This is a blissful supper club scene in the upper Midwest: I’m sitting with my beloved and a couple of cocktails, on a crowded deck overlooking a North Woods lake fringed with trees. At a neighboring table, a fivesome whoops while playing cards. The breeze bears the commingled scents of roast beef and fried onions.
Awaiting our summons to the dining room, we nibble on fried cheese curds and duck “tenders,” studying a menu of affordable, unpretentious fare: meat, poultry and fish, including a Friday fish fry and Saturday prime-rib special. It’s suited to relaxing with friends and loosening belts, for taking a breather from more adventuresome eating. There are no foreign phrases to decipher, nothing with foam except beer in a glass.
“It’s meat and potatoes, it’s not trendy-type foods where you get foo-foo things. … You’re gonna get your steaks and prime rib and seafood,” a guy quips in “Wisconsin Supper Clubs: An Old Fashioned Experience,” filmmaker Ron Faiola’s 2011 tribute to what he feared was a disappearing restaurant subculture.
It seems very much alive from my perch at the bustling Maiden Lake Supper Club, near the town of Lakewood in northeastern Wisconsin. It takes well over an hour on a July Friday before we’re led through the wood-paneled dining room to a corner table set with a relish tray, a supper club staple. After some radishes, crinkle-cut carrots, cheese spread and liver paste, I’ve barely got room for walleye, potato pancakes and coleslaw. That’s what doggie bags are for. Besides, as Faiola reminds me in a phone interview, excess is part of the experience.
Faiola, who lives in a Milwaukee suburb, saluted Maiden Lake in a follow-up book of the same name as his film. It was published this spring, about the same time that Dave Hoekstra, a Chicago Sun-Times reporter, came out with “The Supper Club Book: A Celebration of a Midwest Tradition.”
Faiola’s book provides vignettes and lush photographs of 50 supper clubs. Hoekstra’s offers 24 charming character studies, also with photos, and a foreward by Garrison Keillor. Together, the tomes represent the range of mostly rural establishments dotting northern Illinois, eastern Iowa, Michigan and Minnesota and concentrating in Wisconsin. There, in my home state, supper clubs are as much a part of the cultural landscape as Holstein herds and Packers green and gold. “A supper club is to Wisconsin what a roadhouse is to Texas,” Hoekstra writes.
But they’re not well known beyond the region, in part because they’re usually family run, with little marketing except word of mouth and a sign out front. The National Restaurant Association, a trade group based in Washington, D.C., responded to a reporter’s query for national perspective by providing information on dining clubs – the social groups that organize dinners or arrange restaurant visits.
In the 1930s, supper clubs emerged along the old Lincoln Highway in Illinois and Iowa and in the North Woods of Minnesota and Wisconsin, Hoekstra writes.
Often set beside a lake or nestled among rolling hills, they drew locals, tourists and sometimes-sketchy visitors. “Many Wisconsin supper clubs claim fame as Prohibition roadhouses where gangsters stopped while traveling the state transporting Canadian-label contraband,” a state tourism website writes. “After Prohibition was repealed in 1933, liquor licenses were first granted to establishments outside city limits that served food, thus giving birth to the supper club. A supper club in the olden days meant linen table service, liquors, entertainment and dancing — a destination for a night out.”
Despite the name, supper clubs never had members, much less membership requirements. “They were like the poor man’s country club,” says Joe Bartolotta, a Milwaukee-area restaurateur and student of the genre. “It’s where people went on Fridays and Saturdays. They had supper and went back to the bar and it became their club.”
Supper clubs had their heyday in the 1950s and ’60s, as American incomes and leisure time increased. They began fading into the hospitality background as Interstate highways rerouted traffic and restaurant chains advanced, though hundreds remain.
Evidence of resurgent interest goes beyond the books, Faiola’s film and a spate of stories in national press. New incarnations of the supper club have opened within the last decade, honoring fish-fry and prime-rib traditions but throwing in some updates.
In Madison, Wis., the Old Fashioned (circa 2005) champions locally sourced foods such as cheeses and grilled rainbow trout, along with its signature hand-muddled drink. In Minneapolis, the Red Stag (2007) serves what its website calls “contemporized supper club fare” – including organic chicken breast and fried organic cheese curds with smoked tomato ketchup — from a LEED-certified building. Near the west-central Minnesota community of Clitherall, in the shadow of Inspiration Peak, The Peak sometimes serves Jamaican jerk pasta, a nod to Jamaican-born chef/owner Dwayne Codner. He and wife Lori Stich bought the place in 2006 from her relatives, who’d had it since the late 1970s. Hoekstra’s book highlights all three restaurants.
Late last year, the Bartolotta Restaurants group opened two supper clubs, both called Joey Gerard’s, in the Milwaukee suburbs of Mequon and Greendale. “I liked the idea of a nostalgia throwback,” Bartolotta says, adding he drew on childhood recollections of visiting supper clubs with his parents, “eating from relish trays and stuffing olives on my fingers.”
The concept migrated to New York’s Tribeca neighborhood with the June opening of the Butterfly Cocktail Bar & Supper Club. Michelin-starred chef and co-owner Michael White, a Wisconsin native, includes a spinach and artichoke dip, buttermilk chicken — and re-imagined comfort food such as reuben croquettes and a dry-aged beef patty melt on caraway rye.
Long-lived establishments continue to serve the standards but freshen up the options or otherwise set themselves apart.
At Maiden Lake, which dates to the 1950s, owners M.J. (Michael Jon) and Trina Dinkelman took over the business from his parents in 2003 (they’d run it since 1978), introducing items such as tempura chicken skewer, lamb tenderloin and blood-orange scallops. At 3 Mile House in Hazel Green, Wis., owners Jeff and Julie Moor sometimes supplement their offerings with fried turtle. Both places figure in Faiola’s book.
There’s no clear-cut definition of a supper club, but the following are common characteristics:
● An emphasis on the evening meal. “By my definition, they should only be open for supper,” Faiola says. Especially in urban settings, some deviate by offering Sunday brunch, lunch or breakfast, “but that’s because they’re trying to compete with chains” or to amortize operating costs.
● Comfortable, often casual decor. Expect low lighting, paneling of dark wood or knotty pine, and taxidermy on the walls. A trophy fish hangs near the bar of the Buck-A-Neer in tiny Rozellville, Wis. So does a display of New York Giants memorabilia honoring former guard Rich Seubert, son of co-owners Ann and Tom Seubert. Even die-hard Packers fans understand.
Hoekstra says he awards extra points for linen napkins and “for cool neon out in the middle of the country.” Faiola makes another key observation: “There’s no TV in the dining room – the entertainment is the people.”
● A limited menu with affordable prices. Supper clubs traditionally offer a Friday-night fish fry and a Saturday prime-rib special, with limited menus boasting lake fish, shellfish, surf and turf, poultry and plenty of beef. Diners often will find a relish tray at the table, with carrots, radishes, cheese spread and maybe a braunschweiger spread to top individually packaged crackers. Otherwise, there’s a salad bar crowded with greens, raw vegetables, the ubiquitous crock full of cheese spread, plus gherkins and at least one kind of pickled herring – a nod to the many patrons of northern European descent.
● A classic cocktail or a beer. The preferred mixed drink is the brandy old-fashioned, which no doubt explains why Wisconsin leads other states in per-capita brandy consumption. The usual garnish is a maraschino cherry speared with an orange slice, but “some have marinated mushrooms or blue cheese-stuffed olives,” Faiola observes.
“I never had an old-fashioned until I did this book,” Hoekstra admits. For research purposes, he felt compelled to sample at least one at every supper club he visited.
An alternative for beer drinkers bent on nostalgia: Supper Club, a lager from Capital Brewery of Middleton, Wis. It rolled out in 2008, devised by then-brewmaster Kirby Nelson. Now with the fledgling Wisconsin Brewing Co., Nelson says Supper Club – tasting more of malt than hops — embodies a philosophy of kindly, convivial acceptance.
Its packaging touts the beer as “not bad,” a phrase familiar to the supper club crowd. “If a customer says ‘not bad,’ that means they liked it,” Nelson explains. “If they say ‘it’s fine,’ that’s a four-letter word. That means they’re not coming back.”
At the Buckhorn Supper Club, on the shore of Lake Koshkonong in southeastern Wisconsin, owner Chico Pope serves roast duck with a cherry sauce showcasing fruit from the state's Door County peninsula. We've adapted his recipe, using frozen cherries -- alas, from the supermarket. Serve warm over slices of roast duck.
- 2 cups plus 2 tablespoons water (divided)*
- 1 cup sugar
- 2 tablespoons cornstarch
- 1 pound (16 ounces) cherries, pits removed
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- 2 tablespoons butter, optional
In a large saucepan, heat 2 cups of the water over medium heat. Stir in the sugar.
In a small bowl, combine the cornstarch and remaining 2 tablespoons of water. Stir until smooth, then stir into cooking liquid until smooth. Bring to a boil; reduce heat to simmer and stir in the cherries. Cook, stirring occasionally, until cherries are tender and heated through.
*You can substitute up to 1 cup of chicken or vegetable stock for part of the water.
A supper club meal often starts with cheese spread, either as part of a relish tray or from the salad bar. Dave Hoekstra, author of “The Supper Club Book: A Celebration of a Midwest Tradition,” fell for one at the Moracco in Dubuque, Iowa. He coaxed a simple recipe from owners Jeanne and Garry Heiar. Jeanne’s mom, the late Hazel Hillary, had run the Moracco since 1966. The restaurant serves the basic spread; you can increase the mystery with prepared mustard, fresh or dried herbs, spices, dried cranberries or nuts.
- 1 container (16 ounces) sharp cheddar cheese spread
- 4 ounces cream cheese
- 8 ounces sour cream
Blend all ingredients together in a large mixing bowl. Beat until smooth. Chill and enjoy.