We can debate whether or not spring is here all we want, but one thing is for certain, Wisconsin is thawing. So as we retire our down coats, knit hats, and comfy blankets, we find ourselves needing to be comforted in another way. Thoughts of the summer sun and time at the lake is a good start, but the real answer to fill that comfort void is food, but not just any food. This is Wisconsin, we are the home of the world’s best cheese, Bob Uecker’s favorite sausages (Usinger’s), and Supper Clubs [suhp-er] [kluhb].
If you haven’t lived in Wisconsin, you probably have no idea what a supper club is. So let me tell you, a supper club is… to be honest, I don’t even know. They are just one of those things you can’t explain, even if you describe the deer head on the wall, the magnificent prime rib, and the cocktails that are all served to you by Sharon, who’s worked their since 1977. To understand it and really appreciate a thing of beauty, you have to experience it first hand. So for one night turn off your stove and head to a small town near you… It’s time to order a Korbel Old Fashioned, Sweet and settle in to a relaxing evening filled with good food, great company, and laughs. After all, in Wisconsin, you’re among friends.
I like to think I could dive in and tell you about which supper clubs are a must to visit, but in my 26 years of living, all I know is that they are something I love, and are special to what makes Wisconsin, Wisconsin. To help fill you in better, I am going to leave that to expert Mary Bergin. Below is an excerpt from her May/June 2012 Wisconsin Trials article “Wisconsin's supper club culture: Hearty meals and nostalgic ambiance make for a classic Wisconsin dining experience”
Mike Aletto was quick to frame and hang a two-page pinup a few years ago, but the photo’s sleek allure had nothing to do with scantily clad models. Splashed across pages 324 and 325 of the 2011 Harley–Davidson Motor Co. parts catalog was a shot of two gleaming motorcycles sitting pretty in front of the HobNob Supper Club.
For more than 20 years, Aletto and his wife Anne Glowacki have owned the supper club, which opened in 1954 on Highway 32 between Racine and Kenosha. For him, the photo is an endorsement by the motorcycle icon to hungry road-trippers, whom he welcomes at his linen-clad tables with hearty meals.
“There are fewer and fewer places like us left,” Aletto said, of the HobNob. “We’re about novelty as well as nostalgia.”
The HobNob hits many of the prerequisites we assign to supper clubs in Wisconsin: Only open for supper, the biggest of appetites are satiated (entree choices here include a 24-ounce New York strip), the restaurant’s locale along the Lake Michigan shore was once rural, and a looming neon sign illuminates an enormous, tilted martini glass painted on the side of the building.
“People expect the same thing every time they come in, and they pretty much get it,” Aletto said. One exception: Couples long ago danced to Big Band music on the HobNob’s rooftop, until wily lakeside weather seemed like more of a liability than an asset.
Feeding the spirit
The debate over which establishments may claim the name “supper club” are apt to turn heated. We can romanticize standard supper club fare and wax lovingly about the old fashioned, relish trays, salads of near-naked iceberg lettuce and portly steaks that sizzle upon arrival.
And we can ponder the health of the stereotypical supper club – a destination of longstanding, intense Wisconsin pride and a winsome topic for books, food features, travel sections, documentary films and assorted Twitterings.
Truth is, the supper clubs that stand out the most are chosen with heart as much as with stomach. The time-tested favorites have earned a loyal, multi-generation customer base.
“You gotta include The Roxy on your short list,” insisted a friend as we discuss the state’s supper clubs. “We took our parents there for their 60th.”
Another friend nods in agreement, but for a different reason. “I had a dinner date there during college,” he said about the longtime downtown Oshkosh restaurant. “Nice memory.”
The fond and personal connections, the faithful followings – that is what separates the supper club from the world’s best steakhouse, bistro, brasserie, chophouse, trattoria or café. When you eat at a supper club, you make a choice to exhale, converse, linger and maybe – gasp! – talk to somebody new.
Rites of passage
As supper clubs evolve, the enduring distinctions have less to do with big portions, many courses, nibbling a tray of relishes or ordering a Manhattan instead of the usual Miller Lite. What distinguishes a supper club is the journey as well as the food.
Think of the trek through farmland and forest for gorgeous lakeside views, à la Ishnala, near Wisconsin Dells, or the Buckhorn, near Milton. Or veer into the state’s hilly holyland to unincorporated St. Anna, where Schwarz Supper Club and its “school of perch” – 10 fillets for $24.99 – is about the only place to eat for miles.
With the journey comes anticipation and ritual. We place our food order at the bar at Toby’s Supper Club in Madison and don’t expect to be seated at our table until the first course arrives. That provides ample time for small talk with strangers at the friendly, laid-back bar.
Food historian Terese Allen of Madison gravitates to Greenwood Supper Club in Fish Creek for the traditional turkey dinner when in Door County on a Sunday. “We sit at the bar and play cribbage while we wait for a table,” she said. “It’s a classic menu, and that Sunday dinner comes with the trimmings you’d expect.”
“Ritual” might mean always leaving Rhinelander’s White Stag Inn with a mason jar of French salad dressing. We make a point to savor crispy hash browns at Smoky’s in Madison, or a schaum torte at Smokey’s in Manitowish Waters. It is partly these quirks that make supper clubs, supper clubs.
Travel writer Mary Bergin of Madison eats up the supper club ambiance but almost always orders from lighter-fare menus. This article appeared in the May/June 2012 issue of Wisconsin Trails and was updated for accuracy on Jan. 22, 2016.
Well there ya have it. The attempt at putting the magic of a supper club into words. I know she didn’t mention anything about supper clubs in Milwaukee, but rest assured I have some local suggestions for you below if you don’t feel like taking the hike to some of the states best. Don’t worry, they offer the same charm and might even become your hearts favorite.
Happy trails and happy eating!
- Grant, g.moxie