Greg Peck: Remembering the Hoffman House Restaurant
Janesville's Hoffman House Restaurant was in the Ramada Inn Motor Hotel, and they had their grand opening Dec. 12, 1971, complete with tours of the complex, near the intersection of Interstate 90 and Highway 26. According to Gazette archives, owners were Wesley Erskine, Norman Weitzel, Thomas Wolohan, Walter Schilberg and the Hoffman brothers of Madison.
This was the seventh Hoffman House restaurant. Others were in Rockford, Illinois, and in Wausau, Wisconsin Dells and three in Madison.
Rosemary Ann Interiors (Francis V. Hoffman) created the restaurant's design. “The foyer is like entering an Old World village,” she said in a news release. “It could be a street of shops in England, Germany, Switzerland—or other European countries. And we used names that did not specify one particular country—such as the Hearthside Dining Room, the Village Inn, the Village Square and the Andiron Room. We designed the thick burgundy red carpet to resemble bricks, with gray caulking.”
Each side of the foyer leading into dining and banquet rooms were glass storefronts to give the effect of a village street. One featured miniature handcrafted aluminum steamships, trains and musical instruments, all with working parts. Other shop windows displayed antiques, floral arrangements, fine china, paintings, pewter mugs and candlesticks. Plans called for changing displays periodically. Stained glass windows above the glass storefronts resembled little apartments, in European fashion, with slate roofs. Office doors resembled entrances to shops.
I'm not sure when the original owners sold the business, but a story in our file from 1981 said a DeForest group led by President Richard Seal planned to buy Janesville's and six other Hoffman House restaurants and the Henrici chain from the Pillsbury Corp. of Minneapolis. Virgil White was then manager trainee at Janesville's restaurant. The story also said Pillsbury had acquired the two restaurant chains when it bought Green Giant in the 1970s.
A 1984 Gazette story told how Larry Bozart, the then 29-year-old head chef at Janesville's Hoffman House, “derives as much pleasure preparing 'melt-in-the-mouth' dishes for his customers as he does carving icy adornments for banquet tables.”
He would start work with an electric chain saw on 200-pound ice blocks, which stood 4 feet high and were 12 inches thick. Within an hour, he could create a dolphin, swan, shrimp boat, bunny, heart and even a golfer.
A 1992 restaurant review by Norm Starks suggested, “If you want to impress your date with something to eat, try the Hoffman House in Janesville.”
A Gazette story suggested the Ramada Inn closed Oct. 31, 2006, and with it went the Hoffman House. They were razed to make way for the new Menards development. I remember that in September 2006, what was then the Wisconsin Regional Writers' Association—forerunner to today's Wisconsin Writers Association—was the last group that had a banquet at the Hoffman House. The late Wisconsin author Ben Logan was keynote speaker. I was there to hear his talk.
Next week, I'll reflect on a remarkable restaurant that never made it past the planning stage.