Wisconsin Supper Clubs Are the Midwest's Best Kept Secret

Here’s what makes them so iconic.

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Some of America’s best traditions have gone with the wind, but in the Midwest, one establishment still stands strong, and it holds all the charm and warmth of a bygone era. Yep, we’re talking about Wisconsin Supper Clubs. It’s the dinner scene everybody wants to be in on—that is, if you know about it.

What Are Wisconsin Supper Clubs?

Wisconsin Supper Clubs aren’t just restaurants, they’re full-scale dining experiences, serving up nostalgia, ambiance, and community. There are over 250 supper clubs open for business in the cheese state, carrying on a tradition that's over 100 years old.

These family-owned and operated establishments are known for having a unique aesthetic centered around comfort. Dim lighting, wood-paneled walls, and cozy seating are all signature elements of the setting (and if you’re lucky, a crackling fireplace, too). The walls could be decorated with anything from taxidermied animals to black-and-white photos of Hollywood starlets. Regardless, the atmosphere will have you traveling back in time.

There’s an understood etiquette in these dinner-only dining spots, as well. Pre-dinner drinks are enjoyed in the bar area and Brandy Old Fashioneds are the famed beverage of choice, although Spotted Cow beer is another very classic Wisconsin option.

Most customers dress up for the occasion, and, although the meals tend to last several hours, still linger and socialize after the meal is over. So, basically, if you haven’t been sat by 7 p.m., don’t expect a table to open up any time soon.

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The Tradition of Wisconsin Supper Clubs

Believe it or not, the birthplace of the Wisconsin supper club wasn’t in Wisconsin after all. However, there is debate over the true start of the supper club culture.

Some believe Milwaukee native Lawrence Frank (actually, the same Lawrence known for Lawry’s Seasoned Salt) opened the first establishment in Beverly Hills, California in the 1930s, where the prime rib was carved table-side and a complete steak dinner only cost $1.25 apiece.

According to others, the clubs were born out of Prohibition-era speakeasies in New York, which sold elaborate dinners to cover up illegal booze sales that went on under the table (hence the laid-back and dimly-lit ambiance).

Regardless, the iconic institutions boomed across the country throughout the 1900s, but especially in the 1950s. Many took over the sites of retro pharmacies, diners, and even historic dance halls. But, popularity faded as other restaurant trends took over—that is, in every state except Wisconsin, where the time-honored tradition lives on.


What’s On the Menu?

The one must-have of the meal is the relish tray. It’s so customary, it comes out like bread on the table (although some clubs have started charging extra for the tray). Every relish tray is different, but they’ll usually be loaded up with an assortment of crackers, pickled veggies, and some sort of creamy cheese spread.

Aged steaks and prime rib are two staples, but Midwestern classics of all sorts fill out the rest of the menu. Some have French onion soup, ribs, bacon-wrapped scallops, shrimp cocktails, onion rings, and signature ice cream drinks. Of course, most will serve crispy fried cheese curds, as well.

At these iconic eateries, many of the recipes are passed down family favorites, and menus on certain nights of the week are sacred. Fridays are for fish fries, and Sundays feature hearty chicken dinners. Whatever night of the week you come in, you can expect the food to be home-style, scratch-made, and full of comfort.

Supper clubs are all about enjoying a slow meal with the people you love, and in a time when we're spoiled for choice with restaurant options, it’s the sense of community that keeps patrons loyal to these restaurants. So, if you want to see what this American tradition is really about, make a visit to the Midwest, arrive early, and prepare for a legendary evening.

Read the original article on All Recipes.