Review: Wisconsin Supper Clubs

Ron Failoa's new book profiles a charming semi-secret Wisconsin culinary tradition.

Wisconsin Supper Clubs: An Old-Fashioned Experience, by Ron Faiola (Agate Publishing, 224 pp.)

When I learned about Wisconsin Supper Clubs: An Old-Fashioned Experience by Ron Failoa, I was looking forward to learning more about this semi-secret, but long-running faction of life in Wisconsin. Why? Because I'm from Wisconsin and my idea of a supper club was meeting at friends' houses weekly to cook a delicious meal from scratch together with a specific cuisine as our theme. Successful dinners included moussaka, roll-your-own sushi, murgh tikki masala, and a New England seafood boil. 

I soon learned, however, that a true Wisconsin supper club is something completely different – and that, to my surprise, I'd actually eaten at several establishments Faiola highlights. 

Supper clubs have a long tradition in Wisconsin. Many began as dance halls, taverns, roadhouses, and recreational areas. During Prohibition some were even speakeasies, however, later they all morphed into family-run restaurants with menus full of Wisconsin comfort food. They were mom-and-pop to the core, as many of the eateries had the families living on the grounds. There is an unspoken understanding at these clubs that dinner is meant to last for hours so that diners can enjoy fellowship with each other, not unlike going to a friend's house for dinner. "Club" is actually a misnomer because Wisconsin supper clubs aren't exclusive nor are there fees to be a "member."  Supper clubs are more upscale than taverns with nicely appointed table settings and higher-end ingredients like prime rib, lobster, and shrimp as well as homemade soups, salad dressings, and desserts.

Faiola gives a good overview of the defining factors of Wisconsin supper clubs in his book to help readers unfamiliar with them to better understand what to expect. For example:

  • Prime rib or surf & turf specials every Saturday night
  • Pre-supper relish tray (preferably served on stainless steel)
  • Christmas lights strung across log structures year-round
  • Waitresses that call you "Hon"
  • Jell-O served as a salad option
  • Walleye as a regular menu item
  • No cappuccino, ever
  • All-you-can-eat fried fish on Fridays
  • In addition, there are regional specialties which differ depending on which part of the state you find yourself. Up north, you might find popovers and fried pickles on the menu while further south, a variety of different uses for shrimp. One of the supper clubs that I visited in the southwestern part of the state has a specialty of Irish potatoes which come out from the kitchen steaming so hot, but smelling so delicious, that there is an internal struggle about whether it's worth it to bite into one before they've cooled down. 

    Faiola's colloquial writing style pairs very nicely with his theme as he reviews the meals, drinks, decor, proprietors, and atmosphere at the 50 clubs in his book. With the state divided geographically into five sections, it guides the reader on a culinary road trip. His anecdotes bring the clubs to life along with beautiful photographs he took himself. Even for foodie enthusiasts, who may not otherwise in indulge in such treats as jello and platters piled high with meat and potatoes, finding these out-of-the-way wood paneled restaurants has become something of a culinary quest.

    Different than other travel guides, "Wisconsin Supper Clubs" doesn't offer star ratings or dollar signs indicating how much a meal costs, but it does serve up a travel diary, which will be heartwarming to those who appreciate the nostalgia and comfort evoked by these establishments. The book, 223 pages long, invites Wisconsin travelers to thumb though to see what supper club might be hiding in the next town, ready to welcome you with a smile and delicious food.

    For those wishing to learn even more about Wisconsin's supper club tradition, Faiola made a documentary titled "Wisconsin Supper Clubs," which is available for sale online.

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