Pride // It’s something rural Wisconsin towns hang their hats on. It’s more than a local bar, it can’t be defined as a normal restaurant. It’s a community center, a gathering place, a living room, a home. A place where many families, including my own, have spent countless hours sitting, enjoying and reminiscing.
In a dimly lit backroom of a Wisconsin supper club, you’ll find a couple who have been patrons here for more than 58 years, dining on the prime rib special and sipping Old Fashioneds. Dave and Sharon Neuber could be anywhere tonight, but instead they chose to be here at Schwarz’s, their favorite local supper club, catching up with old friends and taking in the atmosphere.
That same couple happens to be my grandparents, residents of Chilton, Wisconsin, in the northeastern part of the state. For them, frequenting supper clubs has become an ingrained part of their social life — a two-to-three hour dining affair they so much enjoy on cold October nights. The food keeps them coming back and the company makes them stay.
As Wisconsin culinary culture has evolved, from northern Wisconsin to the state’s capital, heritage, craft cocktails and food remain staples of these establishments. Through an experience that is uniquely Wisconsin, generations of supper club-goers have carried on traditions that provide the culture with a modern-day resurgence.
Supper clubs haven’t changed that much over the years, according to Sharon Neuber. My grandparents like to have a cocktail and can always count on a nice dinner that includes a selection of entrees and a choice of potato.
“It’s more like a complete dinner, like a nice night out,” Sharon Neuber says.
Uniting over food is common, as many come from far and wide for the tastes and experiences only supper clubs can provide.
When you sit down to eat at supper clubs, it’s like everyone in the state is sitting down at the table with you — there’s a sense that everyone is celebrating their food, says Terese Allen, a Wisconsin food writer.
Allen defines supper clubs as a family-owned, fine-dining destination that sits in a scenic part of town. These places mean more than what food they serve. They have become places where everyone — rich, poor, young and old — is welcome.
This element distinguishes supper clubs from other restaurants and establishments. When you walk into a supper club you sense community, and you feel the extension of hospitality, Allen says.
Lisa Schwarz, the owner of Schwarz’s Supper Club of St. Anna, in New Holstein, Wisconsin, says their business centers on ways to make their customers feel welcome. After being in operation for more than 50 years, Schwarz knows the ins-and-outs of owning and managing a successful establishment. According to Schwarz, their establishment is constantly trying to improve, but they also try to stick with what they know, and do it well.
These establishments are very important, Neuber says. Supper clubs are a place where they’d bring a visitor when they arrive in Chilton. They ultimately go because they can find a mix of everything.
Allen explains one of the reasons why supper clubs have endured for so long is because of the food they serve and their connections to customers. Holding true to Midwestern values, Wisconsin is a state about value and generosity. That’s why patrons see hearty portions for a relatively low monetary price. Hard work, a sense of value and community all factor into why supper clubs are important, Allen says.
Rooted in Catholic tradition, Wisconsin finds its food heritage in the tradition of breaking bread. Supper clubs are used as a call to bring friends and families together. Joslynne Schneider, a former waitress at a supper club in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, says many of the people who frequented the restaurant were family and friends. Familiar faces made up a large portion of the demographic.
“The older folks for sure came right when it opened around 4:30, I always noticed that we always had the older people come before it got busy,” Schneider says. “A mix of more young adults and families came later on in the evening.”
The heyday of supper clubs was during the prosperous economic times of the 1950s and 60s, according to Ron Faiola, author of “Wisconsin Supper Clubs: An Old-Fashioned Experience.” Patrons begin their visit with a trip to the bar where a bartender greets them and mixes them a brandy Old Fashioned. Due in part to Wisconsin’s history of immigration, many settlers came from northern Europe where they drank spirits that were on the sweeter side and thus, the tradition of the Old Fashioned stuck.
Gemütlichkeit, a German term used to describe friendliness and camaraderie, is commonly used to represent belonging and social acceptance. Due to the state’s deep German roots, Gemütlichkeit is a good descriptor of the atmosphere at supper clubs throughout Wisconsin, according to Allen.
There is also a cultural recognition of importance that is tied to eating and drinking, Allen says. This strong immigrant population believed in many customs that still hold true today.
Sunday is seen as a day of rest, and many would spend it going on picnics, playing cards, drinking beer and eating good food. Wisconsin might have a party culture, but in every sense of the word, it also means celebrating together and sharing experiences.
At the bar // Grandma, Grandpa and I start every supper club outing with a cocktail. Each brandy Old Fashioned is hand-crafted to perfection. The bartender carefully adds fresh aromatic fruit; white, crystallized sugar cubes and a dash of bitters. Then the contents are muddled to appropriate consistency. The bartender finishes with a shot of brandy and tops it with a splash of sweet soda. The process isn’t something new, yet it’s still enthralling. We chat with the bartender and make friends with the person sitting next to us.
Schneider explains many of her patrons enjoyed “bellying up to the bar” before sitting down for dinner.
“I saw a lot of people go to the bar first. I think they liked interacting with the bartenders, as well, because one of them was the owner,” Schneider says. “Getting to know him and interacting with him was always nice.”
An integral aspect of supper clubs is local Wisconsin agriculture. Many businesses pride themselves on serving locally produced food and supporting farm-to-table practices. Not only do these actions become sustainable, but they create a connection between the supper club and diner. Much of the food is cooked from scratch and is served to the table piping hot. The Friday night fish fries and Saturday prime rib special often feature fish and meat that is bought locally. Serving the best meat and fish possible is a priority, according to Allen.
As supper clubs were sprouting up across the state, Wisconsin’s elaborate network of roads helped connect supper clubs to local agriculture. The roads, established mostly in rural areas, would carry milk from farms to cheese factories, and, as a result, Wisconsin remained largely agrarian. Supper clubs began appearing along these roadways and quickly became popular, says Allen.
Dinner // After our table is called, we head back into the dining room where flickering candles burn, chatter between friends and family fills the room, and the smell of a sizzling steak wafts from the kitchen. The relish tray is already on the table and a fresh-cut salad is waiting at the salad bar. After we eat, our plates are quickly cleared away and the special is brought to our table. Our eyes are bigger than our stomachs, but the taste of a prime rib special is something you can only find here. Bite by bite, we fill up until content.
“We had a special … a prime rib special, and that was always a big thing for people,” Schneider says. She remembers family friends coming in every Sunday and others coming in weekly for the special.
An essential part of the overall dining experience isn’t just the brandy Old Fashioned or the prime rib special, but the relish tray. This mix of hearty vegetables, along with the salad bar, has become a core staple of the menu.
“[Tradition] is really important, especially around here,” Neuber says. “In Charlesburg, they’ve had the same salad bar ever since they opened … because that’s what they’re known for.”
Atmosphere plays a big role in the diner’s experience. Supper clubs provide a place for people to slow down and enjoy. It’s a place where more than one server waits on a table and where guests won’t be rushed out, says Faiola.
“Once people made a connection with a certain waitress, they want to come back,” Schneider says. This connection contributes to the overall experience of many and is often more important than anything they can get or feel at the bar and grill down the road, according to Schneider.
In Wisconsin’s deep history, supper clubs have become part of a rich, culinary tradition in the state. The state motto of Wisconsin is Forward, and in some urban areas, places are putting this word into practice.
Brian Hamilton, the general manager of 1847 at the Stamm House in Middleton, Wisconsin, explains how an old supper club got its revitalization in an urban setting. Under new ownership, the idea of serving American food in a casually elegant environment came to fruition.
“1847 existed as a supper club for so long … we have three, sometimes four, generations of people that still come in here,” Hamilton says of 1847 at the Stamm House’s history. “We have people in their 90s that got married here in the ’50s, so there’s the history of the restaurant especially in the golden years of the supper club era.”
“We do still do nightly specials which the old Stamm House and many supper clubs do, and of course, that includes fish fry on Friday nights and chicken and dumplings on Wednesdays,” he says. “People come in for that a lot.”
After dinner // Our experience wouldn’t be complete without an after-dinner drink. As we head back to the bar, Grandma runs into her good friend, Sandra. As they talk for a moment, Grandpa and I slip away to order three grasshoppers. These sweet, mint drinks finish the night perfectly. We leave happy and satisfied, our stomachs filled with the best cooking in the area.
With a combination of casual elegance and traditional feel, establishments like 1847 at the Stamm House are becoming a pivotal revitalization point in the community. Just like supper clubs around Wisconsin, restaurants that hold ideals like these help shape their communities in a positive way.
Drawing together the community, supper clubs and their modern counterparts serve a specific and consistent function in Wisconsin. Not only do these places affect its people, they impact Wisconsin’s culture. It becomes a walk down memory lane for some, a place to eat for others and a livelihood for many.
“When you go to these supper clubs, you’re literally in someone’s living room or dining room,” Faiola says. “It’s their home. Their family lives there and works there.” He sees supper clubs as a special place to sit, relax and visit.
So we’ll see you next Friday at the local supper club, drinking Old Fashioneds and eating the fish fry. And, if you see Dave and Sharon, make sure to say hello.
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