Step back in time at Wisconsin supper clubs

Last updated on July 3rd, 2019 at 07:17 pm

In a digital age of fast food and instant gratification, it would seem intuitive that Wisconsin’s supper clubs would be relegated to the relics of the past, like drive-in movie theaters, phone booths and pinball arcades.

Not so fast. Wisconsin’s supper clubs are not only thriving, they are making a comeback. (See accompanying stories about “Wisconsin Supper Clubs: An Old-Fashioned Experience,” a new coffee table book.)

For many Wisconsinites, a dinner at a supper club is like stepping back in time and going on vacation to northern Wisconsin, where supper clubs continue to flourish.

While Jackson Grill sits on the corner of South 38th Street and West Mitchell Street in Milwaukee’s Burnham Park, tucked away from the hustle and bustle of the downtown dining scene, it draws a steady crowd of diners from Milwaukee, its suburbs, Madison, Racine and even Chicago.

The restaurant, which prides itself as “Milwaukee’s Supper Club,” serves about 50 people on weeknights and at least 100 each on Friday and Saturday nights.

“We’ve been busier than heck (in recent years),” said owner and head chef Jimmy Jackson.

The restaurant is small with a seating capacity of about 45, an attached patio that seats an additional 50 people in good weather and a staff of seven part and full-time employees.

The modest size adds a cozy, intimate touch to the restaurant’s ambiance. First-time visitors often remark how warm and comfortable the atmosphere is there, said Jackson’s wife, Heidi Schmidt.

“It’s just inviting,” she said.

Jackson and Schmidt opened Jackson Grill in 2002 with a retro-1950s theme that features a collection of colorful vases atop the bar and throughout the dining room as well as three dozen celebrities’ signatures displayed on the walls.

The couple has relied almost exclusively on word of mouth to attract new customers.

“We’re just ourselves, and they come back because they want to,” Schmidt said. “I think they leave very impressed.”

Jackson and Schmidt serve a couple hundred regulars who make a point to stop in at least once a month, and their customer base ranges from mid-20s millennials to much older folks. Over the years, the supper club has seen a gradual surge of younger patrons who return after dining with their parents or grandparents or visit for the first time after hearing about the spot’s reputation for quality. The younger crowd now accounts for about a fourth of Jackson Grill’s customers.

“I think people are longing for personal service again,” Schmidt said. “I think they’re longing for homemade stuff again, prepared-to-order things again. I think some of the chains are very, very nice but it’s still a chain, and I think people like that one-on-one personal service, that made-to-order mentality.”

That personal approach to service and made-to-order mentality consistently distinguishes supper clubs from their restaurant chain competitors.

Similar to Jackson Grill, the HobNob in Racine draws a considerable number of regulars, at least 20 a week, who staff members like general manager Theresa Kamphuis have made a considerable effort to get to know.

Matching names in the restaurant’s reservation book with returning customers is one of the first steps.

“When you see a face come back a second time, you can greet them by their name,” said Kamphuis, who has served as general manager for three of the 20 years she has worked at the HobNob, which is located along the shore of Lake Michigan.

Chef James Pawicz also tries to interact with customers, often breaking away from the kitchen on Friday or Saturday nights or toward the ends of weeknights to talk to diners and ensure they leave satisfied.

In addition to getting to know what specific patrons like, Pawicz takes time to address complaints so that customers will come back.

“That’s how they become regulars,” Pawicz said.

Even the entertainment at the HobNob personalizes the atmosphere for patrons.

“I know a lot of people’s favorite songs, so I will automatically play them when they sit down,” said pianist Lillian Gildenstern, who has been performing show tunes, theme songs and other memorable hits at The HobNob nearly every Saturday night for about 15 years. “It makes (customers) feel good when you recognize them and know their song.”

Supper clubs provide a customized, relaxed dining experience. Meals at the HobNob typically last up to two hours with three to five courses.

After starting with soups or salads, fresh bread and perhaps an appetizer, diners ease into their main entrée. From Friday night fish fry specials to steaks, prime rib, seafood selections, chicken and duck options, supper club menus feature a spectrum of home-cooked comfort food served in generous portions for generous prices.
Meals are rounded out by homemade desserts such as crème brulee and chocolate truffle cake, along with another cocktail or ice cream drink such as a grasshopper.

“People like to take their time,” Pawicz said. “They like to sit down and have cocktails and make an experience here last an hour and a half like people should actually eat and not in and out like any chain.”

That slower pace so characteristic of Wisconsin supper clubs has largely faded in the whirlwind of new chain restaurants catering to on-the-go, fast-food minded consumers.

“People have lost what dining is all about,” said Mike Aletto, owner of the HobNob since 1990. “Dining is just a reason for people to get together and socialize.”

Instead, people often treat dining out at a restaurant as nothing more than a convenient way to fill up on food, Aletto said.

While franchises act as revolving doors of people coming and going, supper clubs such as the HobNob treat each individual as more than a number and slow down the hands of time.

They also allow customers to take a step back in time.

“It gives a lot of people that come into our restaurant a blast from the past, warm fuzzies of childhood memories,” Aletto said.

Dave Suthard, who enjoyed his first meal at the HobNob in 1954 at the age 8, can still remember how excited he was to order filet mignon off the menu.

“I still can see my mother and dad there and my brother,” Suthard said.

Suthard continued dining at the HobNob through his childhood years into college and beyond. Today, the Zion, Ill., resident makes it to the supper club with his wife, Jan, at least two to three times a month for casual meals. He has also taken a number of business associates to the HobNob and likes celebrating birthdays there, including his father-in-law’s upcoming 90th birthday party this May.

With chandeliers hanging from the ceiling and deep red curtains lining dark purple walls, the HobNob sets the scene for special occasions.

“It is a destination restaurant, and you have to make it special for people to come out and drive out your way,” Aletto said.

“I think younger generations are looking for something to enjoy an evening out, and you can do that dining also,” Kamphuis said.

The supper club dining experience isn’t complete without a staple selection of cocktails, from martinis to the classic brandy old-fashioned.

“(The brandy old-fashioned) has gone generation after generation,” said Trish Lenarchich, bar manager at Diamond Jim’s Stoneridge Inn, a supper club in Hales Corners. “It’s just a very popular cocktail in Wisconsin in general.”

Lenarchich has reeled in quite a following with her original brandy old-fashioned recipe. She fashioned the secret recipe exclusively for Diamond Jim’s when it opened 12 years ago.

While Lenarchich hasn’t created any other original drink recipes, she has managed to memorize the preferences of many of her repeat customers.

“I know what everybody who walks in the door drinks,” Lenarchich said. “I can make their drinks when I see them getting out of their cars.”

Thanks to Lenarchich’s popular cocktails, Wisconsin-themed décor (complete with porcelain eagles and ducks perched on the walls) and a made-from-scratch menu that includes a fish fry six evenings a week, Diamond Jim’s has built its reputation as a true Wisconsin supper club.

A restaurant must earn the right to call itself a supper club through reputation and time, said owner Jim Letizia, also known as Diamond Jim.

Although supper clubs continue to be vital staples of the northern Wisconsin experience, their numbers have dwindled in recent years in the Milwaukee area.

“It’s like the corner ma-and-pa grocery store,” Letizia said. “The ones that are there are loved by all, but not many are left.”

Jeff Karbash, owner of The Duck Inn, a rustic supper club in Delavan, has seen several smaller operations close since he bought his restaurant in 1994.

“I look around, and I feel like I’m becoming a dinosaur,” Karbash said. “I see more places around me close than remain open.”

But the interest in local supper clubs has resurged, Karbash said, as supper clubs are becoming more like historical landmarks.

And they’re gaining the interest of younger generations who now realize what a treasure sitting down and dining is, Letizia said.

Last year, Joe Bartolotta, co-owner of Milwaukee-based The Bartolotta Restaurants, tapped into this renewed interest in supper clubs when he opened supper club-style restaurants in Greendale and Mequon, both named Joey Gerard’s.

“It’s a concept that I really, really enjoy because it gets back to home cooking and it invokes memories for me growing up,” Bartolotta said.

Joey Gerard’s pays homage to supper club staples such as lazy Susan relish trays.

However, Joey Gerard’s puts a spin on other enduring supper club traditions, said Megan Cooper, assistant general manager of the Greendale establishment, which can hold nearly 250 diners.

“In order to keep up with business, you kind of have to veer away from traditions a little bit here and there,” Cooper said.

With décor inspired by the bygone glamor of Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s, a menu that includes classic options such as veal piccata and active marketing and advertising efforts, Joey Gerard’s introduces modern accents to the Wisconsin supper club concept.

To longtime supper club owners such as Jackson, there will always be a spot for these homegrown, locally owned and operated establishments, no matter how many chains crowd the marketplace.

“People still want to sit down and relax and enjoy themselves,” Jackson said. “There will always be a niche group of people who want to sit down and enjoy themselves and relax and have a cocktail.”

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