The Wisconsin supper club is something so unique to its region of the U.S. that someone really needed to make a movie about it. Holly De Ruyter has done just that with her documentary, "Old Fashioned." She tells Shauna Sever about the history of this Badger State institution, the importance of the bar, and what you'll find on a relish tray.
Shauna Sever: So I have to tell you, I saw the film and I fell in love with it. I think part of it was because I was born and raised in the Midwest, and I recognized so many of these people and the stories and the snippets of supper club culture. I have to say, I didn't really realize that supper club culture is a thing, because in the Midwest it is so deeply embedded into the fabric of the region that it is almost hard to describe. So I am going to have you do it. What is a supper club?
Holly De Ruyter: Well, a supper club is an independently-owned restaurant, usually in a rural location, that is only open for supper, and their menu is very limited. It is mostly surf-and-turf, and the food is mainly homemade. It is a destination restaurant. You don't go there for a quick bite to eat and leave. You are there for the evening and the decor usually reflects that of the owners. Some have some unique Green Day Packers decor because the owners are Packer fans, and some of them have a log cabin feel to them because they are in the north woods.
SS: Right. Now, there was sort of a real growth of supper clubs during a certain point in time. When was that era exactly?
HDR: After World War II, so definitely mid-century. The HobNob, in between Kenosha and Racine on Lake Michigan, has some great retro, heavy-kitsch decor. It is just amazing when you can kind of see the history, and the magic thing about supper clubs is that they keep that. They preserve that almost like a time capsule.
SS: That is a really great way to describe it. A lot of times in these supper clubs, you feel like you've gone back in time or you're kind of being enclosed in a way, and it does make it so easy to stay, as you said, for a few hours. Can you explain to us the flow of a meal at a supper club because there is sort of a protocol for supper club dining?
HDR: Supper clubs, when you walk in, usually walk you to the bar area, and you are not just sitting there and talking to the person or talking with the people you came with. You are talking to the people around you. Supper clubs are all about community and connecting.
So you sit at the bar and you have a cocktail or two and, usually at a lot of supper clubs, the waitresses will come up and tell you your table number and take your order, but you don't get seated until you ask to be seated. It just feeds into that slow pace. There is no rush. You are never feeling pressure to move on to the next stage of the meal. Once you decide you are ready to go, you tell the bartender. He gets your waitress. They sit you down at your table. Usually you have your food already ordered, and when you get to your table, usually a relish tray is waiting for you, and if you ordered soup and salad, that might be there, too. A lot of supper clubs are kind of moving away from the relish tray. It's kind of definitely still out there and very strong but a lot of them have moved over to salad bars. Just to cut down on food waste.
SS: Interesting. What would traditionally be in a relish tray?
HDR: The relish tray is generally made out of fresh vegetables like celery and carrots and radish, but there are also cheese spreads on there. A lot of times, one might be like homemade, in-house liver pate. They also have different kinds of pickled items; pickled beets, pickled asparagus. It really depends on the season and what that supper club specializes in, because a lot of these supper clubs have recipes that have been handed down, generation to generation. So they might be known for their pickled herring or their creamy cucumber salad.
SS: When you are talking about main dishes at a supper club, give us an example of some of those.
HDR: The supper club menu is very limited. It usually focuses on the surf-and-turf menu. So a lot of fish, a lot of different steaks. A lot of supper clubs are adding kind of lighter fare or some more modern twists.
SS: The dessert menu, I noticed, is very limited as well; a cheesecake or maybe a slice of pie. It's interesting because when you are talking about the limited menu, it does reflect a sense of local eating, and it's not about having a million options. It's really about having food that is from that specific area, and it is top quality.
HDR: Definitely, but also the flow of the supper club evening is when you get done eating, again, there's no rush. You can leave, or the more common decision is to return to the bar, and what naturally goes with that is having an ice cream drink at the bar. I would say the number one choice with desserts at supper clubs is to have an ice cream drink, and a Grasshopper or a Brandy Alexander, I would say, are the top choices.
SS: So it's like a boozy milkshake?
HDR: Pretty much, that's a good way to describe it. They are very low on alcohol but they are really good. My favorite is the Pink Squirrel, and that's an almond-flavored ice cream drink. That was actually invented in Milwaukee at a bar.
SS: Something that a lot of people will do in modern times going out to dinner is, you want to go somewhere for a nightcap. You're saying here in the supper club you want to keep it all in one spot, and it's about coming back to the bar as a sense of community.
HDR: Oh, yes. It is so funny in today's world. We are all like, "We are going to go here for dinner and we are going to go here for entertainment." The supper club, it used to be that it embodied everything. Live entertainment was a huge thing for the supper club in its early history, but when they had to tighten their budget and watch their money more, entertainment was something that got cut. So you don't see it that much, but there are definitely supper clubs out there that still have their dance floor and a little platform for the live entertainment, and that really makes for an amazing night out, the dinner and dancing.
SS: That sounds so fun. So you start at the bar, you end at the bar. The bar is obviously a really important part of it.
SS: Tell us about the Old Fashioned, because that is the signature cocktail of the supper club, right?
HDR: Oh, most definitely. The brandy Old Fashioned is a solid Wisconsin drink. It has its origins from the Prohibition era, when people really couldn't be too picky about their liquor choices. Some of the stuff being made wasn't the best, so they started sugaring and adding soda and fruit to their cocktails. So that is kinda how the modern-day brandy Old Fashioned came to be. It's got the sugar. It's got the bitters. It's got a cherry and an orange in it and the brandy and the soda.
SS: The alcohol is quite a bit better now than it was back then.
HDR: Yes, but the brandy component was a unique thing. Korbel started making brandy and brought it to the Chicago World's Fair. A lot of Germans from Wisconsin came down and discovered this new, pretty affordable type of brandy. So they started mixing their Old Fashioned with it. That's how the brand became so big in Wisconsin.
SS: And a lot of it stems from that supper club culture, which is still alive. It is interesting because, when you watch the film, you really do get a sense that there was a time where supper clubs were starting to slow down, and as you are watching the film you start to worry. Is this becoming a dying art in a way, you know? You are cheering for these restaurants because it is such a wonderful experience, and what's happened in the past couple of years, it really is starting to come back.
HDR: There is this renewed interest, which is great. I'm really excited to see that.
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Shauna Sever is the author of the cookbooks, Marshmallow Madness!, Pure Vanilla and Real Sweet. Her next book, Midwest Made, is now available for online pre-order (Release date: October 22, 2019). She is also the voice behind the baking blog Piece of Cake. She's appeared on The Today Show, Food Network, Home and Family, Serious Eats, Chow and Ulive.com. Her writing and recipes have been featured in O, The Oprah Magazine, Food and Wine, Bon Appetit, Fine Cooking, Family Circle and USA Weekend.