By Mary Bergin
Special to TravelWisconsin.com
Relish trays. Juicy steaks. From-scratch side dishes. Ice cream drinks.
Every state has its diners, bistros, cafes and chophouses, but Wisconsin lays claim to the supper club, and a renaissance is well under way. We are realizing that what we took for granted for generations is regionally unique and a precious part of our state’s culinary character.
Dimly lit, dinner-only, linger-why-don’t-you restaurants were sought after from coast to coast by the mid-1900s, but popularity faded as new dining trends and competition emerged. Some of that happened in the Badger State, too, but a strong yearning for community and connection, especially in rural areas, helps the tradition thrive.
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Heritage Thrives in Supper Club Capital
“After Sunday Mass, many adults would flock to the supper clubs for brunch, drinks and a challenging game of cards,” the booklet observes. “In later years, going to Mass on a Saturday night and then to the supper club was the norm.”
Calumet County bills itself as the Supper Club Capital of the Midwest, and one of the most frequented spots is Schwarz’s Supper Club in unincorporated St. Anna. The business began as a one-room tavern but now can serve multi-course meals to more than 700 people per night.
Customers expect a long wait between arriving and eating, especially on weekends, but this is a part of the supper club culture, too. It’s more like destination dining rather than a quick hop between work and a movie. We meet friends, talk to strangers, unwind and renew.
Backwoods Tradition, California Roots
Milwaukee native Lawrence Frank gets credit for opening the first supper club on record in what is now Beverly Hills, Calif. In the 1930s, that meant $1.25 for a salad, prime rib, baked potato and Yorkshire pudding. The meat was carved to order as a heavy, stainless steel cart was rolled from one table of diners to the next – very novel for the time.
The same man also gets credit for inventing a seasoning blend, Lawry’s Seasoned Salt, which remains a favorite ingredient at some Wisconsin supper clubs today. Brad Widule at The White Stag in Sugar Camp near Rhinelander uses it in a baked-potato topping that rivals the more traditional sour cream.
His twin brother, Brian Widule, notes that The White Stag has no website and little need to advertise, which also isn’t unprecedented among rural supper clubs. The third-generation family business has not changed much since Grandfather Widule’s tenure began in 1955. Steaks are charcoal broiled, and customers have one choice of potato (baked) and salad (a fat wedge of iceberg lettuce), but more fish options than long ago.
Classic Customs and Contemporary Twists
The Friday fish fry is as customary as the Old Fashioned cocktail at supper clubs, as is the expectation of large portions, long-time family recipes, friendly bartenders and décor that reflects local history or local passions – like taxidermy, when in wildlife-rich hunting locales.
Décor at Joey Gerard’s – A Bartolotta Supper Club, in Mequon and Greendale, plays up nostalgic glamour. Fifty enlarged photos show starlets at supper clubs from Hollywood to New York in the 1930s to 1970s.
A neon-lit Travel Wisconsin Supper Club concession stand is open during Packers season at Lambeau Field, bringing that supper club experience to wherever you are.
Connected by Folklore, Family and Friends
Many of Wisconsin’s oldest supper clubs began as simple roadhouses with more choices of alcohol than food. Settings often were near lakeshores, forests or farmland. Patrons included gangsters on the lam: Little Bohemia Lodge, Manitowish Waters, still has the bullet holes to prove it and was a film site for the 2009 movie “Public Enemies.”
Supper clubs that lack stories of the notorious likely connect people in deeply personal, private ways. This is where marriage proposals, funeral meals and high school sports banquets happen. Brothers Tom and Larry Schmock at Smoky’s Club in Madison have seen generations of boys order their first steak and describe it as “a rite of passage into adulthood.”
At the HobNob, between Racine and Kenosha, diners used to pay 50 cents for rooftop dancing on summer nights. Now soft jazz or cabaret-style piano playing on the ground level is the entertainment on weekends, but the setting remains rich with silky wall fabrics, fringed drapes and Naugahyde-covered booths.
Welcoming Everyone to the Dinner Table
At least 250 supper clubs operate in Wisconsin, and the best are as much about feeling at home as ordering cocktails and dinner. Ed Lump, Wisconsin Restaurant Association CEO, goes as far as saying that “the two things on the ‘to-do’ list for most Wisconsin visitors are to dine in a supper club and see Lambeau Field.”
The Packer-centric certainly encounter no shortage of like-minded fans at supper clubs, but not everything is predictable.
Like counter seating at a good diner, there is room for just about everybody in the classic supper club setting.