Inside the Timeless World of the Wisconsin Supper Club

By
Photo: Ron Faiola

Anywhere there are people over the age of 60, you'll find older restaurants where fine dining means prime rib, a baked potato, and a good stiff cocktail. In most places, they're a vanishing breed but in Wisconsin, they're an art form. Supper club culture, barely changed since the Mad Men days, remains a vital part of the Wisconsin dining scene, an essential social center for distant communities and a place of connection between the generations. (New York chef Michael White, a Wisconsin native, will open a supper-club-themed restaurant in Manhattan next month.) Author-filmmaker Ron Faiola first explored the subculture in his 2011 documentary Wisconsin Supper Clubs: An Old-Fashioned Experience, which played on PBS stations nationwide; now he has a new book of the same name looking at 50 still-thriving supper clubs across the state. We spoke with him about the subject and put together a slideshow of the photos from his book to whet your appetite. Read the interview below, then check out the slideshow and get hungry.

There are plenty of family restaurants out there serving more or less this same kind of food. So what is it that makes a restaurant a bona fide supper club?
First of all, they're only open for supper. There are places that used to be supper clubs, but now, to compete with the chains, they open for lunch. But in my book I only included places that stick to supper. They open the bar about 3:30, and start serving dinner at 5, typically.

They're family-run, and oftentimes the family lives on the premises. You have generations of families who have run the restaurant. They keep kind of funny hours they may close in the winter, and there's one in Milton that's only open Thursday through Sunday. Which is the main thing about them: They're not cookie cutter. They're similar in terms of the food they serve, but they're always unique because of the family who runs them. There's a higher quality of service because of the fact that there are always family members on the premises. And when you come back to a place a few times, you get to be family, too.

Are there foods that identify a place as a supper club?
Sure. First off, there's a drink: the brandy old-fashioned sweet. Wisconsinites drink the most brandy of anybody in the country, usually in the form of a brandy old-fashioned sweet. Every place has their version of it.

Then there's either a relish tray or a salad bar. The point is to nibble on something healthy while you decide how big a cut of prime rib you're going to eat.

It's all food that you typically don't find on the home table, because it's too big or messy to make prime rib, lobster, big steaks, fried fish. There are regional variations; places near the Illinois border serve shrimp de jonghe, which is a classic Chicago dish. The Duck Inn serves a lot of duck, surprise. I had fried turtle in one by the Mississippi River [3 Mile House in Hazel Green]. They go out and catch big snapping turtles, the kind that can bite your hand off, in the Mississippi, and fry the meat.

How's it taste?
It tastes like dark turkey meat.

And there's the fish fry, which is not just a supper club thing you see them at places like Serb Hall in Milwaukee, and at VFW halls and Elks Clubs, and so on.
Well, that's how I got started on the supper club thing. I made an earlier film about fish fries, and there were supper clubs in it, and eventually I thought, I should make one about supper clubs, too.

You're right, you see them everywhere, but the supper clubs are the more upscale versions. At those others, you'll have pollock, or Icelandic cod if it's all you can eat, it's probably pollock. But the supper clubs will have perch from Lake Erie, or walleye or whitefish from Lake Superior. It's classed up a little bit.

So are supper clubs typically in tourist areas like Door County or the Dells, or do they just pop up anywhere?
A lot of them are out in the middle of nowhere they're in a place that you would never, ever stumble on them unless they were your destination. Good service, big portions that's the draw. You have a drink at the bar, you have dinner, you finish off with a drink like a grasshopper that's your evening.

It's also a lot of drinking. Has the change in attitudes about drinking and driving hurt the supper club business?
It's definitely affected them. I talked to one place that used to do 500 to 600 for a fish fry on Friday nights, now it's probably half that. They're still packed, but it's not as much of a late-night thing as it used to be, back in the sixties or seventies when they'd be open till midnight or one.

Now, for that reason, some of these places have motels attached, or they'll run a B, because people who come up from Chicago or somewhere don't want to drive in one night. Though some do I talked to a couple from Barrington who drive up to go to a supper club every weekend. Three hours up and three hours back but that's what they do.

It seems from your book that there's another requirement for a place to be a supper club: It has to have had a fire at some point.
Yes! That's the classic story of a supper club: They were going along, they had a devastating fire, and that forced the renovation or addition, putting up nicer signage and a more elaborate and upscale place. I think it's because they were older places, thrown up sort of haphazardly in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, and they're all wood, and chimneys get clogged and everybody's smoking ...

People say no one's building new supper clubs, which isn't true the Bartolotta restaurant group in Milwaukee just built two Joey Gerard's, which are sort of Hollywood versions of a supper club. But besides that, look at a place like Cimaroli's [in Portage], which had a fire as recently as 2005 and built a huge new place. That's a new supper club, isn't it?

Can't argue with that. So how did you get interested in supper clubs? Did you get dragged to them as a kid?
I didn't get dragged to them, I went happily! I grew up in Greendale [a Milwaukee suburb], so we used to go to the Rafters, which just closed a couple of years ago. And my grandpa would take me fishing, so we'd hit one at least once on the trip.

People look at them as something that belongs to an older generation, but I was talking to some young women at one recently, who grew up in a remote area, and for them it was the only thing there was. Everybody went there.

So are supper clubs adapting to a changing era? Because we think if somebody opened one in Chicago right now, it'd definitely have a raw bar, for one thing.
No, there's no molecular gastronomy in supper clubs, or deconstructing salad. The main thing is that they're going into social media they use Facebook to try to attract a younger crowd.

But you know, once people go into a place, and they see the old menus on the wall going back to the twenties and laugh at lobster being, you know, a dollar or something, they don't really want a supper club to change. As Mike from the HobNob says, once they come in and see this place, we've got them.

Ron Faiola will be signing books at the HobNob near Racine on April 25, and is in the process of setting up a signing at L. Woods in Lincolnwood; he'll also be on WGN Radio on April 27. (You can keep track of Ron and the book at his Facebook page.) In the meantime, we asked him for suggestions of supper clubs which would be doable in a single night for Chicagoans. His suggestions:

• The HobNob, Racine: "This is the exotic place, and the food's a little closer to Chicago food."
• The Jackson Grill, Milwaukee: "Like a fifties living room, laid-back, friendly; a small place, so reservations are recommended."
• Diamond Jim's Stoneridge Inn, Hales Corners: "This is a classic supper club with entertainment, not quite in the country as Milwaukee sprawls, but it used to be."
• The Duck Inn, Delavan: "They serve a lot of duck, and they have a big bar."