Monday Author: Susanne Skinner
A visit to Wisconsin is not complete until you dine in a supper club. It’s an iconic and much-loved culinary tradition embedded in a by-gone era.
Clubs are well known to residents and a popular destination for visitors. The state is home to over 250 of these laid-back restaurants and most of them fly under the radar. Social media increases their visibility but they thrive on word of mouth and loyal patrons. Most supper clubs are in small towns; tucked away on scenic lakes and little-known roads.
Today’s supper clubs are enjoying a resurgence, offering upscale dining and regional menus. If your plans include a visit to Wisconsin (and I hope they do), add a few of these culinary traditions to your dining itinerary. You’ll be glad you did.
A Unique Beginning
Wisconsin supper clubs date back ninety years or more, beginning as roadhouses, dance halls and taverns. During prohibition many were speakeasies and some even included brothels and gambling.
Suppers clubs share common traits; boasting multi-generational owners who live on the premises, working as chefs, bartenders and waitstaff. These unique venues offer one-stop destination evenings with drinks, food and entertainment. Most require reservations and many do not accept credit cards.
By the 1940s the post-depression economy meant the country was enjoying a better standard of living. People could afford a night on the town and what better way to draw them in than an evening of drinking, dining and dancing. The original businesses reinvented themselves, becoming fashionable no-membership-required supper clubs. Rural locations meant easy access and minimal competition.
Today’s supper-club patrons begin and end their evenings at the bar, just as they did in the 50s and 60s. Guests enjoy a multi-course dinner, along with music and dancing in between their cocktails.
As the name implies, clubs only serve supper, a more informal term for the evening meal. Business hours are generally between 5:00 pm and 9:00 pm Wednesday through Sunday. Today a supper club offers diners a welcome break from chain restaurants, serving generous portions of fresh, locally sourced fare.
A Common Décor and Menu
Supper clubs are so much more than their food. The interiors have a retro swanky atmosphere—suggesting a 70s remodel of a 1950s décor. Maple tables with captain’s chairs are common dining room fixtures, accented with fabric tablecloths and napkins and oil-based candles for ambiance.
Food is made with ingredients obtained from local lakes and farms. The menu reflects the state’s agricultural history as well as the owner’s pride in serving simple and flavorful dishes. The main course is always the star of the show, offering hand-cut dry-aged steaks and generous portions of fresh walleye. Everything is homemade—nothing is ever frozen in a Wisconsin supper club.
The menu includes the iconic relish-tray appetizer, a nod to the farming industry and a commitment to local produce. The first-ever salad bar debuted at The Clover supper club, featuring an ice trough to keep relish-tray items from wilting.
In Wisconsin, the term supper club describes an informal place where friends meet regularly to enjoy an evening of food and entertainment. When you’re a regular it’s a long-standing invitation to sit down, relax and stay a while.
Supper Club Rules
Supper clubs enjoy traditions and rules that never vary. Visit more than a few on a regular basis and you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.
- Friday night is all -you-can-eat fish fry
- Saturday night is hand-cut prime rib and surf-and-turf
- The relish assortment comes on a metal tray accompanied by a breadbasket
- Christmas lights are up all year, decorating fireplaces, antlers and log sculptures
- The signature cocktail is a Manhattan or old fashioned made with brandy and 7Up
- Jell-O is a salad option
- Fish is fresh locally caught Walleye
- There is no cappuccino. Ever.
- Waitresses call you Hon
- After-dinner cocktail are an extra-large grasshopper or pink Cadillac
Venues often host live music, likely a trio, and all supper-club trios know how to play The Girl from Ipanema.
The Brandy Old Fashioned
The Old Fashioned is a classic cocktail, popular long before prohibition, made with whiskey, bitters and sugar. To Wisconsinites, it is a much-beloved supper-club standard and the unofficial state drink.
This delightful riff on the original is made with brandy, not whiskey, and topped with 7Up. The proper way to request one is to ask for a brandy old fashioned—sweet. They can also be made with sour mix, in which case it’s a brandy old fashioned—sour. It is a work of art that’s full of flavor and the bartenders never skimp on ingredients.
The Real Deal: Hand-Muddled Brandy Old Fashioned Sweet
1 maraschino cherry
1/2 slice of orange
1 sugar cube or 1 teaspoon of sugar
2-3 dashes of bitters (I prefer more)
2 ounces of Wisconsin brandy
Lots of ice
Using a 12-ounce tumbler, combine the cherry, orange, sugar and bitters. Muddle them together, add the ice and brandy, and top it off with 7Up. Garnish with an orange slice and maraschino cherries. Some bartenders level up their garnishes with stuffed green olives, marinated mushrooms or a wedge of pineapple.
And as we say here in the Badger State, Drink Wisconsinably.
Everything Old is New Again
Restaurant buildings aren’t much to look at from the outside. They are unremarkable in their design and names like The Antlers, Buck-A-Neer and Ullman’s Ding-A-Ling sound like they have no connection to upscale dining. Nothing is further from the truth.
Instead, the décor beckons you to step back in time and savor a one-of-a-kind Wisconsin dining experience.
Want to Know More?
In 2011, Wisconsin Public Television collaborated with author and film maker Ron Faiola to create a feature video celebrating supper clubs and the state of Wisconsin publishes a list of supper clubs by region.