Supper Clubs: An American Experience

Neon lights. Big cars with rich men and beautiful dames. Martinis and music. Relish trays and super-sized steaks. Tucked away on country roads—perfect for bootleggers to deliver their goods in the dark of night or on the streets of big cities where midnight deliveries are no problem.

These are the supper clubs of old and while these vestiges of a glamorous past maybe somewhat different now, author Ron Faiola chronicles it all in his series of book, including the most recent, “The Wisconsin Supper Clubs Story: An Illustrated History, with Relish” (Agate Midway 2021; $26.66). His other two books, “Wisconsin Supper Clubs: An Old Fashioned Experience” and “Wisconsin Supper Clubs: Another Round” as well as his movie, Wisconsin Supper Clubs: An Old Fashioned Experience makes Faiola a supper club expert. His books, which make for great reading, are also perfect as guidebooks, taking us on a round of supper clubs still in business.

In his latest book, Faiola, a native of Wisconsin a state that seems to have the most of supper clubs of any state, went deep into their history and along the way dispelled at least one major legend—that the first American supper club was established in the 1920s in Beverly Hills, California by Milwaukee native Lawrence Frank.

 “It always bothered me because it named the guy, but not the supper club,” said Faiola.  “And why Beverly Hills and not New York City or even Wisconsin?  Once I delved into the Frank family history, I had my answers which became chapter one in the book.”

There was another legend to question as well. Faiola has visited close to 150 of the places. But there was a guy named Al (last name Capone) who seemed to have visited even more—at least according to claims by owners. Faiola demolished that one as well.

Join us in a conversation with Faiola.

The resurgence of supper clubs has been going on for several years.  It first began when my documentary, Wisconsin Supper Clubs – An Old Fashioned Experience,” was released in 2011. 

Additionally, once the first book–“Wisconsin Supper Clubs: An Old Fashioned Experience” was released, instead of sitting on a coffee table, people brought their copies along on trips to supper clubs and had the owners and staff sign their pages. They’d put menus and make notes about the drinks and food that they had. That snowballed as more people saw what others were doing.  It was fun for them and the supper club owners loved the attention.  I’ve heard from so many owners about the number of books they’ve signed.  They’re very proud of that.  

More recently, when all restaurants closed as the pandemic started, people thought they were going to lose their favorite supper clubs.  Once clubs started reopening, even just for take-out orders, customers were very supportive.  As clubs fully reopened, diners returned in droves in the summer of 2020 and even more so during 2021.  I’ve seen photos on social media of people standing in line waiting to get into supper clubs.  Last summer the wait for a table at Ishnala was three to four hours and yet people were cheerfully tailgating in the parking lot!  The great return to the Restaurants of Yesteryear has not only drawn more people to the clubs, but there is now a wide range of supper club souvenirs: glasses, apparel, posters, and even more books.  

Can you share a story or two about discoveries that most surprised you?

One of the things that surprised me the most was that the price of food was about the same as today when adjusted for inflation.  I tell people to multiply the menu prices they see in the book by 10, so those $3.95 T-bone steaks and 60¢ old fashioneds in 1950 would be about $39.50 and $6.00 today.

If readers wanted to take a road trip and visit some of your favorites that are still in business, which ones would you suggest?

Start by going to some of the supper clubs that are a little below the radar – Roepke’s Supper Club in Chilton, Pinewood Supper Club in Mosinee, The 615 Club or The Butterfly Club in Beloit or The Duck Inn in Delavan.  Then hit the more well-known clubs: Ishnala or the Del-Bar in the Wisconsin Dells, HobNob in Racine overlooking Lake Michigan, Five O’Clock Steakhouse in Milwaukee and The Buckhorn Supper Club in Milton with a great view of Lake Koshkonong.

Do you have a favorite supper club dish? Besides, the relish tray that is?

I enjoy a nice medium rare cut of prime rib, or a New York Strip, but one of my favorites that is only found in the southern part of Wisconsin is Shrimp de Jonghe.  It’s a Chicago recipe and is basically a garlicky, buttery shrimp casserole.  

How did you get interested in supper clubs?

I’ve always enjoyed going to supper clubs my whole life, whether it was around where I lived in the Milwaukee suburbs, or up north when I’d go fishing with my grandfather.  I got the idea to do the movie when I was working on a fish fry documentary–Fish Fry Night Milwaukee, 2009–and I was looking for a supper club fish fry to put in the movie.  I realized no one had documented supper clubs and there needed to be a light shined on that tradition.  I went on the road to visit 14 clubs in 2010 and the documentary aired on Milwaukee PBS in 2011 and was licensed to PBS stations nationwide for several years.

Anything else you’d like readers to know?

I’m going to be busy visiting even more supper clubs this summer (hint hint).   

Photo credits: Hoffman House courtesy of Bob Prosser. The El Dorado photo and the Ray Bussler photo are Photo courtesy Ron Faiola

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