By Mary Bergin | Photo Courtesy Travel Wisconsin (pictured: Ishnala)
On Facebook, a private group called Wisconsin Supper Club Enthusiasts has — as I write this — more than 60,000 members. Like the restaurants they patronize, there is no membership fee (out-of-staters tend to wonder about this) and anyone with a civil tongue can join in the fun.
The group formed in January 2020, as the pandemic kept most of us housebound. Shawn and Ellen Niemann of unincorporated Ellisville, in Kewaunee County, watched filmmaker Holly DeRuyter’s “Old Fashioned: The Story of the Wisconsin Supper Club” on PBS. That led Shawn to see if Facebook had a supper club group to join. There was none, so he created one that night.
END OF STORY? HARDLY.
What the group is building is a sense of community, another endearing trait that helps separate a supper club from other places to eat. Members ask for and offer up advice about where to go and what to order, sharing meal photos and — usually — raves about quality and quantity.
In mid 2021, as weather warmed and more folks carefully swapped takeout orders for a return to in-person dining, Jill Paul of Appleton got an idea to help these online supper club fans find each other by designing 4-inch-tall orange cones that resemble something with which you might mark an obstacle course, if bigger in size.
“Engage with other supper club enthusiasts and make some new friends,” she urged, through the Facebook page. “Set this cone on the bar or your table to indicate you are a Wisconsin Supper Club Enthusiast and to indicate that other enthusiasts should stop and say ‘Hi.’”
On the cone are “WISCE” stickers, and before the winter of 2022 ended, at least 2,500 cones had been distributed. So now the group’s Facebook page adds chatter and photos about where the cones showed up and who has met because of them.
Then began monthly group dinners at lesser- known or newer supper clubs, with the first reaching its max of 100 diners just a couple of days after the event was announced. It didn’t matter that it was winter. And if you were a solo diner, no problem: You’d likely be seated with like-minded souls.
Talking to strangers and sometimes turning them into friends figures into Wisconsin’s long-standing supper club character too. Customers turn the meal into a full night out, with no urge to schedule anything else. The need to wait an hour — or longer — for dinner seating is expected, especially since many supper club operators don’t take reservations.
Some of us love the debate about what makes a restaurant a supper club. We weigh in passionately and sometimes rigidly because we care about our fond memories, ethnic heritage, lifelong loyalties or family traditions.
The classic supper club is open for dinner only, independently owned for multiple generations and a favorite among local residents. Having a predictable menu, such as a Friday fish fry and Saturday prime rib specials, is an asset because many customers crave the familiar — especially after being leashed by pandemic times.
The evening begins with a Brandy Old Fashioned and ends with a Brandy Alexander (or other ice cream drink that can double as dessert). In a perfect world, a supper club meal starts with a relish tray, entrée portions are huge and the best tables have waterfront views.
One perfect example: Ishnala, the popular supper club that began as a log cabin trading post in 1826, inside of Mirror Lake State Park, near Wisconsin Dells.The gravel drive through the pine forest seems secret. Then you arrive and realize that everyone else has as well.
Reservations aren’t accepted but the setting is peaceful, with a pretty lake view and unusual architecture.Look for the original stone fireplace. Jockey for a seat at Arrowhead Bar. Ishnala is open seasonally, May through October.
Near Minocqua is Norwood Pines Supper Club, another gorgeous setting, surrounded by towering red pines, along the shore of Lake Patricia. Whitetail deer sometimes show up as dusk nears. Offering a secluded vibe, its cuisine specialties double as Northwoods fine dining.
With all-you-can-eat fish on Friday (except for half-pound portions of lake perch) come secret-recipe corn fritters. Gangsters loved it here long ago, dining downstairs and gambling upstairs.
The only supper club accessible by boat on Lake Koshkonong, near Milton, is Buckhorn Supper Club. The business began as a small bar in the 1930s; rowboats were rented and night crawlers to root beer floats were sold from a walk-up window.
Live lobster boils happen outdoors twice a month, May through October. The crustaceans are flown in from Maine, 90 are boiled at once and it’s not unusual to reach reservation capacity weeks before the meal.
For date night, head toward Lake Michigan and the neon signage of HobNob, located between Racine and Kenosha. Painted on an outside wall is a giant martini glass. Inside is an elegant, retro-rich décor: Naugahyde booths, deep burgundy walls, heavy drapes with fringe and private dining nooks.
Bar seats faces the lake, and some time their visit to coincide with the rising moon. Roasted duckling, served a la orange, is a favorite. Save room if ending with a grasshopper as dessert: The cocktail is made with 10 scoops of ice cream.
Looking for fun and a more casual, laid- back setting? Try Toby’s Supper Club on the outskirts of Madison, where food orders are placed at the bar and you’re led to a table when dining is ready to begin. That could be a while, but the convivial crowd likely will keep things interesting and spark conversation. Expect good food with no pretensions.
Historically it’s been rare for a supper club to fit a cookie cutter definition, and that’s a good thing. Any good restaurant operator listens and responds to customer feedback. Those supper club owners who survive the growing challenges of restaurant competition adapt in all kinds of ways. That might mean adding lunch hours or gluten- free fare, replacing the tableside relish tray with a salad bar or accepting reservations.
No two supper clubs are exactly alike, which might befuddle the uninitiated, but we who love them sure know a supper club when we see it.