By David Hammond
In the late 1990s, there was only one place I wanted to go on Friday nights: Horwath’s, a supper club on Harlem in Elmwood Park. We went so often that my wife finally announced she would not be accompanying me more than twice per month, maximum; if I wanted to go more frequently, I’d have to go without her.
Horwath’s had a totally predictable menu, with standard relish trays (celery, pickles, radishes), a dark wood bar with big ceramic pots of spreadable cheddar (called “club cheese”), and a dining room, hung with chandeliers, lined with burgundy banquettes and staffed by waitresses who treated each guest like their favorite child. This throwback restaurant, with a huge neon martini glass on its outside signage, was a respite, a totally non-challenging environment, a comforting, completely unpretentious place to unwind, relax and feel at home with tables of my fellow Italian-American goombahs. Chuckie English, a lieutenant of Sam Giancana’s, was whacked in front of Horwath’s. Local lore has it that the Outfit had a safe full of money in the basement that one morning was dynamited out into the Horwath’s parking lot and that Giancana’s daughter, Antoinette, was at the restaurant on its last night of operation, staying until the lights went out.
I miss Horwath’s. That supper club experience, though, is still alive in Wisconsin, and it’s been going strong since the 1930s and perhaps before, having been given a boost during Prohibition. In those years when booze was considered a controlled substance, you could reliably quench your thirst at some Wisconsin supper clubs. At these often roadside establishments, you’d go for dinner and spend the evening, perhaps dancing and listening to music, and perhaps having a drink or two. The drill remains the same at many Wisconsin supper clubs: it’s not a first stop before a night of fun, it’s where you stop for a night of fun.
A Wisconsin—and Midwestern—Thing
Chicagoans are sometimes surprised to learn that not everyone in the United States knows about Italian beef sandwiches.
Wisconsinites are likewise surprised that not everyone in the United States knows about supper clubs. These homey restaurants are characterized by time-honored culinary customs, dining room rituals and specific menu items. They’re popular throughout the Midwest, but nowhere are they more popular than in the Badger State.
There are a number of supper club myths, many still perpetuated in the literature. The very first supper club is said by some to be Lawry’s The Prime Rib, opened in Beverly Hills, California, in 1938 by Lawrence Frank and Walter Van De Kamp. Chicago’s Lawry’s location does, indeed, have some of the traditional signifiers of a supper club, like prime rib and linen napkins, but otherwise this local restaurant in the fortress-like Kungsholm bears little resemblance to the homier style of most Wisconsin supper clubs. Alas, this particular creation narrative is likely baloney. Frank was from Milwaukee, so it seems most likely that he brought the existing Wisconsin tradition to California. Several classic Wisconsin supper clubs started in the 1930s. The famous Turk’s Inn and Sultan Room in Hayward, Wisconsin, which pulled through a Eurasian theme with fez-shaped menus and other Orientalist exotica, opened in 1934, four years before Lawry’s opened in California.
Note that neither Lawry’s nor Turk’s include “supper club” in their restaurant names, though both figure prominently in the literature of the genre. All of this complicates the widespread effort to nail down just what the heck a supper club is.
Defining a Dining Experience
Discussions of supper clubs usually begin with an effort to define “supper club.”
In “Wisconsin Supper Clubs: An Old-Fashioned Experience,” author Ron Faiola kicks off with a list of “What Defines a Supper Club.” His list includes the brandy Old Fashioned, prime rib and all-you-can-eat fried fish on Fridays. Chicago’s Dave Hoekstra published “The Supper Club Book: A Celebration of a Midwest Tradition” in 2013. Hoekstra introduces his work with a list of “what you need to know about a supper club,” which includes a dark setting filled with clumsy furniture and a sense of “longing for belonging.”
That final point—longing for belonging—is perhaps the most compelling and universal attribute of the many presumably essential attributes listed by Faiola, Hoekstra and others. There are perhaps no supper clubs anywhere that meet all the criteria on all the many, sometimes idiosyncratic lists of definitions. Restaurants in this genre do, however, very often reflect a “clubiness,” a sense of being part of something local, social and friendly.
Milwaukee’s Supper Clubs
To determine just what a supper club is, and enjoy traditional as well as more recent incarnations of the genre, we journeyed to Milwaukee. We went to one traditional supper club, one more recent version and one brand-new place. Though some supper clubs have been around for decades, others are still popping up here and there, along country roads and in major cities.
Five O’Clock Steakhouse
Mary Bergin is the author of last year’s “Wisconsin Supper Club Cookbook: Iconic Fare and Nostalgia from Landmark Eateries.” There are a lot of foods that authors feel a supper club “must have,” but there is such variation among supper club menus that I had to ask Bergin if perhaps there was just one sine qua non of the supper club menu. Bergin responds, “We love our fish fry on Friday. I interviewed a folklorist in Wisconsin long ago about this, and in her opinion it was ‘restaurant suicide’ to not offer a Friday fish fry in Wisconsin. We’re kinda quirky that way.”
At Five O’Clock Steakhouse (2416 State Street, Milwaukee), there is no fish fry on Friday night. Stelio Kalkounos, managing partner at Five O’Clock, tells us, “The fish fry isn’t right for us. We’re a steakhouse.” Not offering fried fish on Friday has apparently not proven fatal to Five O’Clock. Kalkounos proudly tells us “we’re celebrating our seventieth year of service as a family-owned independent restaurant.” Supper clubs are traditionally owned by families, some members of which, like Kalkounos, actually live on premises.
As part of Kalkounos’ version of the supper club tradition, “Guest orders are taken at the bar.” In many traditional supper clubs, here’s the ritual: you walk in, sit at the bar, order a drink (most often a brandy Old Fashioned) and give the server your dinner order. When you’re ready to take your seat, the kitchen is poised to get your order fired. This start-at-the-bar routine may be a carryover from Prohibition days, when getting a beverage was the first order of business. The Old Fashioned is a sweet drink. That sweetness probably helped make less-than-stellar brandy go down easier in the days when bootleg liquor was perhaps difficult to slug down straight.
Though Five O’Clock doesn’t offer a fish fry, it does a superb job with another supper club staple: prime rib. We’ve never been much interested in this cut of beef, which always seems kind of mushy if not downright funky (in a bad way). Five O’Clock’s prime rib, however, was a game changer, lush and deeply beefy, with soft, flavor-enhancing fat and a good blend of textures, tender on the inside and slightly crisp on the outer edges.
After dinner, we ran into supper club scholar Faiola in the bar. He happened to be signing copies of his new “Wisconsin Supper Clubs: Another Round,” which came out in May of this year. Looking around the room, Faiola smiled as he commented upon, “the “Holy trinity of supper club decorations: twinkling Christmas lights, taxidermy and dark wood.”
But not all supper clubs have all those features, of course, and it’s obvious that determining the essence of the supper club experience is not simply a question of hitting points on a checklist or even of advertising as a “supper club.”
“Can a place be a supper club without knowing it or without even advertising it,” I ask Faiola, who nods that, yes, it’s possible a place could be a supper club without even advertising it as such, perhaps without even knowing it. Indeed, a number of supper clubs listed in his new book do not contain the words “supper club” in their name.
There are no easy answers to the question, “What’s a supper club?”
Paul Bartolotta is a two-time James Beard award-winner, once for Best Chef: Southwest (at Ristorante de Mare at The Wynn, Las Vegas) and once for Best Chef: Midwest (Spiaggia, Chicago). Bartolotta was born in Milwaukee and with his brother he runs The Bartolotta Restaurants, which operates a number of fine dining and “upscale casual places,” including Joey Gerard’s (5601 Broad Street, Greendale). In keeping with the supper club tradition of locating in humble, homey-looking buildings, Joey Gerard’s is a one-story cottage-looking building. Though it’s in an upscale strip mall, it looks kind of like a little home converted into a restaurant, which, indeed, many supper clubs were.
Kelly Mallegni of Bartolotta Restaurants describes the supper club, as portrayed at Joey Gerard’s, as “the common man’s country club.” Visiting Joey Gerard’s on a Saturday night, one of us chose to wear a sport jacket, making him the only schmo in the joint so attired: there were golf shirts and blue jeans, though most everyone was neatly dressed in what would today be called “business casual.” One couldn’t help but notice, however, that the dress of the crowd contrasted sharply with the pre-WWII celebrity shots in the vintage black-and-white photos in the room: Victor Mature, Lana Turner and other bright lights from Hollywood’s golden age are all dressed to the nines, which was the dress code at supper clubs (and most restaurants) before the dawn of the Era of Casual Everywhere (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
As at all three of the supper clubs we visited in the Milwaukee area, a meal at Joey Gerard’s begins with a relish tray (or, if you’re fancy, you can call them crudités) and an optional lazy susan of summer sausage (kind of a Wisconsin thing), cheese ball (definitely a Wisconsin thing), deviled eggs, as well as black olives. The black olives served at all three places are the soft, waxy kind drawn from a can (again, nothing wrong with that). At many supper clubs, including Joey Gerard’s, you can get a twice-baked potato, another of the genre’s menu staples and a good example of the kind of comfort foods—including mac ‘n’ cheese and French onion soup with a crust of melted cheese—served at many of these Wisconsin places. Supper club foods seem usually to be things you could prepare at home but rarely, if ever, find at “fast food places.”
But not all the menu items fit into the homemade comfort food category. In her book, Bergin references what may seem a somewhat daring supper club offering, the “cannibal sandwich,” basically beef tartare liberally dosed with Lawry’s seasoned salt, served with marble rye, sliced yellow onion and a shaker of Lawry’s on the side. This is Joey Gerard’s most popular starter, and it’s very good but also an example of why an Old Fashioned is such a challenging first drink of the evening: would you like to eat raw beef with a sweet drink? Didn’t think so.
Erich Wilz is the managing partner at Supper (1962 North Prospect), which opened in November 2015. Supper is the newest supper club in Milwaukee and perhaps Wisconsin.
Wilz, more of a wine guy, is not a fan of having an Old Fashioned as your first drink of the evening, adding “it seems more appropriate at the end of the meal, as a dessert.” The traditional Old Fashioned is rather sweet, but at Supper we had the option of three versions: traditional (basically brandy, bitters, sugar, garnished with a cherry and orange slice); press (a little less sweet, usually with soda water and less sugar); and sour (with a splash of some citrus juice like grapefruit). The sour Old Fashioned is definitely our preferred way to have this classic cocktail, as it perks the palate rather than coating it with sugariness.
For the Old Fashioned, “in an effort to elevate it a little,” says Wilz, “we went with Copper & Kings,” a more crafted brandy from a Kentucky distillery that’s been open just about two years, “and drinks a little bit more like a bourbon. It’s not E&J, Christian Brothers or Korbel.”
As the newest supper club in a long history of hundreds, Supper, as Wilz explains, is “trying to balance the old with the new. We’re reimagining the supper club. We don’t want it to be all taxidermy and Christmas lights, but we do want to give people the traditional dishes and bring in more modern elements with a chef-driven menu.”
A good example of the balance between classic and modern at Supper is the lazy Susan, which comes in two versions: one the more traditional, with raw vegetables and pickles; the other a touch more modern, with classics like deviled eggs laced with truffle oil, trout mousse and caviar. Supper’s menu is divided into Classics (e.g., Steak Diane) and Contemporary (e.g., Cauliflower “Steak”). We were glad to try the Steak Diane, a New York strip steak dressed with Worcester emulsion and veal reduction. Old-timey.
Supper’s after-dinner cocktail menu is also segregated into the Old School (Pink Squirrel, Gold Cadillac) and the New-Fangled (drinks made with ingredients like Blue Moon ice cream and Evan Williams Single Barrel Bourbon). As with the dinner menu itself, the cocktail menu is both a reflection of—and a respectful critique of—the traditional supper club menu.
“This is a tough dialogue to have,” says Wilz, “because I’m by no means trashing what others are doing.” Wilz is working within the tradition while also pushing against the constraints of that tradition.
What’s Food Got to Do with It?
I asked Kalkounos if there were any common misperceptions about supper clubs. He says the most common misperception is that “the food is not high quality.” Kalkounos was not the first person I heard voice this concern to us. Although his Five O’Clock Steakhouse was named by the Travel Channel one of the top steakhouses in the country, the more I dug into the supper club phenomenon, the less important the food seemed. As at any restaurant, the food has to be good, but it almost seems like supper club food is maybe sometimes secondary to the socializing, to the familiar fun of having food you know and eating alongside tables of people you know.
Sitting down to eat at Five O’Clock, Joey Gerard’s and Supper, we spent a lot of time just looking around the room. It seems fair to say the only people under twenty-five in most supper club dining rooms were there with their parents. There may very well be hipster versions of supper clubs, but there’s little room for ironic distance in a supper club, which is more about getting together in a familiar place, following familiar rituals and enjoying familiar food with family and friends.
The Future of the Supper Club
About one year ago, Ray Radigan’s, a supper club just over the Illinois border in Wisconsin, closed after eighty-two years.
“Maybe food like this has gone out of style,” said Michael Radigan, son of the namesake founder, as quoted in the Kenosha News. “The supper club reputation leads people to believe that kind of restaurant is too pricey, and that you have to put on a suit to go there.”
Ray Radigan’s was featured in Holly De Ruyter’s excellent 2015 documentary, “Old Fashioned: The Story of the Wisconsin Supper Club.” I asked De Ruyter, a 2006 Columbia College grad, if she was concerned about supper clubs becoming passé and going the way of Mister Softee Ice Cream trucks and drive-in movies. She told me this: “When I started making my film over seven years ago, it did look like the supper club was going to pass away, but within the time I made the film, people’s attitudes changed about dining. They wanted to support local places; they wanted that unique experience; they wanted to go to a place where care and time are spent preparing the food.”
Supper club food may not change your life or the way you think about food and dining. Those big, mind-blowing experiences happen at places like Alinea or Grace. Not changing anything, however, and keeping everything the way it used to be, seems to be their defining feature. The food is homey and solid, the customers perhaps set in their ways; the communal experience of dining together is forever. You don’t go to supper clubs for a new experience; you go for an old fashioned experience, a familiar experience, pretty much the same experience. Again and again.