Wisconsin Supper Clubs

For more than eight decades, the supper club has come to mean many things. Originating in the roadhouses, taverns, and dance halls across the country, the supper club functioned as a hub for people to gather for an evening’s entertainment. However, since World War II, the club has come to represent a distinctly Midwestern style of gracious, family-style dining. Some feel that the tradition is fading away. But that’s not true. At least not in Wisconsin. In his new book, Wisconsin Supper Clubs: An Old-Fashioned Experience, writer and filmmaker Ron Faiola traces the history of the supper club and how they evolved to dining destinations without membership requirements of a private club. And he guides readers to more than 50 clubs scattered around the state—some decades old, others more contemporary interpretations of the tradition.

I had the opportunity to speak with the author about how supper club dining is experiencing a resurgence as people seek out more authentic, regional and cultural dining experiences. You can hear him speak in person at the Laurel in New Richmond, Wis., on Wednesday, Sept. 25. He will also meet and greet guests at the Indianhead Supper Club in Balsam Lake, Wis., on Saturday, Sept. 21. Reservations are required at the Laurel, 715-246-5121, so guests are asked to secure a spot in advance.

How did you first get the idea to produce the documentary, and subsequent book Wisconsin Supper Clubs?

The idea for a documentary about supper clubs happened when I was working on my fish fry documentary in 2009 (Fish Fry Night Milwaukee). I was looking for a supper club fish fry for the film and realized that supper clubs would make a great documentary subject. Wisconsin Supper Clubs: An Old Fashioned Experience was released in April of 2011, licensed by both Milwaukee Public TV and Wisconsin Public TV and later to the national PBS distributor. The film got a lot of press and there was a great article by Rick Kogan in the Chicago Tribune in August of 2011. Doug Seibold of Agate Publishing saw the article and sent me an email suggesting a book about supper clubs and of course, I was all for it. By March, 2012 I was on the road visiting supper clubs again.

In your book’s introduction, you write about supper clubs’ long tradition. For those who might not know anything about them, can you briefly explain what they are? How did they get their start? Are they unique to the Midwest? A “club” sounds like a guest must be a member to dine.

Supper clubs are destinations for an evening. The dining experience isn’t rushed – you have drinks at the bar (and at many clubs you place your order there), then sit down for a nice meal featuring a relish tray or salad bar, fresh baked bread with cheese and crackers, entree selections that you wouldn’t normally find at home (lobster, prime rib, fish fry) and then a final after dinner ice cream drink. In the old days there would be some entertainment and while that isn’t the case too much any more, some places still feature live entertainment and even dancing.

Supper clubs started off in the late 18th and early 19th centuries as dance halls, road houses and resorts. They served basic bar food and gradually added fried perch, which was abundant from Lake Michigan and fried chicken. During prohibition many of the places, especially the ones on the outskirts of towns, still served drinks along with gambling and other vices. By the 1950s, lobster was available in the Midwestern states due to the increase of daily flights from the east coast. Taverns went upscale and became supper clubs, with linen napkins, fancy booth seating and elaborate bars.

As far as the term supper club, it began in New York City where going to a supper club involved formal wear, top-notch entertainment, champagne and lavish, expensive dinners. Basically a nightclub serving supper. I believe that term migrated here but took on a more humble nature in Wisconsin. It still is a special night out but no tuxedos are involved, a suit and tie would suffice. (Nowadays, there is no dress code any more.)

Why do you think supper clubs are so appealing to travelers in search of authentic experiences?

Their locations, decor, and the families and staff that run them is the appeal. You don’t get that at a chain restaurant. It’s also the friendly atmosphere where people talk to each other. I was at Rocky’s in Stoddard the other night and someone remarked, “You wouldn’t go to a chain and start talking to people, they’d think you’re crazy!” While I wouldn’t go that far, supper clubs do have the feeling of a community gathering place.

Of course your book highlights more than 50 clubs. For people planning a quick weekend getaway to Wisconsin who would like to visit a supper club or two, where would you recommend they travel?

I would suggest people travel to the northern part of the state where Oneida and Vilas counties meet. This is the heart of the Northwoods, and towns like Minocqua, Woodruff, Arbor Vitae, St. Germain, and Rhinelander are not only great tourist destinations but also feature so many unique supper clubs to choose from. In the southern part of the state, the Beloit/Janesville area in Rock County isn’t quite as touristy, but it does have several great supper clubs to visit. It all depends on what they are looking for. That’s why I divided the book into regions. That way if you were on a weekend trip on the northwest side of the state, you’d have your choice of nine places from the book.

In conducting your research for the film and book, did you learn something about either the region’s culture or cuisine that you didn’t expect?

I found subtle differences in food. For instance, shrimp de Jonghe is a dish that originated in Chicago and you’ll only find it at supper clubs in the southern part of the state – from Beloit to Racine. Beloit supper clubs serve sweet rolls with your bread basket. One place must have started it and the rest followed, but only in Beloit. Up north you have popovers, something you wouldn’t find in the eastern or southern part of the state. Finally, I had deep fried turtle fresh out of the Mississippi River at the 3 Mile House Supper Club in Hazel Green. It was very unique, somewhat intimidating, but very delicious.

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