon, avocado, chèvre and a root vegetable slaw, an awesome double-decker club sandwich made with premium chicken and bacon, a Benedict with salmon, black beans and salsa. Vegetarians and vegans will feel right at home. There’s a moderately priced and well-stocked salad bar, and a decent kids’ menu.
Nothing telegraphs up-and-coming-neighborhood more effectively than the presence of a well-run craft brewery. Small in scale and done up in plenty of requisite reclaimed wood, the taproom at the Turtle Stack Brewery (125 2nd St. S., La Crosse, 1-608-519-2284, turtlestackbrewery.com) certainly looks the part, and brewer Brent Martinson works hard to make sure that it tastes that way, too.
From the bar’s front-row perspective into Martinson’s workplace, sip your way through seven house-brewed beers (an eighth tap is reserved for a guest selection), from a nutty, almost coffee-like brown ale and a pale, crisp Kolsch to a hoppy golden ale that epitomizes good summer drinking.
Make a plan to visit Friday afternoon, when Martinson taps a cask beer and serves it until it’s gone. Four-ounce samples are $1.50, pints run $4 to $5 and growlers — an ideal La Crosse souvenir — generally land in the $12 to $15 range.
The coffeehouse of choice is the Root Note (115 4th St. S., La Crosse, 1-608-782-7668, driftmore.com), which boasts a sharply curated Wisconsin craft beer list (and coffee brewed from Kickapoo Coffee Co. beans) and a serious, if limited, roster of sweet and savory crêpes, soups and salads, all surprisingly well crafted given the limitations of the improvised-looking kitchen.
Drop in on Wednesday for half-price Turtle Stack Brewery beers; it’s the same deal on Thursday, except the brewery of choice is a longtime La Crosse favorite, Pearl Street Brewery (1401 St. Andrew St., La Crosse, 1-608-784-4832, pearlstreetbrewery.com). The funky environment is a bonus.
La Crosse: Sweets
Dessert? Head across the street to addiecakes (313 Main St., La Crosse, 1-608-782-2232, addiecakesco.com) and scope out the dozen or so varieties of cupcakes.
With its cheery lavender walls and heaven-sent scent, owner Addie Tourville’s cozy shop has revived a 120-year-old storefront with an idea that never gets old: rich, moist cupcakes crowned with lavish swirls of buttery icing.
Or stroll over to the enchanting Pearl Ice Cream Parlor (207 Pearl St., La Crosse, 1-608-782-6655, pearlicecream.com), where co-owners Michelle and T.J. Peterslie have long overseen a friendly blast-from-the-past scoop shop.
The case has room for 24 old-school flavors, landing along the lines of maple-walnut, coconut-caramel, cherry chip, Mississippi Mudd (dark chocolate ice cream peppered with fudge and chocolate chips) and Snappin’ Turtle (caramel, fudge and pecans blended into vanilla ice cream), all made on the premises.
What’s not to love? The hunger-inducing fragrance of just-made waffle cones lingers in the air, the perpetually whirling Hamilton Beach malt mixer sends out a soothing background noise, the menu proudly presents eight varieties of phosphates (pineapple, anyone?), the tradition-bound banana split is a thing of beauty and the candy counter’s inventory is notable for its time-capsule brand names: Zagnut, Boyer Butterscotch Smoothies, Mary Jane, Black Cow. Don’t miss it.
La Crosse: Food trucks, patios
The food truck craze has also come to La Crosse, and the first effort is a good one. Apothik (@eatapothik) is run by the folks behind Grounded Specialty Coffee (308 Main St., La Crosse, 1-608-784-5282) and it’s easy to locate, since it’s usually parked in the small empty lot adjacent to the coffeehouse (lunch Wednesday through Friday) or it’s part of the scene at the Cameron Park Farmers Market (cameronparkmarket.org), serving Saturday brunch and Friday and Saturday dinner.
The eclectic menu changes frequently and focuses on portable fare with a global outlook: corn tortillas filled with Alaskan cod and a fiery chipotle sauce, a sub sandwich stuffed with Korean-style pork-and-beef meatballs and a steaming bowl of shoyu ramen filled with glazed pork shoulder, radishes and a runny egg. Prices generally land in the $9.50-and-under range, and the refreshing flavored lemonades — strawberry, mango-pineapple — are a happy finishing touch.
And no other outdoor dining real estate takes such thorough advantage of its proximity to the Mississippi River as the patio at the Waterfront Restaurant & Tavern (320 Front St. S., La Crosse, 1-608-782-5400, thewaterfrontlacrosse.com)
Its sheltered stretch of tables sits so close to the esplanade that runs south of the city’s remarkable Riverside Park — a sweep of green that could teach a few lessons to Minneapolis and St. Paul — that it almost feels as if it’s a part of it.
The fare? Upscale American, with a few steakhouse overtures, well executed. Summers mean weekend brunch, with nothing over $14. Be forewarned: The patio is a no-reservations zone.
La Crosse: Cocktails, carhops
Outside of downtown, make a plan to drop in on the Mint (1810 State St., La Crosse, 1-608-519-5011, driftmore.com), where the bar is home to La Crosse’s nascent craft cocktail culture, and stocks a worthy roster of cured meats and locally produced cheeses (this section of Wisconsin isn’t affectionately referred to as the Côte du Fromage for nothing). Meanwhile, the funky dining room and patio emphasize globally inspired, reasonably priced farm-to-table fare at lunch, dinner and weekend brunch.
If the job applications at Rudy’s Drive-In (1004 La Crosse St., La Crosse, 1-608-782-2200, rudysdrivein.com) don’t include the words “must be able to roller skate,” it should.
This gussied-up former A&W doubles down on the nostalgia, with house-brewed root beer served in gigantic glass mugs, and sends it out of the kitchen — along with single-, double- and triple-patty burgers, beer-battered cod with fries, corn dogs and cheese curds — with tray-carrying, skate-wearing servers. Yes, there is a Rudy. He’s third-generation owner Gary Rudy.
When in Viroqua
Just outside of La Crosse, on the drive to Viroqua, consider a stop at the Shrine of our Lady of Guadalupe.
After taking in the art and architecture, and the highly scenic landscape, enjoy breakfast, lunch or Sunday brunch at the shrine’s pretty Culinara Mariana Cafe (5250 Justin Road, La Crosse, 1-608-788-8400, guadalupeshrine.org), where chef Gisela Pett freshens her something-for-everyone menu with a few German specialties (big, chewy, salt-studded pretzels with a sweet-hot mustard, a terrific pork schnitzel sandwich) and by showcasing produce from Wild & Pure Farm, located outside nearby Chaseburg.
Viroqua, surrounded by a large number of organic farms and a magnet for fly fishing aficionados, is a fascinating food-obsessed hot spot. Along with the Driftless, it’s home to premium roaster Kickapoo Coffee.
The company recently opened a coffeehouse (302 S. Main St., Viroqua, 1-608-638-7701, kickapoocoffee.com) in a former 1940s service station that’s as design-forward as any North Loop caffeination station. Along with organic coffees, the shop features Allison Sandbeck’s exceptional baked goods and straightforward and seasonal breakfast and lunch fare. The company also offers monthly tour-and-tasting events at its nearby roastery.
Wisco Pop, that maker of newfangled yet wonderfully old-fashioned flavor-packed sodas (tart cherry, fragrant strawberry, lively ginger-lemon-lime), also calls Viroqua home. Pick up some souvenir bottles at the Viroqua Food Co-op (609 N. Main St., Viroqua, 1-608-637-7511, viroquafood.coop), which clearly enjoys a central role in the life of this food-obsessed region. The store, which is in the midst of a fundraising drive to double in size, counts 3,500 members in a town with a population of 4,400 people.
Lake Pepin highlights
Scores of Twin Cities diners are familiar with the tiny town of Pepin for one reason: It has been the home of the Harbor View Cafe (314 1st St., Pepin, 1-715-442-3893, harborviewpepin.com) for 38 years, and counting.
Despite a change in ownership a number of years ago, the region’s original daytripping destination has a dipped-in-amber aura: the same forthright, big-portions approach to cooking, the same chalkboard menu (with similarly not-inexpensive prices), the same charming setting (especially the book-lined “library”), the same level of super-nice service.
And the same no-reservations policy. Which is why it’s nice to see the Breakwater Wine Bar (400 1st St., Pepin, 1-715-442-2250, sailpepin.com) and the 404 Coffee Shop (404 1st St., Pepin, 1-715-215-0132) come along. Both provide a welcoming place to wait for a Harbor View table, and the latter also serves as a repository for baked goodies from Ruth Raich. She ran the much-missed Jenny Lind Cafe in nearby Stockholm in the 1990s, and has returned to supply the area with her signature pecan-studded caramel rolls, knobbly scones and spiraled, cardamom-scented rolls.
Because it resembles a tiny chunk of Tuscany that has been transplanted to Lake Pepin, it’s tough to overlook Villa Bellezza (1420 3rd St., Pepin, 1-715-442-2424, villabellezza.com), an ambitious, still-growing food and wine complex. Drop inside the tasting room and sip your way through the winery’s output, with guidance from the knowledgeable staff.
Stay for lunch in the newish Il Forno @ Villa Bellezza, choosing wood-fired pizzas, house-made pastas, panini and more (take a shaded table on the piazza, with the sound of the splashing fountain in the background), then walk it off while strolling among the vineyard’s grapes, most developed by University of Minnesota scientists.
Continue farther south and discover a pair of stop-worthy venues. The Empire Room (215 S. Main St., Alma, 1-608-685-9669, empireroomalma.com) boasts one of the region’s prettiest patios, and the porch at the Trempealeau Hotel (11332 Main St., Trempealeau, 1-608-534-6898, trempealeauhotel.com) looks out on a postcard-worthy view.
Wisconsin’s unofficial pie trail
Finally, Wisconsin officials might want to consider renaming a portion of the state’s Hwy. 35 as the Pie Trail, thanks to three well-schooled purveyors. Start at the Smiling Pelican Bakeshop (W3556 State Hwy. 35, Maiden Rock, 1-715-448-3807), where owner Sandra Thielen has a flair for berry pies and gravity-defying banana cream wonders.
There are only two faults to this otherwise glorious place: Thielen is open three days only (Friday through Sunday), and frequent sellouts mean frequent disappointments.
Stockholm, the next town to the south, is home to the Stockholm Pie. Co. (N2030 Spring St., Stockholm, 1-715-442-5505, stockholmpieandgeneralstore.com), which offers an impressive selection that runs the gamut, from fruit (apple, double lemon), nut (a glorious pecan), to decadent cream (coconut cream, chocolate silk) to seasonal favorites, including an out-of-this-world rhubarb custard. In the mood for something savory? There’s a well-made chicken pot pie. If there are pie “cookies” on the counter, buy them.
Continuing south to Pepin, be on the lookout for the “Pie” sign outside the Homemade Cafe (809 3rd St., Pepin, 612-396-5804), where owner Julie Elwell more than dabbles in the pie arts. Every Thursday through Sunday, she fills the case in her tidy breakfast-and-lunch cafe with all kinds of temptations: minty grasshopper pie with a crumbly chocolate cookie crust and signature Black Bottom Butterscotch, among many, and it’s jackpot time when local farms are in strawberry, raspberry or blueberry mode. Although she doesn’t, Elwell should sell “I brake for pie” bumper stickers. I’d proudly affix one to my Volkswagen.