In the unwritten rules of the campfire, there are two types of marshmallow roasters.
One side believes patience is key to get the right ratio of toasty outer shell to gooey inside. These are the purists. They wait, nestling their Jet Puffed ’mallows next to smoldering logs at the edge of the flames.
The other side goes straight for the fire.
Otherwise rational adults may be seized with a tiny moment of childlike glee upon spying the fire barrels and s’mores skewers at Camp Trippalindee, the reinvented restaurant on top of the Graduate Hotel between Langdon and State streets.
The Graduate’s previous restaurant, The Madison Blind, was bland. Camp Trippalindee is unquestioningly an improvement, with a fun concept, simpler but better food and the same great views of Lake Mendota.
While it’s close to campus, $7 burgers and $10 Manhattans are a clue that it’s not designed to be a college hangout. Rooms in the Graduate start at $143 before taxes and fees, and the new design carries over a theme reflected in Portage Pi, the coffee shop/ juice bar on the hotel’s main level.
“People that enjoy the space the most are Wisconsinities,” said chef Shanna Pacifico, a New York City restaurant veteran who took over the Graduate Madison kitchen in March 2017. “People come in and they’re very nostalgic ... like, ‘Oh my god, this looks like my grandmother’s cabin we used to go to back in the ‘80s!’”
With its “up nort’ at the lake” look, gently-used board games and summery menu, Trippalindee has effectively landed the 360-degree flip dive it was named for. (“Triple Lindy,” as other reviewers have noted, is a reference to the Rodney Dangerfield comedy “Back to School.”)
The Blind’s transformation happened over a few weeks last summer. On an August day, designers from hotel owner AJ Capital in Chicago pulled up in a U-Haul full of vintage prizes that looked straight from a Minocqua garage sale.
There’s an impressive commitment to theme, starting with pegboards in the lobby hung with badminton racquets and old buoys. In one corner, a lamp in the shape of a male Mallard flaps its wings beneath a hook rug of a majestic 9-point buck. Homey printed curtains set off booths covered in lumberjack plaid and the kind of brown wood paneling found in most Midwestern basements.
Some of the memorabilia was originally intended to be used. Old thermoses, purchased for use around the fire with hot cocoa ($3.50) and warm, boozy cider ($8), turned out to be “too vintage” to serve out of, Pacifico said. They ended up on windowsills.
To call Pacifico’s menu inspired by summer camp would give too much credit to camp food and not enough to Pacifico.
The cheeseburger ($7 single, $9 double) rang every Big Mac bell but better, with a smashed patty and mayo-based “special sauce.” Fantastic barbecue chicken wings ($10) with a balance of sweet and heat came from big, meaty birds.
Crispy chicken and bacon on a bun ($9), billed as “spicy,” wasn’t, the kick from jalapeño and kimchi notably absent each time we ordered it. But change the name and all would be well, as it was otherwise a good, diner-style sandwich.
Similarly, tender sweet potato “fries” ($5) were more roasted wedge than actual fry. But they were good too. With a hint of spice and citrus and smoked chili mayo, they easily edged out a bag of standard crinkle cut fries ($5) that recalled grocery store freezer-to-oven fries. (Those are fine, just not compared to the double-fried restaurant version.)
Trippalindee has to represent to the tourists, and thus does right by barely-breaded cheese curds with ranch ($9). With a wink at SpaghettiOs, ($9), tomato-sauced ditalini and meatballs served in a corrugated can looked like dinner with the babysitter but tasted like a night at an Italian place with Chianti bottle candles.
Only a few dishes needed a tweak or two. “Take A Hike” blue corn nachos ($7) nodded toward a walking taco but the ratios and layering didn’t work, with too many big, dry chips. A grain bowl with grilled mushrooms and guacamole ($13) had a decent zip of acidity but was otherwise pretty blah.
In a few years, there will be at least 17 Graduate hotels around the country. Each restaurant has a theme to match its city: a supper club-style cocktail lounge (Ann Arbor), a Southern meat-and-three (Athens, Georgia), a high end gastropub (Minneapolis).
Madison got hunting dogs painted on velvet, vintage metal camp chairs and a respectable cocktail program (on, Wisconsin!). Trippalindee barrel ages a smooth, strong Negroni ($9) and a well-balanced Manhattan ($9), the older brother to an excellent “Mad-Hattan” with sherry and Aperol ($10). Spice from jalapeño switched up Kurt Vonnegut’s Margarita ($8) and housemade syrup made the bourbon Old Fashioned ($10) just sweet enough.
Beer and wine are both served by the can here, with a few local, seasonal taps from Capital and Karben4, among others. For those really feeling the camping vibe, the bar squeezes tiki cocktails into Capri Sun-style pouches. Curly straws skewer plastic bags full of tart, rum-based Sconnie Juice ($7) and extra sweet Bug Juice ($7), the latter glowing lime green like an Ecto Cooler.
It’s fun, even though the plastic feels wasteful. Sandwiches, fries and nachos come in disposable clamshells and bags, luckily all the biodegradable type.
Dozens of games top the tables. On one recent visit, a little girl had taken over a Battleship board to make patterns with pegs. Diners can get a game of sheepshead going with a caddy of poker chips or see if Apples to Apples holds up in a Cards Against Humanity world (it does, sort of).
Camp Trippalindee reminded me that, though I’ve played from the classic navy box Trivial Pursuit my entire life, I still don’t know what the capital of Yugoslavia was in 1982.
The firepits were pretty open on recent April nights, but if the weather holds, Trippalindee’s s’mores stations will soon be mobbed. The kits ($4) are assembled curiously: five marshmallows, three half-graham crackers and one full-size Hershey’s chocolate bar do not an even number of s’mores make.
Grahams go stale fast, but maybe during the summer the bar could invest in full boxes of Honey Maid? Also, these are gas fires, so only the “torch it immediately” crowd will be pleased with the toasting technique.
Still, though. S’mores.
Despite its parentage, Camp Trippalindee manages to feel more kitschy than corporate, with an honest to goodness Midwestern identity. It’s friendly, ya know? Come by one time.