Far from being an exclusive indulgence afforded only to members, a night out at a supper club is within the grasp of most every working stiff in the Midwest.
Two writers serve up the dish on supper clubs in new books out this spring. Ron Faiola, a Milwaukee filmmaker who has produced a documentary about the phenomenon, offers “Wisconsin Supper Clubs: An Old-Fashioned Experience” (Agate Midway, $25). Faiola’s book goes behind the scenes at 50 Dairy State restaurants, offering photos, stories, and his take on each of the clubs.
“The Supper Club Book: A Celebration of a Midwest Tradition” (Chicago Review Press, $30, available June 1), is written by Chicago Sun-Times reporter Dave Hoekstra, and features a foreword by Garrison Keillor. Hoekstra visits clubs scattered throughout Wisconsin, also moving beyond our borders to include clubs in Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and Michigan.
As any native Midwesterner knows, membership is not required to enjoy an oversized meal served by a waitress who’ll most likely call you “Hon.” According to Faiola, the name “supper club” might just be a little fancier way of saying “tavern.”
“A lot of supper clubs started off as dance halls at the turn of the century,” Faiola said. “They’d serve fried perch or chicken because it was abundant, and farmers could kick up their heels on the weekend and enjoy a nice meal they wouldn’t normally get at home.”
A supper club was a destination, a gathering place where traditions were born.
“Many people I talked to for the book, they would go at 4 or 5, get seated, nibble on the relish tray, order dinner, stay for entertainment, go back to the lounge and have more cocktails,” Hoekstra said. “It was a night out, from 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. People don’t linger like that anymore.”
Don’t they? While many supper clubs in Wisconsin date back to the 1950s, and ’60s, a retro movement at places like the Old Fashioned on the Capitol Square would indicate that the supper club ethos is alive, well, battered and deep-fried.
The Old Fashioned, featured in Hoekstra’s book, underwent an expansion in 2012, yet diners can expect an hours-long wait for a traditional Friday nigh fish fry.
In addition to the Old Fashioned, Hoekstra tells the stories of Kavanaugh’s Esquire Club on the North Side and Smoky’s Club on University Avenue. Smoky’s is also featured in Faiola’s book, along with the Tornado Steak House in Downtown Madison. Faiola’s criteria for inclusion in the book was a bit more stringent than Hoekstra’s; Faiola only wrote about those joints that eschewed the lunch crowd.
“It really had to be a supper club, opening after 4 p.m.,” Faiola said, although he did make one concession.
“Sunday brunch was OK.”
What else makes for a traditional supper club? For starters, a dark setting is preferred. Naugahyde furniture is strongly encouraged. A stunning lake view doesn’t hurt, either. As Hoekstra points out, an organic feel, with linear architecture, is often a characteristic of a fine-dining establishment. (Not always, as the utterly unassuming Kavanaugh’s Esquire Club on North Sherman Avenue would attest. It’s square-box exterior is a far cry from the space-age design of the erstwhile Gobbler Motel & Supper Club in Johnson Creek.)
As far as food goes, a supper club must have a Friday night fish fry and serve prime rib on Saturday. And the bartender must know how to make a mean old-fashioned. Faiola sampled one at each of his 50 featured clubs, and provides a recipe in his book.
Lest we forget the opening act. Any supper club worth its salt will present diners with a relish tray with a combination of carrots, radishes, celery, olives, pickles, green onions, etc. The traditional tray brings the salad bar to the diner.
“It’s a way of nibbling on something healthy while trying to figure out whether you want to order the king cut of prime rib or the extra buttery lobster,” Faiola said. “It keeps you honest, right?”
At its heart, the supper club phenomenon is about much more than food.
“Each place I wrote about just has a really good story, whether it’s the guy from Jamaica who came up to become a chef at The Peak Supper Club in rural Minnesota, or the blind dishwasher at Smoky’s who’s been on staff for 30 years,” Hoekstra said.
Supper clubs are about community, family, and a sense of place. They conjure a nostalgia for the days of old, before low-brow fast-food and high-brow foodies.
As Hoekstra writes in the introduction to his book, supper clubs “are the fork in the road between yesterday and today.”