Postcards are snapshot of Hoffman House history

Dan Curd recounts the history of a special family
Postcards are snapshot of Hoffman House history
Hoffman House Postcards

Fred Hoffman opened one of Madison’s first self-service groceries but it failed during the Depression. What followed was World War II and eight of his nine sons–all but the youngest, Tom–joining the fight. His son Sylvester, better known as Bud, died in combat. The seven returning brothers–Fran, Bob, Cy, Jerry, Chuck, Cos and Walt–were determined to keep the family together and honor their father’s name. Together they launched the Hoffman House, an upscale, modern supper club at 514 E. Wilson Street (the site of the Essen Haus today). This was but the beginning for brothers who dreamed big.

By 1949, the restaurant’s sauces and salad dressings were so popular locally that the Hoffmans began bottling them. Dean Foods bought this operation in 1965 and Bay Valley Foods still markets its tartar and cocktail sauces today.

In 1952, the downtown building underwent a major renovation, adding a new Paul Bunyan-themed dining room set off with knotty pine walls and murals of the legendary lumberjack. Another whimsical addition was the candy-striped Gay ’90s lounge. Waitresses wore costumes and bartenders red jackets and they all knew my dad liked a pickled onion in his cocktail.

This is the Hoffman House I remember and love. It’s where my parents often took out-of-town guests and I insisted I celebrate my birthday. I always had the grilled trout. Given a net, I would snare one of the live fish swimming in a stream that flowed through the Paul Bunyan Room. (Even then I was suspicious at how quickly my catch returned, ready to eat.) While most boys my age collected baseball trading cards, I hoarded menus and the one from here was special.

In 1953, a bucolic summer home in Lake Delton became a beautiful supper club named Ishnala, a seasonal outpost for the original Madison enterprise. A second Hoffman House in Rockford, Illinois, followed in 1958. By the mid-60s, the Wilson Street location had closed, replaced by a dinner theatre, and new Hoffman Houses were constructed on our city’s east and west sides. The brand would eventually grow to include 11 outlets in Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan, mostly connected to motels just off the freeway. Food processor Green Giant bought the chain in 1976.

As the Hoffman House grew ever larger, it became so much smaller for me. Gone was the old place on Wilson Street that possessed so much magic for me growing up. All that truly remains is Ishnala, to this day miraculously unchanged, perched on its sylvan pedestal high above aptly named Mirror Lake, filled with rustic and venerable things.

Every year I ritually return to sit at the horseshoe-shaped bar and sip a satin-smooth martini. The long-departed nine brothers stare down at me from their fading hand-tinted photographs. As the sun sets into the lake, I once again gaze out the window as twilight embraces night. The divine view gradually morphs into my own reflection. Or is it a ghost, returned to remind me that nothing lasts forever?

The only vestiges that remain today of the once mighty Hoffman House domain are three independently owned restaurants:

Hoffman House Rockford
550 E. State St., Rockford, Illinois

S2011 Ishnala Rd., Lake Delton
Under the same management as the Hoffman House Rockford

Hoffman House Wausau
2901 Hummingbird Rd., Wausau