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.
Where everybody knows your name
Milwaukee native Lawrence Frank gets credit for opening the first supper club in the 1920s, but the business was in Beverly Hills, California, where he served prime rib with mashed potatoes and creamed corn. Wisconsin versions began popping up in the 1930s as adults-only social settings – especially in rural or resort areas – to eat, drink, dance and stay out late with neighbors or other vacationers.
“All restaurants at one time were independently owned, and all had their following,” said the HobNob’s Aletto. “Bartenders knew what you drank, servers knew what you ate and you knew other customers.”
“The original supper clubs were the restaurant version of Cheers – they were the average person’s answer to the private club,” said Ed Lump, Wisconsin Restaurant Association executive director. “It was your club, your place. That loyalty is harder to build today because of our differences in food tastes.”
He is referring to the growing assortment of ethnic food influences and heightened interest in local-food, lighter-fare and small-plate menus. Chain restaurants, whose muscle includes group marketing and purchasing power, further complicate the playing field.
Newer players, such as NorthWinds Supper Club in Eden, blend tradition with innovation. Potato-sack curtains, rural antiques and a smokehouse acknowledge the area’s rural roots. Loyal customers are rewarded with points that buy them discounts. Stir-frys and customized pasta dishes complement tried-and-true choices like charbroiled steak and broasted chicken.
“A classic Wisconsin supper club, to me, is the country folks’ version of a city steakhouse or restaurant and nightclub all in one,” said Kate Guelig, co-owner with husband Bob of NorthWinds since it opened in 1999. “Today’s supper clubs by far have a more diverse following, a more food-educated clientele. More city friends are taking a drive to enjoy a casual cocktail and meal – it’s not just your locals anymore.”
Lump believes the Wisconsin supper club “is enjoying somewhat of a rebirth” because of nostalgic yearnings and the ongoing search for value. The 2010 debut of Supper Club lager, brewed by Middleton’s Capital Brewery, also was a boost for visibility.
“Supper clubs traditionally offered a very good value for the dollar, both in quality and quantity,” Lump said.
In Madison, a new breed of supper club offers that and an even more personal connection between chef and consumer. At the Dinner at DebS, Debra Shapiro serves an occasional (sometimes weekly) brunch or dinner to up to 20 people in her home.
“It’s not really a business,” said the University of Wisconsin–Madison library sciences instructor, who started the club in 2006. “I wanted to have a way to bring people together, to eat together, to share a meal. I cook, you join the club, get meal invitations and cover the costs as a way for me to make the food without going broke.”
Shapiro lets the 180 people on her e-mail list know about upcoming dining opportunities and those with reservations show up around the same time on the designated meal day. Diners sit at their choice of four large tables to share a family-style or buffet meal of mostly seasonal, organic and locally produced ingredients.
Such underground dining ventures build community while satiating appetite because eating is just one part of the experience. Her inspiration: cookbook author Martha Rose Shulman, who hosted a Thursday night eating co-op while attending the University of Texas in the 1970s. “It was ‘bring your own plate’ – a cheap way to feed college students,” Shapiro said.
It’s also not far from what drives another unconventional supper club at UW–Madison on Monday nights during the school year. Slow Food UW recruits guest chefs to prepare a locally sourced meal for up to 120 people. Each diner pays $5 for the meal, which could feature anything from chicken curry to “fancy” mac and cheese and peanut-butter-and-jelly bars.
The dinners began in 2007, when a UW grad student formed the Slow Food chapter and got together with friends to cook and eat. Before the dinner, the menu goes out to 850 people via e-mail. The 120 dining slots at 10 tables, set up in the basement of The Crossing (a campus ministry), tend to fill quickly. The majority who attend these Family Dinner Nights are college students.
In the legacy circle
Lehman’s Supper Club in Rice Lake opened in 1934 and was a founding member of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association. It remains family owned, with four generations of the Paul Lehman family involved in the restaurant’s operations. Harold P. “Butch” Lehman, grandson of the founder Paul Lehman, and wife Trudy Lehman run the place with help from their five children.
“Our place started after the Depression and Prohibition,” Butch said. “It was a roadhouse bar that sold sandwiches” before adding suppers in an enlarged dining room in 1949.
Today, diners have a choice between multiple courses in an upscale dining area and lighter fare on a lounge menu. The latter includes “buddy burgers,” sliders ordered one at a time or by the dozen.
“Those of us who survived the heyday of supper clubs have become legacy restaurants,” Lehman said. “We have three generations of good customers – the locals plus lots of seasonal visitors: tourists, people on fishing expeditions.”
The hodgepodge of diners got acquainted with Lehman’s as strangers. After years of meals and memories, the owners say many have gained new friendships as well as calories.
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.
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