You can find them along the backroads and byways of Wisconsin, tucked into the woods or at a county highway crossroads. Some are simple, some are classy in that “wear a sweater” sort of way. They may be tacky or kitsch, or banquet hall big, or exclusively small. But they are a Wisconsin tradition, a part of the social fabric of small-town life or a grounded fine restaurant experience in the midst of bigger city pretensions and chains. I refer to the Supper Club.
Stop in at a liquor store to pick up some Wisconsin beer and you’ll even find supper club in a bottle. Wisconsin-based Capital Brewery’s Supper Club lager became one of its top sellers as soon as it came out and can be found in most bars and taverns around the state. The motto? The understated Middle American nod of satisfaction: “Not bad.” It got me thinking about the Wisconsin cultural/culinary phenomenon from which it gets its name.
Growing up in central Wisconsin, we didn’t eat lunch at noon and dinner in the evening. It was “dinner” at mid-day and, by gosh, “supper” just before the sun went down. The supper club meant getting uppity without being uppity. Fancy eating tempered by farm-country humility. It is small-town upscale, a high-quality meal without pretension, “Fine Dining” written in neon like a tavern sign — slow food before it was fashionable.
Check out Wisconsin travel writer Mary Bergin’s great Wisconsin Supper Club Cookbook!
Any irony that the first recorded supper club was in California is put off by the owner’s origin: Lawrence Frank, who opened the first supper club in the 1920s in Beverly Hills, was a Milwaukee native. Supper clubs put a cocktail lounge next to a dining room, brought in a theme and some entertainment, and voila! a trend took off. And then it died. But not in Badgerland. Here it has risen to the level of “institution.”
Supper clubs come in all shapes and sizes, but there are a few aspects that put them all in the same category in the yellow pages.
In small or rural communities the supper club fills a void, the role of a fancy night out, the place for prom dates, wedding parties, special occasions or just the answer to a hankering for a great steak. No one’s putting on airs, but they might put on a nice sweater and some slacks. The menu centers on properly aged steaks and seafood you wouldn’t expect anywhere else in town. A Friday-night fish fry is essential (or a fish boil in Door County). Many supper clubs have been through a couple generations of family ownership; all of them have survived on reputations for good food.
The general lack of taking reservations necessitated a cocktail lounge which opens an hour before the dining room. Diners arrive early for a drink or two and wait at the bar for their table. Even the kids get into it with a Shirley Temple. The iconic drink for the adults, however, is the brandy old-fashioned (sweet or sour) with an orange slice properly muddled.
The atmosphere is often modest; the serving sizes are not. Relish trays – a collection of beets, radishes, carrot and celery sticks, cheese spread and a few olives arranged on a Lazy Susan — often appear at the table automatically, and dinners are the “comes-with” variety, meaning choice of potato, a simple salad with housemade dressing, and/or soup. Back in the golden days the clubs featured dance floors. That element has disappeared in all but a few establishments that do wedding banquets.
Little Bohemia is famous as the supper club where John Dillinger once holed up.
Generally a supper club lies outside of town, along a country road or maybe at a highway intersection. In the beginning this had a lot to do with the fact that the first post-Prohibition liquor licenses went to restaurants outside city limits. It had the additional value of making the restaurant feel more like a destination even if it was only ten minutes down the road. One peculiar common element is they often have no windows. Maybe blocking those familiar surroundings adds to the illusion you’ve actually gone somewhere else.
There are also the occasional supper clubs located in the “big” city. Wisconsin’s larger population centers such as Milwaukee, Green Bay and Madison in many ways still carry that Main Street appeal. Madison has several supper clubs – Delaney’s, Toby’s, The Esquire and the oft-written up Smoky’s Club – but I went right up to the Capitol Square to find the unlikely Tornado Steak House tucked into a side-street in what could have just been another hole-in-the-wall tavern. Its neon signage – “Cocktails” and “Tornado Room” — is visible up the street.
But inside is a throwback to the supper club world. Semi-circular lounge booths face the bar in a dimly lit room. Piped in music, ranging from 1940s crooners to Henry Mancini and John Barry instrumentals, creates a time warp. After a drink in the lounge, I’m taken to my table in one of the separate dining rooms where I find more amber lighting, mounted steer horns, and a couple of prints of a cowboy and a brave riding bareback with his feathered headdress. Service is prompt, professional, and classy, and a decent wine list supplements the superbly concocted cocktails. Or you can just order a bottle of Supper Club beer. Would you like a glass with that? The tables show elegant white linens… with a pragmatic sheet of white butcher paper laid across.
The menu lists all the classics and puts gourmet touches to them: rack of lamb, pork tenderloin, duck breast, surf and turf, venison, rabbit, frog legs – supper clubs are never just a steak house. The relish tray came as a vegetable and olive display like a flower arrangement in a glass, and a small warm loaf of the day’s fresh bread and a slab of butter was a challenge to hold back on.
The hash browns on the side come recommended as do the scallops poached in white wine with heavy cream as an appetizer. I order the day’s housemade soup, corn bisque. After I stuff myself senseless on a Filet au Poivre, a 10-ounce cut of locally raised, grass-fed beef, encrusted with peppercorns and drizzled with a mushroom-cognac sauce, I have little room for dessert. Lawrence Frank was not only the father of supper clubs; he also coined the term “doggie bag.” Come in jeans or come nicely dressed, but definitely come hungry. Not bad at all, I’d say.
Where to Go:
Out in the Country:
Greenwood Supper Club
N9087 County Road A, Fish Creek, WI
This Door County classic specializes in prime rib and the fish fry brings Lake Michigan fish: fresh perch, whitefish or walleye. Originally a tavern in 1929, Greenwood has been owned by the same family for two generations. The interiors are a look into the past with local murals and custom-made tables and doors.
Little Bohemia Lodge
142 U.S. Route 51, Manitowish Waters, WI
Established in 1929, this supper club now ventures into breakfast and lunch but is best known for its notorious dinner guest John Dillinger, who famously escaped an FBI shootout back in April 1934. People still come for the bullet holes and stay for the broasted chicken. Dillinger’s menu selection was apparently the chicken and ribs. But don’t miss the potato pancakes.
Pinewood Supper Club
1208 Half Moon Lake Dr., Mosinee, WI
This Central Wisconsin charmer serves hand-cut steaks with a sunset view over Half Moon Lake. Soups, sauces and dressings are made on site. Need something quirky? The restaurant keeps fainting goats to um, recycle all organic waste and fertilize the flower beds.
Urban Supper Clubbing:
Five O’Clock Steakhouse
2416 W. State St., Milwaukee, WI
Getting national raves for its steaks, the setting still has supper club written all over it. Reservations are, however, necessary. Parking is monitored; a good thing as the neighborhood isn’t the best.
Tornado Steak House
116 S. Hamilton St., Madison, WI
Seriously, a very nice joint in downtown Madison. Great food and great old fashioneds.