Ron Faiola, Wisconsin’s foremost authority on these enduring institutions, explains the history and ongoing appeal of this culinary treasure.
The allure of a Wisconsin supper club is that each one is unique, and yet you know what to expect when you visit. However, a supper club can mean something different depending on which part of the country it’s in. Its beginnings are far from the Midwest, but it’s easy to see why Wisconsin claims supper club supremacy.
Legend has it that the first one was started by Milwaukee native Lawrence Frank in Beverly Hills, California, in the 1920s. Unfortunately, it’s not entirely true. While Frank was from Milwaukee, the restaurant he opened in L.A. was just a ham-and-eggs diner. The actual birthplace was in the Prohibition speakeasies in NYC that offered supper in a nightclub as a cover for the real business of serving illegal booze. By the late ’30s, the concept went nationwide via Hollywood movies and on radio in the 1940s with the Chesterfield Supper Club variety show.
Wisconsin’s supper clubs started as taverns, resorts and dancehalls where fried chicken and perch were served along with a beer. Eventually these places transformed their food and decor, and as a result, the classic menu we know and love came into being: Friday fish fry, Saturday prime rib, Sunday broasted chicken and ribs. Plus relish trays, cheese and crackers at the bar and the undisputed cocktail: a hand-muddled brandy old fashioned.
But it’s not only the food that draws people back. Plenty of nostalgia is served up with each visit: memories of dressing up for dinner and having your first kiddie cocktail, or going to a high school prom, a graduation, an anniversary or a birthday.
It also helps that every supper club is steeped in history, with stories of misfortune, serendipity and mischievous ghosts. It’s fun to imagine that the walls could talk or to go back in time when lobster was a couple bucks and drinks were a quarter. This type of restaurant feeds the soul like no other, and we’re fortunate to have many exceptional supper clubs scattered around the state.
Ron’s Picks: Five Great Supper Clubs
1 Buckhorn Supper Club
With a view of Lake Koshkonong, it’s my favorite for prime rib and homemade desserts. Make sure to attend one of their popular lobster boils starting in May.
2 Colony House
The spot for shrimp de Jonghe. The Friday fish fry pulls out the fin stops, with smelt, baby walleye and bluegill, as well as perch.
3 Copper Dock
Ask for a table near the windows facing charming Friess Lake and make a res early enough to watch the magical sunset. Daily all-you-can-eat specials include Friday fish fry, prime rib on Saturday and snow crab on Wednesday.
A retro rendezvous since 1954. It’s hard to decide which sight is better – the window view of our Great Lake or the dining room that takes flamboyance to a Liberace level. Start with oysters Rockefeller followed by steak au poivre or broiled whitefish.
5 Jackson Grill
Steaks are the star at this cozy club in Burnham Park. Try the 16-ounce “saloon” steak with a grilled Portobello mushroom cap. Finish at the bar with a Jackson Grill snifter.