The Historic Trempealeau Hotel, in Trempealeau, Wis. is the kind of place you dream about after two weeks of -20 temperatures and gray skies, mid-January or so, in Wisconsin. While huddled in your living room under blankets, you dream of a lazy, sunny, 90-degree day. You dream of a light breeze and a cool, spicy, bloody mary with a chaser. You dream of their famous Walnut Burger, a mixture of nuts, cheese and sage that is utterly cravable, topped with fresh sprouts and garden-fresh tomatoes. You dream of sitting on the whitewashed adirondack chairs, which grace an open porch overlooking the rolling Mississippi, counting the barges as they float by, counting the cars on the trains that shake the shore, admiring the bluffs and marveling at everything and nothing in particular.
This is the Trempealeau Hotel of my memories. Rollerbag Mister and I have been there so many times, the staff used to recognize us. When out-of-towners come here to play, we wait for the next sunny day and make the scenic 20-minute drive from La Crosse.
In the old days, the aged front screen door would bang you in the back of the calves. The worn look of the place was part of its charm. It was relaxed. It was nothing fancy. You’d get a friendly greeting, you’d be able to sit on the porch and order food, maybe bring your dog if you wanted to. You could spend the day doing nothing fancy in a place that offered a perfect balance of excellent service, value and a relaxed atmosphere.
We’ve stayed in their European-style rooms, too. Back then, they had questionable security: a drunken man was able to break into my room one night, thinking it was his, and I awoke to find him standing over my bed (I couldn’t hear him breaking in, as I was wearing earplugs to sleep through the train racket.) In spite of that rattling incident, I still felt at home at the Trempealeau Hotel. And I must confess, I don’t know if security there has changed under the new ownership.
Sadly, something has changed. Under new ownership, the Trempealeau Hotel has lost something of its shabby charm. The service is a bit too brusque and too crisp. Patrons can no longer have food brought out to them on the porch, but can order appetizers and check back to pick them up for themselves…creating barriers to both relaxation and parting with your money. The food quality in recent visits has been unpredictable. The lunch menu, now scaled back to a shadow of its former self, focuses on sandwiches and burgers, has higher prices, and sides have to be ordered separately. On a recent lunch, two friends who ordered the Walnut Burgers found them with the wrong toppings and seriously burnt. Gone were the simple side of tortilla chips and fresh salsa–such an inexpensive way to round out a meal, and such an obvious way to price gouge. On another visit, the Walnut Balls appetizer arrived undercooked, which yields a soggy mess which is somehow still delicious. Keep in mind, for many people, these dishes are the reason they keep coming back, year after year. Whether under the past kitchen staff or new kitchen staff, restaurant staples need to be nailed, time after time. A customer should not be able to buy the item you distribute to stores and cook it better at home than you do in the restaurant, or they have no reason to return to your restaurant.
I sincerely hope the Hotel finds its way again. I hope it returns to place of sincerely generous service and kindness. I hope they reinstate food and beverage service to the porch, so visitors can truly relax, rather than feeling like an inconvenience or afterthought. And part of me hopes they bring that old screen door back, the one whose sound has echoed in my mind so many long winters when I imagined myself stepping inside the Trempealeau Hotel, returning to the simple pleasures of nothing fancy.
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Charish Badzinski is an explorer, food-lover and award-winning travel and food writer. When she isn’t working to build her blog: Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World, she applies her worldview to her small business, providing strategic communications, media relations and writing support to individuals and organizations.