Increasingly imitated, never duplicated
[Editor’s Note: We asked travel writer Mary Bergin about the things people around the world love about Wisconsin. To our delight, she identified the supper club, the restaurant industry’s “comfort food” of relaxed surroundings.]
Love vs. infatuation: That’s on my mind as Valentine’s Day approaches.
When we pledge allegiance to whoever we love truly and deeply, we see value beyond good looks, a fat wallet, trendy popularity or prowess in the bedroom. We stay devoted for the long haul because we want to, not because of necessity or a bandwagon.
Some of that applies to other types of connections too. Lots of us flit from one destination to another for vacations, or when deciding which restaurants to patronize close to home. One exception is the supper club devotee whose loyalty goes beyond a fondness for prime rib and fish fries.
A welcoming nature – the feeling that everybody belongs – in part distinguishes a good supper club from the average bistro, brasserie or other types of restaurant. The owners make themselves known from behind the bar, cash register or kitchen door. We like that they care about our meal quality and well-being.
The night starts and ends with cocktails – brandy old fashioned to grasshopper – that we might not drink at another time or place. In between are relish trays or salad bars and hearty entrees. We go for the setting and to linger with neighbors or strangers, week after week, especially in rural Wisconsin.
We crave a sense of connection and find it. We banter about whether a supper club should be open for lunch or brunch because we want to own our identity, and this is a part of it.
All the little quirks and nuances have existed for decades and were largely taken for granted until 2015, when state tourism officials declared the supper club as a Wisconsin way of dining. Then came commercials, billboards and truck wraps with a supper club theme.
One concession at Green Bay’s Lambeau Field and another at Madison’s Kohl Center gained a supper club motif. At least two documentaries were devoted to supper clubs. Wisconsin State Fair introduced the Deep-fried Old Fashioned (orange cake with brandy-spiked cream cheese, maraschinos, more) and an Old Fashioned cocktail recipe contest (with a sea of 38 entrants).
Our culinary tradition has turned into an immersion, but we certainly don’t own exclusive rights to it. You get to assess the motive and value of others.
Red Stag Supper Club opened in 2007 in a converted Minneapolis warehouse. Owner Kim Bartmann is an Appleton native with fond memories of northern Wisconsin supper clubs (the White Stag is near Rhinelander).
Millie’s Supper Club opened in 2016 in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. Owner Brian Reynolds named it after his grandmother and has fond childhood memories of Wisconsin vacations with supper club dinners.
Tortoise Supper Club, near the Chicago Loop, began business in 2012. Grasshoppers are made in the kitchen, not behind the bar, and contain three kinds of liquor.
Two blocks west is Untitled Supper Club, whose entrance is deliberately hard to find, a la speakeasy. It’s upscale, a five-time Michelin honoree and home to 500-plus kinds of whiskey.
Most extreme: the opening of Turk’s Inn in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 2019. Owners bought much of the auctioned contents of the original Turk’s Inn, in business 80 years outside of Hayward, and literally transplanted it.
As a Northwoods supper club, known for outlandish décor and kitsch, it seemed especially exotic for the times. Now Turk’s Inn is an excellent backdrop for selfies and Instagram, but the jury’s out with regard to supper club love.