Why Wisconsin Supper Clubs Just Keep Getting Better With Age
"We have to get an after-dinner drink," says a woman in a chic black-and-gold jacket. "We're celebrating, remember?"
It's a Tuesday evening at The Butterfly Club in Beloit, Wisconsin, and three friends at a window table are reminiscing over dinner. The occasion? The 53rd anniversary of the couple in the group. As they chatter about old memories, they keep coming back to nights spent at the nearly 100-year-old supper club.
"We used to do what we called 'the convertible run' from Lake Geneva," Jan Sutte says. "All of us who had convertibles would meet at Geneva National, and we would run down the backroads to come to dinner here. The Butterfly Club was always our destination."
Susan and Gene Krinn have spent many evenings in the teal-tinged dining room. "The last time we celebrated our anniversary here, there was a wedding party," Susan says. "I just remember saying 'I can't believe we're celebrating our anniversary, and they're celebrating their wedding.'"
"We all have history here," Jan chimes in.
Supper clubs have history too. Originally roadhouses and dance halls with more alcohol choices than food, the clubs hit their heyday in the mid-1900s. Though Wisconsin can't claim the first one (New York City and London vie for that accolade), the Badger State has clung to the tradition most wholeheartedly.
Today more than 250 clubs remain here, surpassing any other place in the Midwest. They're a relic of the past, a time stamp of nostalgia. Choose a decade and you can travel there: '40s swing dancing at The Butterfly Club, '60s glamour at Hobnob in Racine. Often they hide in small towns, where they descend from establishments that were already licensed to sell soft drinks and food (and were known as "wet" parlors during Prohibition). Their backroad locations, as well as the oft-told tales of bootleg hooch, gangsters and other vices, just add to the mystique.
And so does the food. Because for all the hoopla surrounding their reputation, supper clubs follow a dinner routine that borders on ritual:
Brandy Old-Fashioned at the bar (sweet, sour or press)
Bread basket (or if you're lucky, a relish tray)
Appetizer (if you please)
Soup (ask for the French onion baked)
Entrée (meat or seafood)
Choice of potatoes (baked or au gratin)
After-dinner drink (ice cream-based is standard)
A fish fry hooks the crowd on Fridays. Prime rib reigns on Saturdays. And Sunday specials boast broasted chicken and barbecue ribs.
Supper clubs thrive on predictability and regularity. When everyone desires to be the next best thing, supper clubs remain solid and unchanged, like a reliable old friend. No matter the years between visits, it feels like no time has passed at all.
Bucking the misconception that supper clubs are only for the Medicare set, the diners on any given night might include two 30-something women sharing a bottle of wine, a family introducing their children to a treasured place or a young couple on a date night. "We're seeing lots of new faces," says Matt Huhnke, co-owner of the Buckhorn Supper Club in Milton. "A whole new generation coming in."
"And our regular customers have made an effort to come back more often," adds Shelley Huhnke, Matt's partner and wife.
Ultimately, the relationship between diner and club is symbiotic. Each needs something from the other. The diner: hearty steaks and cocktails topped with mounds of ice cream. The restaurant: dollars in the till and an appreciation for supper club culture, inherited and passed down again. "These places aren't open by coincidence," says Gene Krinn, back at The Butterfly Club. "It takes an act of love to keep them open."
"Now," his friend Jan says. "What are we drinking ? I want something special."
The Butterfly Club, Beloit
The Butterfly Club opened as The Butterfly Tea Room in 1924. It was named for the many yellow and white butterflies in a nearby field. See how many butterfly motifs you can find in the restaurant.
On weekends, diners flit around the dance floor in the lounge to a lively mix of Neil Diamond, Barry Manilow and Frank Sinatra songs played by a live band. Bright teal, the club's signature color, splashes across the walls, chairs and table linens.
What to Order
Try a regional specialty, Shrimp de Jonghe. The recipe originated in Chicago as a baked casserole of shrimp, sherry, garlic, breadcrumbs and lots of butter. The Butterfly Club serves its version in a puff pastry shell with plump shrimp, mozzarella, onions, mushrooms and sherry breadcrumbs.
Built in 1954, Hobnob is filled with exotic vases, tapestries and artwork collected by the world-traveling Higgins family, who founded the club.
Midcentury modern meets Lake Michigan, with a soundtrack of upbeat oldies. (The full name is Hobnob Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge, if that gives you a clue.) The jewel-tone bar and panoramic dining room windows overlook the lake—a stormy sea or an arctic wonderland in winter, depending on its mood.
What to Order
Steaks rule, like the tempting Tournedos of Tenderloin in béarnaise sauce. German specialties of Wiener schnitzel a la Holstein or calves liver with onion, bacon and apple slices spice things up. End with a decadent Banana Banshee or Brandy Alexander.
Buckhorn Supper Club, Milton
Bartender Colleen Janes has been mixing drinks for thirsty customers at the Buckhorn for more than 25 years. The towering Grasshopper cocktail looks like a ski slope in a glass.
A brick fireplace creates a cozy, crackling atmosphere juxtaposed with lake-decor kitsch on the walls. Opened in 1933 on the shores ofLake Koshkonong, the club has been owned by the Pope family since 1997. Typically only open weekends during winter, it sees its busiest night of the year on New Year's Eve, with a special menu, champagne toast and live music.
What to Order
The move is slow-roasted prime rib: Choose from the Queen (10–12 ounces) or King (14–16 ounces). The club hosts lobster boils May through October, but a lobster tail dinner is always on the menu.
The Duck Inn, Delavan
The Duck Inn's history dates to Prohibition, when it was a remote roadhouse and speakeasy where thirsty travelers could"duck in" for a drink.
The wood-paneled A-frame dining room resembles a warm and comfortable ski lodge. At the holidays, a towering Christmas tree rivals the statement stone fireplace.
What to Order
As the name might suggest, roasted duck dinners are the specialty. Owner Jeff Karbash uses domestic, farm-raised white Pekin ducks for their moist and tender quality and offers diners a choice of sauce: l'orange, mushroom, cherry jubilee or the ever-popular apple brandy sauce.
Holiday Cheers: Drinks to Order at a Supper Club
Though ordering a Brandy Old-Fashioned is practically compulsory at supper clubs in Wisconsin, you might spot these other classic drinks on the menu.
Tom and Jerry: dark rum, cognac, "batter" (made with beaten eggs, sugar and vanilla), nutmeg, cloves, allspice, hot milk
Hot Buttered Rum: rum, dollop of butter, brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, vanilla
Irish Coffee: Irish whiskey, brown sugar, topped with hot coffee and whipped cream
Harvey Wallbanger: vodka, Galliano liqueur, orange juice, garnished with an orange slice and a Maraschino cherry
Sloe Screw: sloe gin, vodka, orange juice, garnished with an orange slice
Cuba Libre: rum, Coca-Cola, garnished with a lime wedge
Tom Collins: London dry gin, lemon juice, simple syrup, topped with club soda, garnished with lemon and Maraschino cherry
Grasshopper: crème de menthe, crème de cacao, vanilla ice cream
Brandy Alexander: dark crème de cacao, brandy, vanilla ice cream
Pink Squirrel: crème de cacao, crème de noyaux, vanilla ice cream, topped with Maraschino cherries and whipped cream
Golden Cadillac: Galliano liqueur, crème de cacao, vanilla ice cream
If you find yourself in a Wisconsin supper club but—one or two Old-Fashioneds in—need a hint at where you are, check the complimentary bread basket for one of these local specialties.
In northwest Wisconsin, you'll often get warm, airy popovers made from an egg batter.
Beloit-area restaurants slip lightly glazed cinnamon sweet rolls into the basket.
At fish fries in Madison, look for classic, fluffy bakery dinner rolls.
Sliced Marble Rye
With Milwaukee's fry-ups, the carb of choice is this deli standard.
Ron Faiola has written three books about supper club history, food and lore—and a fourth is on the way. Learn more (and find a statewide list) on his website.