When Does A Wisconsin Restaurant Turn Into A Supper Club?
If you've ever taken a road trip through Wisconsin, you've probably seen the billboards.
Supper clubs dot the Wisconsin landscape from Beloit to Superior. We've probably all eaten at a supper club but what is a supper club? What does it need to have?
There's fortunately been a lot of ink spilled on this topic already. I encourage you to check out a few articles I read putting this together, here, here, here, and this short trailer for a supper club documentary is helpful as well.
The common theme I found throughout the articles (and in spite of a rather useless Wikipedia article) was that the supper club is hard to define. What everyone does seem to agree on is the fact that you just know a supper club when you see it.
The Travel Wisconsin website has 250 official supper clubs listed on their website but that doesn't really include all supper clubs. Some "supper clubs" don't identify as "supper clubs" officially but some estimates put the actual number of supper clubs in Wisconsin to be near 1,000.
So what is a supper club? These are the common descriptions I've found while reading up on them:
1. They're NOT franchised. Franchise is almost a dirty word when discussing supper clubs. Some blame the intrusion of franchises and their massive corporate backed ad budgets for squeezing out some long established supper clubs. Supper clubs should have a mom-and-pop feel to them. There might be other locations for the more popular supper clubs but ownership stops at the restaurant level.
2. There should be a common, unique aesthetic. While the "lodge" theme is very popular for Wisconsin supper clubs, it's not a requirement. Some take on a retro 50's look, but what's important is that it is detailed and have some sort of local connection.
3. Above average cocktails, especially Old Fashioneds. You are supposed to take your time dining at a supper club. Meals should take hours and cocktails should be consumed. A good supper club has an experienced bar staff and can serve up drinks that are meant to be enjoyed over the course of the entire dining experience. Supper clubs evolved from speakeasies after prohibition was repealed so alcohol is ingrained into the supper club culture.
4. Traditional American cuisine. The food served at a supper club should be no frills and comfortable. Prime rib, potatoes, and a salad bar are all great signs that you're in a supper club. A Friday night fish fry is also a must for any proper supper club.
5. Enormous portions and great value. The doggy bag was invented at the original supper club and the tradition continues. Children portions dwarf regular portions at most restaurants and guests are encouraged to take some home for a second meal. If you're not a little sleepy after leaving a supper club, you probably didn't properly enjoy it.
There are differing views on whether or not the supper club culture is dying. There are definitely less around these days than before but still plenty to choose from. Just head north and follow the first billboard that catches your eye, you'll probably end up with a great meal.
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