Supper Clubs: An American Dining 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

Wisconsin Supper Clubs: An Old Fashioned Experience

Photo courtesy of Ron Faiola.

         When I was young, my parents liked to dine at supper clubs. To me, they were swank places of dark wood, bold colored banquettes, and oversized menus where your dad would order a martini and your mom a Manhattan while you, because you were only seven or so, had to do with a Shirley Temple. But at least it came with a pretty paper umbrella and a maraschino cherry

         These were the supper clubs of yore. Often tucked away on back roads that seemed to take hours—no make that days—to reach when you were riding in the back of that big boat-like Buick your parents owned and no iPad or cell phone existed yet to keep you entertained. Just a coloring book and a box of Crayolas your mother handed you as you climbed into the car. If your brother came along you could kill time by arguing over whether the Cubs or Sox were better—a fight that endures to this day. If not, you colored and asked every three minutes (I know because my dad timed it once) “are we there yet?”

         In Michigan there are few supper clubs that I know of. Maybe D’Agostino’s Navajo Bar & Grille in Bridgeman, family owned for almost 70 years would qualify. It has that feel. There’s Talon’s Supper Club in Norway way up in the U.P. where old fashioned ice cream drinks (typically one of the deciding factors in determining if a place is a supper club) like Grasshoppers and Brandy Alexanders are on the menu. But let’s face it, is anyone going to drive 400 miles one way to go to a supper club? In Norway Michigan—population 2,845?  No, I didn’t think so.

Photo courtesy of Ron Faiola.
Courtesy of Timmerman Supper Club.

         Much more local, there’s the Heston Supper Club, in Heston, Indiana just north of LaPorte on the Michigan-Indiana border. And yes, it is in the middle of nowhere. In Syracuse, Indiana less than 90 minutes, The Sleepy Owl has been around for more than a half century. I haven’t been there yet, but definitely will when we can finally leave the house.

Courtesy of The Sleepy Owl.

         Geraldine’s Supper Club in Indy is a hat tip to the classic places of the 1930s and 1940s. There are a few more in Illinois, like the 60-year plus old Timmerman’s Supper Club on the Mississippi River in East Dubuque as well as several in towns I’ve never heard of like Scapecchi’s Supper Club in Farmington.

Photo courtesy of Ron Faiola.

         Because they’re becoming big again, Millie’s Supper Club in Chicago has the look—polished wood, red leather, low lighting—which is cool unless you want old.

Courtesy of Heston Supper Club.

         But for the largest selection of real back-in-the-day supper clubs, the place to go is Wisconsin and Ron Faiola has got them covered in his two large, heavy-on-photos books,  Wisconsin Supper Clubs: An Old Fashioned Experience and the follow-up Wisconsin Supper Clubs: Another Round both published by Agate, a Chicago publishing company. The books came about after Faiola’s film (its name is the same as the first book) was shown nationwide on PBS nine years ago. He also has a website, wisconsinsupperclubs.net, with lists of supper clubs organized by region including many not mentioned in his books. And amazingly, there are lots of them.

Relish Tray courtesy of Ron Faiola.

         So what exactly is a supper club? You’d know if you walked into one of them but Faiola describes them as usually only open for dinner and family owned with great service and food as well as a club-like atmosphere. The reason for all that, he says, is because there’s usually at least one family member on the premises to ensure quality is maintained and guests are happy.

Courtesy of CHUCKMAN’S PHOTOS ON WORDPRESS: CHICAGO NOSTALGIA AND MEMORABILIA 
Courtesy of The English Inn Supper Club with locations in Fish Creek and Green Bay, Wisconsin.

         “When you come back to a place a few times, you get to be family too,” he says.

         Expect steaks and classic dishes like shrimp deJonghe. The latter is totally Chicago-centric, dating back to Chicago and the three deJonghe brothers who immigrated from Belgium in 1891. Two years later they opened a restaurant at the 1893 World’s Fair: Columbian Exposition, a global celebration of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the Americas. The brothers went on to operate several restaurants including, from 1899 to 1923, DeJonghe’s Hotel and Restaurant at 12 E. Monroe Street. Their most famous dish, the one Henri deJonghe or their chef, Emil Zehr, is said to have created, is Shrimp deJonghe. Heston Supper Club has it on their menu as Sautéed deJonghe. They also serve frog legs, an old fashioned supper club dish if there ever was one and one even harder to find than Shrimp deJonghe. Ditto for The Sleepy Owl, though they call theirs Shrimp Scampi which really is pretty much the same. And yes, they have frog legs as well.

Shrimp deJonghe by Jane Simon Ammeson.

         Lobster, ribs, prime rib, perch and Friday night fish fries are also popular supper club items. Oh and don’t forget, the relish tray and/or salad bar.

         Drinking is part of the experience. That’s one reason there are so many Wisconsin supper clubs further north like in Door County says Faiola. During Prohibition as liquor was offloaded from boats coming from Canada and delivered via back roads to the big cities, supper clubs out in the boonies got their orders filled as gangsters, avoiding the highways and the cops, stopped by.

Courtesy of Ron Faiola.

         The cocktails people drank back then are popular again. But the thing with supper clubs is they never went out of style. In Wisconsin, the big one is the brandy old-fashioned sweet. I’d never heard of it but according to Faiola—and he should know—people in Wisconsin drink more brandy than anyone else in the U.S. and that’s usually by consuming a lot of brandy old-fashioned sweets.

Courtesy of Greenwood Supper Club which opened in 1929 in Fish Harbor in Door County.

         But supper clubs aren’t cookie cutters, says Faiola. Each is unique because of the family factor. Just like going to one friend’s home versus another.

Courtesy of Florian Supper Club in Bailey Harbor, Wisconsin.

         His books make great guides and people use them to explore the state, choosing which supper club to try next. Even in these days when we really can’t go anywhere yet, they’re still fun to look at—both a step back in time and a look forward when we can hit the road again. Also, I’m also going to be on the hunt for more Michigan supper clubs so if anyone knows of any, let me know.

RECIPES

         Here is the original recipe served at the deJonghe Brothers’ various restaurants. It’s interesting because it calls for ingredients not usually associated with fish dishes—nutmeg and mace. But while both are more pie ingredients today, in Europe a century and more ago, they were often used in savory cooking as well.

         As for why last place the deJonghe Brothers owned closed, supposedly it was because of liquor violations during Prohibition. But that doesn’t really sound like Chicago, does it?

         Also, shrimp can be expensive. A reasonable substitute (after all, this dish is really about the butter, garlic and breadcrumbs) is a tender, mild white fish or even cauliflower that’s cooked in boiling water until barely tender just like the shrimp. For fresh mild white fish, it’ll bake in the oven and doesn’t need to be parboiled beforehand.  

The Original Shrimp deJonghe

2 pounds large shrimp (40), or 48 slightly smaller

1 large garlic clove, mashed with the side of a knife or finely minced

1 1/2 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh tarragon

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh parsley

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh chervil

Pinch of dried thyme crumbled between your fingers and thumb

1 shallot, minced (very finely chopped)

1 tablespoon minced onion

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

1 1/2 cups fine dry breadcrumbs

Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg

Pinch of mace (optional)

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

Cook shrimp in a 4-quart pot of boiling salted water (see note below) until just cooked through, about 1 1/2 minutes. Drain shrimp in a colander, then immediately transfer to a large bowl of ice water to stop cooking.

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Mash garlic to a paste with 1/4 teaspoon salt using a mortar and pestle (or mince and mash garlic with salt using a large knife), then stir together with fresh and dried herbs, shallot, onion, 1 1/2 sticks (3/4 cup) butter, 1 cup bread crumbs, nutmeg, mace, 3/4 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper.

Melt remaining 1/2 stick butter and stir together with remaining 1/2 cup breadcrumbs, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper to make topping.

Arrange shrimp in 1 layer (slightly overlapping if necessary) in a buttered 3-quart flameproof gratin dish or other wide shallow ceramic baking dish. Cover with herbed breadcrumb mixture, then sprinkle with topping. Bake in upper third of oven until golden, about 15 minutes. Turn on broiler and broil until crumbs are golden brown, about 2 minutes.

Note: When salting water for cooking, use 1 tablespoon for every 4 quarts water.

Note: This can also be made in 8 small baking ramekins for appetizers, or 4 larger individual baking dishes for main dish-sized.

Relish Tray

These are all suggestions. Add or subtract as you like.

Spreadable cheese and crackers

Black olives

Green olives

Olives stuffed with blue cheese

Gherkins

Bread and butter pickles

Sweet pickles

Pickled beets

Pickled onions

Pickled watermelon rind

Pickled baby corn

Pickled Brussel sprouts

Pepper slices (pickled or fresh)

Pickled cauliflower

Carrots, cut into sticks

Celery, cut into sticks

Hand-Muddled Brandy Old-Fashioned Sweet

1 maraschino cherry

½ slice of orange

1 sugar cube or 1 teaspoon sugar

2-3 dashes of bitters

1 ½ to 2 ounces brandy

7UP

Ice

In a 10-12 ounce tumbler, combine the cherry, orange, sugar and bitters. Muddle (mash) together.

Add ice, then the brandy and top off with 7UP. Garnish with an orange slice and a maraschino cherry.