Sunday, September 14, 2008

Closing Ishnala … Again

Going to Ishnala, a supper club on Mirror Lake near Wisconsin Dells is the idyllic summer road trip. It would be difficult for even Disney to recreate its faux Wisconsin north woods setting and ambience. There’s really nothing remarkable about the menu or food but I don’t think that’s what draws the crowds here year after year. It’s not why I come.

Ishnala just celebrated its 55th anniversary. The first time I went there I was 10 and for whatever reason the place captured my imagination. It had been a summer home, purchased by the Hoffman brothers who ran one of Madison’s most famous restaurants, the Hoffman House. The Hoffmans had a flair for the dramatic and knew how to milk a theme. The original Hoffman House restaurant was on Wilson Street where the Essen Haus is today. They dubbed its candy-stripped bar the Gay 90’s Lounge and the rustic dining area The Paul Bunyon Room. Growing up, it was my favorite place to go out to eat … I could net my own live trout from a stream that flowed through the dinning room. My catch was whisked away to the kitchen and with amazing speed returned to me grilled on a plate. (I was always a little skeptical about how fast they did that—my dad made me clean a fish once.)

The Hoffman House was my favorite restaurant until I went to Ishnala. Granted, part of its attraction was the Dells itself. The place has always had a gaudy, sideshow aura that only a kid could love. The Hoffman brothers were blessed with a breathtaking location, a log lodge set on a cliff overlooking a lake as serene as its name. Live trees grow up through the floor and out the roof, each tagged with the name of one of the seven brothers. Décor is post-Davy Crocket with stuffed animal heads, cabin-style furnishings and lots of souvenir shop Indian artifacts. My friend Dick Wagner pointed out the tribe is always referenced as the Winnebago rather than the Ho-Chunk. But, Ishnala is all about nostalgia and not history.

Six years ago, I started coming here with a group of friends for the final night before the restaurant closed for the season. The original impetus was to celebrate Dick Wagner’s September birthday. Now, it’s become an annual ritual.
In most religions food is worshipped, shared, eaten or even tabooed. Likewise, food is at the heart of life’s celebrations. For me the trip to Ishnala is now an event, the official end of summer—not Labor Day. The menu (least of all the nightly special) changes little but never mind: I know I’m going to have prime rib. To do otherwise would be like Thanksgiving without Turkey. I know I will drink martinis (too many) and eat the Day-Glo yellow cheese spread that we make fun of as we ask for yet more and the pile of cellophane cracker wrappers stack up. I expect Ishnala to be the same every year. Any change is met with skepticism—like when they got rid of the bread basket and the curious cinnamon pinwheels.

I have a jaded pallet and when it comes to food I’m adventurous … have a need to always find something new. But my food rituals nourish another need, an emotional need: to strengthen my bond with friends.

I began the summer by writing ‘I’ve started out summer a little grumpy. The reason is I won’t be going to my beloved Provincetown this year.’ I end it feeling happier that I went to Ishnala.

More pictures from Ishnala are on my Facebook page:

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