Drive time:4.5 hours
La Crosse, Wisconsin, is like a mini-Madison, with less politics and more beer. So much beer, in fact, that the town’s unofficial patron saint is Gambrinus, the 15th-century “King of Beer,” though he wasn’t a saint. Or a patron, for that matter.
La Crosse (pop. 51,000) isn’t exactly a hidden gem, what with its famous brewing history (G. Heileman Brewing Company started here in 1858, in a building now occupied by City Brewery). But when I go north, I tend to hit Milwaukee, or Lake Geneva, or I pretend my kids are dragging me to Mt. Olympus Water Park in the Dells when I’m actually dragging them. But this time, I take a left at the Dells and keep going another 90 miles west to La Crosse, spurred by what I’d heard was a renaissance in its dining and drinking scene.
The town, once a fur trading post and hub for sawmills, is perched on the state’s western border, nestled between soaring bluffs and the Mississippi River. And, it turns out, its downtown boasts a concentration of eating and drinking options that would be the envy of a metropolis 10 times the size. My wife and I arrive on a Friday night in the middle of an ice storm piggybacking on an apocalyptic sleet blitz that leaves the sidewalks slushy and almost unpassable — yet the town’s main drag is still bustling.
We belly up to the long bar at Lovechild, a luscious Med-Italian spot in an 1892 building full of timber and mellow backlit mirrors. Food & Wine named it Wisconsin’s most romantic restaurant, all the more impressive when you learn that the previous occupant was a Hooter’s. And I can see why chef Jay Sparks got nominated for a James Beard Award: His caramelized onion crostini topped with maitake mushroom and unctuous Taleggio sauce make the perfect shareable nibble. My old-fashioned is comically sweet, but so is the bartender. And who can say no to the rosy-cheeked kid selling Girl Scout cookies from a table up front?
Armed with guilt boxes of Tagalongs and Thin Mints, we stumble about six blocks to the Freighthouse, a classic supper club in a sprawling old railroad warehouse. The restaurant takes no reservations, but we score a table so fast we don't even have time to study the bar’s impressive whiskey list, which includes options from Japan to Colorado. All the usual supper club trappings are on hand: wood-paneled walls, salad bar, hulking crab legs, grasshopper pie. I love the homey, back-slappy vibe but wonder if our waitress hopped a ghost freight out of town while we wait 45 minutes for a lukewarm prime rib and shriveled baked potato.
Next door is La Crosse Distilling Co., a brand-new geothermal-powered distillery, tasting room, and restaurant that sources all its organic ingredients from the region. It looks amazing. Too amazing: We have no hope of getting a seat, so we decide to bypass the crowds in favor of the Charmant Hotel, a luxury boutique inn a block away in a renovated candy factory. As my wife scrolls through her phone to list all the amenities we will not be partaking of — pillowed rooftop patio! 24-hour sweets bar with handmade chocolates! — we huddle in the lobby lounge with a pot of jasmine green tea and a slice of flourless chocolate cake, plotting our next move.
That move involves a nightcap at the Casino Bar. The neon-lit dive in the heart of action-packed Pearl Street used to be a speakeasy, and the curvaceous art moderne details may be a tad down at the heel — the split upholstery and chipped paint take “shabby chic” a little too literally. But the White Russian would pass muster with a Lebowski. And from our snug booth, we watch as two barhoppers, clad in tube tops and not much else, pull their coats over their heads so they won’t mess up their hair as they venture out into the subzero slush. Fashion is hard in Wisconsin.
We awaken the next morning to find our rental car transformed into a Hyundai-flavored icicle. So much for climbing Grandad Bluff, the 590-foot cliff that promises views as far as Minnesota and Iowa. Instead, we head to the Pearl Ice Cream Parlor, a picture-perfect soda fountain and confectionery so throwbacky you half expect a bow-tied soda jerk to break into “The Candy Man” behind the counter. But it is early and the place is empty. “Do people really eat ice cream in this weather?” my wife asks.
“People always eat ice cream,” a fresh-faced employee responds.
We can’t. A hunk of just-made praline fudge with a cup of coffee makes more sense, followed by a hearty breakfast at Hungry Peddler, a homey roadhouse where the waitresses know everyone’s name but ours. My wife has eggs and bacon and I have the prime rib hash, which I didn’t know was a thing, and we marvel at the kitschy decor: a stained glass ceiling, a railroad spike, and … Lord, is that tuba secure up there?
There is only one thing left on our wish list, and that is to see La Crosse’s most famous roadside attraction — what City Brewery claims is the world’s largest six-pack. The 54-foot-tall storage tanks, painted to look like giant cans of La Crosse Lager, are the subject of countless urban legends. The most famous is that University of Wisconsin students once tried to tap the “cans” using an ax and almost flooded Third Street. We just want a selfie with the statue across the street of a triumphant, glassy-eyed Gambrinus, conquering a keg and hoisting a chalice of ale. It’s not until we are back on I-90, skidding on the ice most of the way home, that we realize we spent a night in La Crosse without drinking a single beer. Please don’t tell Gambrinus.