Wisconsin has something special to offer to the rest of the world, besides the Packers and cheese. It is the supper club capital of the world. While these dimly-lit destinations from decades gone by are an upper Midwest phenomenon, Wisconsin hosts by far the largest concentration. The Badger State is estimated to have as many as 1,000 supper clubs.
However, the first supper club was not in Wisconsin, it was in Beverly Hills, California. But it was established by Milwaukee native, Lawrence Frank in 1938, who is also credited with coining the term, “doggie bag.” They became popular in the 1930’s and 1940’s, reaching their peak in the 50’s and 60’s. Some of them were originally prohibition era roadhouses and gangster lore abounds as part of the history of several of these establishments.
Supper clubs have always been destinations, a place to relax, to be pampered, to enjoy a leisurely evening with friends and family. It is easy to see how the pace of modern life and prevalence of fast food outlets, sports bars, and restaurant franchises lured people away from this more elegant and leisurely way to dine.
These venerable family-owned institutions have some commonalities besides their dinner only (and, for some, Sunday Brunch) schedule. They are often found in tourist areas, scenic, or out-of the-way locations. For instance, Hob Nob, between Kenosha and Racine on Sheridan Road, is on the shore of Lake Michigan and Ishnala Supper Club overlooks beautiful Mirror Lake near the Dells.
The supper club menu is usually, classic, gradually tweaked with a few additions through the decades. You’ll usually find prime rib, steaks, broiled fish, and roast duck. Other typical reliables are a fancy relish tray, brandy old fashioned cocktails, and an all-you-can eat Friday fish fry.
I have been to three local supper clubs on several occasions.
Hob Nob became our go to place for special celebrations several years ago. The experience is retro swank. The two-story tall martini glass painted on the exterior of the building, along with its scenic view of Lake Michigan tip you off that you are in for something special inside. Each of the three main dining rooms has its own themed decor. The view, the bar, the high-back naugahyde booths, the candelabras, the lamps, the jazz trio, the color, and class is straight out of the sixties. I can easily picture Sammy Davis, Jr. or Frank Sinatra hanging out there. The food and service have maintained a standard of excellence.
The Corner House in Racine was, for a few years, the place to take our family for Christmas, until the family became too large and included boyfriends, husbands, grandchildren, great grandchildren, friends, and visiting relatives and their friends. The prime rib is the thing there. It cuts like butter. This place, too seems unchanged through the years, but is still classy today.
The supper club that we have frequented the most is about five minutes from our home. The Village Supper Club on Sheridan Road south of Kenosha has hosted two of our family birthday parties upstairs where there is another dinning room and bar. After it suffered a major fire a few years ago, we determined if it re-opened, we would give it a try.
It soon became one of our favorite places. It’s close, comfortable, and casual, like a corner bar crossed with a really good restaurant. The service is friendly. The steaks rival any steakhouse and the sea bass is outstanding and the prices are very reasonable. You will want to make reservations if you eat there on Friday or Saturday, since it gets very busy.
What’s the mystique about these places? They are unique, unlike the cookie cutter franchises. They are a piece of our history and our culture. They are nostalgic and usually classy or rustic. The food is superb and the portions generous. Dining there makes you feel kind of special.
While some of these venerable dining destinations have had to close their doors because of growing competition, they are currently experiencing a resurgence, thanks in large part to the beautiful coffee table books and PBS special by Ron Faiola.
You can find a directory of Wisconsin supper clubs at travelwisconsin.com.
Now, go forth exploring. Enjoy new adventures in dining, and discover the mystique for yourself.
Photos: Hob Nob, Racine, WI.