Wisconsin supper clubs originated more than 80 years ago. Many began as dance halls, taverns, roadhouses and recreation areas.
During Prohibition, some were speakeasies, and many had on-site or nearby brothels and gambling rooms.
Many suffered devastating fires over the years, and were rebuilt with more space to serve the growing customer base. However, the most common trait among supper clubs is that they are family-owned, and the family usually lives on the premises.
In the early days, the menu staples were fried chicken or perch, both of which were cheap and abundant, and usually served all-you-can-eat style. By the late 1940s and early 1950s people in the United States enjoyed a higher standard of living, and these former dance halls and taverns were reborn as supper clubs. The clubs were a destination for drinks, food and entertainment. Supper clubs welcomed everyone, no membership required.
The atmosphere at a supper club is more upscale than a tavern, and you'll usually find well-appointed table settings. There are special meals seldom found in the home kitchen: lobster, shrimp, prime rib, steak and fish fry. Portions are big, and soups, salad dressings and desserts are made from scratch, usually from family recipes passed down from generation to generation.
Wisconsin's affinity for brandy may have begun in supper clubs, where the brandy old-fashioned sweet is the cocktail of choice. There's also the perfect brandy Manhattan (said to have been invented at the Sky Club in Plover), plus martinis and fancy after-dinner ice cream rinks like grasshoppers and pink squirrels.
The golden age of Wisconsin supper clubs was in the 1950s and the 1960s, when there was little, if any, competition from chain restaurants. Back then, supper club customers spent more time at the bar before and after a meal. When Wisconsin began to enact tougher drunk-driving laws, the supper clubs' bar business decreased. Consequently, come supper clubs -mainly in urban areas - began serving lunch to compete with the chain restaurants.
Today, supper clubs seem to be enjoying a resurgence, as people ditch the chains in favor of the unique atmosphere, casual upscale dining and scenic views that supper clubs offer. Some high-profile chefs in New York and Chicago are even experimenting with Wisconsin-style super clubs. Another good sign is that the Bartolotta Group in Milwaukee opened two supper club-style restaurants in the suburbs. I'll have to pay them a visit.
Editor's note: Ron Faiola is the author of "Wisconsin Supper Clubs: An Old-Fashioned Experience." The hard-bound, coffee table book features stories and photographic vignettes of the author's visits to 50 Wisconsin supper clubs. The editorial content from the book was reproduced by BizTimes with permission from the author.