â€‹photo courtesy of wiederholt’s
My Wisconsin in-laws call lunch dinner and dinner supper. I resisted this for many years. “Great dinner,” I might say—at supper—and they would all pause in their chewing and appear suddenly disoriented, as if someone had forgotten to wind their watch.
“Why does it bother you so much?” my wife asked, and I said, “Because this isn’t 1917. It’s like saying motor car or Yankee or cattywampus. Go into any restaurant. Snag the menu. See how they break down their meals.”
It was an obnoxiously peevish stance. As a West Coaster, I was railing back against something larger—the culture of a place that didn’t feel like home.
Then I went to my first supper club. And my wife pointed at the menu and said, “Welcome to the Midwest, honey.”
The restaurant was open for one meal a day, and they weren’t advertising it as dinner. But she was referring to something bigger than the regional lexicon. It was the food itself. The au gratin potatoes and the popovers. The fried walleye and fried chicken and fried frog legs. The ham steaks and breaded pork chops and—the granddaddy of them all—the prime rib.
It was as though I had been baptized in au jus. That meal made me a convert, and introduced me to an alternate world of fine dining. One that I now worship and crave. I always go to supper clubs on my birthday and Father’s Day. I regularly visit supper clubs when traveling in the rural Midwest. I have even dreamed about supper clubs, waking with the faint taste of horseradish in my mouth.
The Red Mill Supper Club. Jake’s Supper Club. Ranchero Supper Club. Fireside. Lakeside. I love the low lighting and pine-paneled walls decorated with lacquered fish and deer mounts. I love the career waitresses with cigarette-roughed voices who treat me like a cherished nephew. I love the farm families wearing their Sunday best. I love the grasshopper milkshakes and the syrupy Old Fashioneds brightened by crescent of orange, a blazing red maraschino cherry. And I especially love the relish trays.
Many believe that bourbon is bourbon only if it comes from Kentucky, and I feel similarly about the qualifying relationship between supper clubs and relish trays. Crowded with celery, radishes, and wide-mouthed black olives, the relish tray is a symbol of authenticity and down-home excellence.
If there is no relish tray, you might be dealing with an imposter, a restaurant fronting as a supper club in the way some urban hipsters wear hunter plaid shirts and Carhartt dungarees. The same can be said of a menu that advertises organic ingredients and neglects to include a proud historical summary of the establishment.
The supper club is a time capsule. Of classic, comforting food. Of decor that remains changeless through the decades. And of the generations of families who gather there. You’ll find few, if any, tables for two at a supper club. Look around and you’ll spot a three-year-old crayoning the kids’ menu and a great-grandfather whose hand shakes when he butters a roll—and everyone in between.
Wiederholt’s, near Cannon Falls—a short drive from where I live in Northfield—might be my favorite supper club in the Midwest. Naturally, they serve a mean relish tray. And the prime rib that slabs my plate might be the best thing I’ve ever put in my mouth. Every time the host warmly greets me and waves me toward the dining room, I can’t help but feel a strange nostalgia for a world that was never mine.