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The Supper Club Tradition
With the opening of Bartolotta's supper club tomorrow, we look back at the history of these institutions.

A dependable way to determine if you are eating the food of a chef, as opposed to a cook, is if a good percentage of the menu consists of dishes that either flout an established tradition or adhere to it, nailing it perfectly. Any chef’s career is marked with this zig and zag through ingredients, codified cooking styles and their own stamp. The same is true for fashion designers, contemporary artists, even Madison Avenue. Both au courant and au contraire – and we love it.

But what is it like to reinvigorate something that is already deeply understood by your audience and not all too codified? A bit dicey I think.

In this case, I am referring to the time-honored supper club. You can easily go wrong retrying something that, for most, is an indefinable institution, and not even know it until the place is open and plates are on the table. Most recently, the Bartolotta gang is taking a stab at it with Joey Gerard’s, a supper club in two acts: one location in Greendale and a soon-to-be second in Mequon. Sure the institution’s got its must haves – cue the relish trays and surf and turf – but if you get more than three Midwesterners together over Old Fashioneds and solicit their criteria  – which I have done – you’re going to get a slew of assertions. From the glasses the cocktails need to come in, to waitstaff’s uniforms. It’s like Christmas really. Everybody’s got their memories of how it should be, and none of them are really wrong.

First a little history: Most Milwaukeeans sit down to dinner with no idea that Lawrence Frank, originally from Milwaukee, gave the world its first supper club in Beverly Hills in the early 1930s. (His further innovations were the doggie bag, surf and turf and the salad bar.) His family still operates a few semi-eponymous little steak joints in Chicago, Beverly Hills, Las Vegas and Dallas – which you may have heard of – called Lawry’s. It is said that his heirs keep his original menus and recipes under lock-and-key at the Chicago restaurant. Tijuana can have Caesar and his salad. I’ll keep my Mr. Frank, thank you.

Just as deer hunting is an indigenous as a sport to Wisconsin, the supper club has been our unofficial place to gather since the end of World War II (save for church bingo halls and softball fields). What fueled the supper club fire is simple: As affluence in America grew and new leisure activities were popularized, the supper club offered a respite, a club you could belong to for one night. One didn’t need to be wealthy to have dinner at a supper club, but could feel wealthy for an evening. It was an establishment that took you from cocktails at 5 to surf and turf at 8:30 and provided entertainment for the rest of the evening. Along the way there were relish trays, a salad bar, an elaborate American menu and exotic, cleverly themed décor. Always in an overdone theme and purposely built to be seen from the county road or edge of the highway. People came for the fantasy as well as the food. To wit, Las Vegas owes a massive debt to Midwestern supper clubs.

How far we have come and how far we haven’t.

My sweetheart and I were fortunate to be chosen for one of Joey Gerard’s practice dinners last Sunday night, prior to their public opening tomorrow. I am not a critic, so you’ll get none of that stuff here. However, I will say that we dug it. Most interesting for me was the conversation I had with Paul Bartolotta a week prior in his Las Vegas venue about the forthcoming opening of Joey Gerard’s. We argued over the tenets of what makes a great supper club the way only two Midwestern boys can. (Kind of ridiculous really. He’s got two Beard awards, and I can’t even grow one in 21 days.) “A relish tray at on the bar? Gotta have it.” “A kids menu?” “Nonsense” I said, though I often went to supper clubs with my parents. “The Old Fashioneds should be made with rail liquor.” “It should be call.” It went on and on for over and hour. In end, I ate some pasta, he ate a steak, we parted a friends.

I don’t know that there is a right answer. I know that Gerard’s feels right, and, really, that is what it comes down to. It’s the nuances: the lobster you can add to your tenderloin order, the spin of the Lazy Susans, and the Old Fashioneds that smell like your parents’ breath as they carried you out of the car and into the house for bed.

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