The most sought-after dining experiences these days offer a fusion of ingredients and flavors all artfully placed on a plate so beautiful you are afraid to touch it. However, there’s a quiet food renaissance happening in Wisconsin that is taking food back to its simple roots. Welcome to the phenomena of Wisconsin Supper Clubs.
It’s more than just food; it’s the complete dining experience going back to its roots – it’s supper. A term mainly used in the Midwest, and coincidentally that’s where you’ll find most supper clubs. These long-term eating establishments have a culture all their own; a culture that I have come to love.
I recently went to a supper club in Denver yearning for that classic feel of Wisconsin supper clubs. But what I got was more of a brightly lit sports bar with comfort food. It had none of the traditional supper club staples. I was so disappointed. What if people in Colorado think this was what a supper club was?!
I knew what I had to do, I needed to educate the masses on this unique American culture. I had to go to the holy land of supper clubs – Madison Wisconsin. In Madison, they know how to supper club.
Why Travel to Madison Wisconsin? For the Supper Club Culture
I landed in Madison and my sister who drove from her home in Northwest Wisconsin met me at the airport. I figured that I better call in the experts – a real Wisconsinite – if I was going to really learn about the Wisconsin Supper Club culture enough to write about it.
Within a couple of hours of landing, we found ourselves in a dark bar sitting in a semi-circle black leather booth. It felt as if I had just entered a time machine back to the 60s. I searched around for Don Draper for a second. Wasting no precious research time, my sister and other Wisconsin friends immediately ordered a round of Wisconsin old-fashioneds.
I don’t think I was ever more excited for a night to begin.
What is a Wisconsin Supper Club?
Supper Club History
Supper Clubs really began after Prohibition and took off after WWII in the 1940s. It was a way to experience luxury without the price tag. Their popularity grew in the 50s and 60s serving special meals that you wouldn’t normally make in your home. Such as prime rib and lobster.
Their popularity started decreasing in the 80s with tougher drinking and driving laws. Many fell into disrepair and the younger generations went to chain restaurants. But today supper clubs are enjoying a resurgence. Their unique mid-century atmosphere is refreshing and growing in popularity thanks to shows like Mad Men.
Supper clubs are normally found in more rural settings because it was a place where the community could come together that wasn’t a church. However, you will find some in big cities, they have even made it to New York City. Yet most outside of Wisconsin do lack the real supper club culture, much like the one I found in Denver.
Supper Club Décor
You’ll normally notice the supper clubs right away with their old-timey neon signs. They often have the word “Cocktails” on them and shine like a beacon in the rural landscape. They are a step back in time, and they have the feel of the Midwest in my opinion.
When I walk into a good one, it feels like my mom giving me a hug. There’s a comforting familiarity to it.
“I use a book for reservations instead of a computer because a computer wouldn’t fit here,” said Henry Doane, owner of Tornado Supper Club in Madison. The book is placed next to the old, big metal cash register.
Traditional supper clubs are dimly lit, and many times have wood paneling, and few windows my sister insisted. The bar is always separate from the dining area. They normally have booths; my favorite ones have circular booths. Many of them have various taxidermy hanging from the walls – especially in the more rural areas.
I don’t know that this really fits into décor, but the best supper clubs have wait staff that has been working there for 20+ years! Like Marge at Tornado who has been working there for over 22 years.
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Is a Supper Club and Restaurant the Same Thing?
Ask anyone from Wisconsin and they will say “No”. Supper clubs are warmer, friendlier, and not pretentious in the atmosphere; there’s more camaraderie. And even when they are found in big cities, there’s nothing stuffy about it. Yet don’t get the laid-back feeling confused with laid-back food. The standards of food are high. The NY strip I had at Tornado in Madison was incredible and came with a $41 price tag.
“It’s a feeling. People have a camaraderie here. It’s a place where you spend the whole night. Start at the bar with a drink. Then to the restaurant for dinner, and back to the bar for an ice cream drink,” explained Henry.
Where to find off-the-beaten-path drinks and bars in New Orleans
This sequence of events Henry describes is spot on. There is a process to eating in a supper club and it always starts at the bar and ends at the bar. The bar is typically a separate room from the fine dining. After an old-fashioned at the bar, then you move to the dining room for your multi-course, meat-heavy meal, and then back to the bar for an ice cream dessert and possibly more drinks. This is how a meal at a supper club can last all night, and let me be clear – it should last all night.
Henry and his parents would go once a month and they’d sit there all night long – even as a kid he said it was fun because you knew everyone there. It was often a 2 to 3-hour experience, you didn’t go anywhere else. A true supper club will never rush you because they need to fill the next table.
Supper clubs were all about slow food and eating way before it became trendy. They often work with the local farmers and fishermen to stock their kitchens.
One other thing to note is that Supper Club is not a chain – most are family-run restaurants. And many are generations old.
What Makes Wisconsin Supper Clubs Legit?
There are many ‘traditions’ that are considered necessary to be called a supper club in Wisconsin. The atmosphere mentioned above is only one of the things. But one thing that is for certain for all Wisconsin supper clubs is the food and drink menu. It all starts with the Wisconsin old-fashioned.
What is a Wisconsin Old Fashioned?
No, it’s not an old-fashioned with cheese in it! It’s an old-fashioned made with brandy instead of bourbon; making it a touch sweeter. This taste for sweeter drinks came from the Northern European immigrants who migrated and settled in Wisconsin. They had a tradition of spirits on the sweeter side, so it makes sense that the brandy old-fashioned became really popular in Wisconsin.
The name old fashioned was inspired by the many drinkers who refused to change with the times and ordered their drinks the ‘old fashioned’ way; a brown spirit, sugar, water, and bitters. During prohibition, often bitters, sugar, and orange were used to make the ‘bad’ liquor taste more palatable. And for Wisconsinites who like their drinks a touch sweeter, they used Brandy to sweeten it up a bit more.
Wisconsin and Korbel Brandy
The Wisconsin old-fashioned doesn’t use just any brandy, it must be a specific brandy – Korbel. This was the most baffling part to me, I had never even heard of Korbel Brandy before; I knew they made champagne, but that’s all I knew about Korbel.
It is said that Korbel became a Wisconsin staple when German settlers went to the nearby 1893 Chicago world fair where they were introduced to Korbel brandy wine. Korbel, which is made in California, exports 1/3 of its total products to the state of Wisconsin. That’s 139,000 cases a year. Wisconsinites are so crazy about Korbel brandy that when the Badgers went to Rose Bowl in 1993, they drank Pasadena out of Korbel completely!
Brandy Old Fashioned Recipe
1 Orange slice
6 dashes bitters
2 oz Korbel Brandy
2 oz Soda Water – or – Sprite/7UP
Directions: Add first 3 ingredients into glass and muddle together. Next add remaining ingredients to the glass in order. Add ice, then top with Sprite. Garnish with an orange and cherry
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What food will you find at Wisconsin Supper Clubs?
Sort of like a secret society, there are unwritten rules you’ll find at Wisconsin supper clubs when it comes to food.
Friday is always a fish fry and Saturday is always prime rib; that’s supper club law. After that things can vary a bit. Sunday is normally chicken, and Wednesday is normally clam chowder.
Overall the food is hearty, and pretty meat/fish-focused. It’s the type of food I grew up on in the Midwest – meat and potatoes…and an occasional iceberg lettuce salad. I don’t recommend going to a supper club if you are on a diet, as the portions are large and there are many courses. You’ll never leave a supper club hungry!
My sister informed me Wisconsin supper clubs had a few staples that you’d always find when it came to the meal.
Relish Tray – they can take many forms from fancy to basic. But they normally always include root vegetables that keep well; carrots, radishes, celery, and green onions with a dipping sauce.
Other Appetizers – You can normally order other appetizers if you think you need more food (what!). You’ll often find things like shrimp cocktails or oysters. Many supper clubs also offer a signature appetizer such as Tornado’s Coquille Saint Jacques – sea scallops poached in white wine with heavy cream over a mashed potato shell.
Signature Bread – Many supper clubs have some sort of fresh, hot bread brought to the table. There’s really nothing better than hot bread and a plate of butter. Some have rolls, buns, and cinnamon rolls, and some like The Laurel near my sister’s home have homemade popovers they are known for. But here’s a tip – try not to fill up on too much bread, there’s a lot more food to come!
Soup or Salad – Next you normally get a choice of soup (normally french onion) or salad or both with an entree. Supper clubs prefer the word ‘and’ to ‘or’ when it comes to a menu! And sometimes you even get a choice of a glass of tomato juice…yes, tomato juice. I personally thought this was one of the oddest things to offer as a replacement for a salad, but hey, I tried it anyway! When it comes to salad – my sister says you should only expect iceberg lettuce. No fancy spring mixes, or spinach. You’ll normally find a simple wedge salad or a salad bar. Salad bars typically have a lot of options – and sometimes you’ll even find a jello mold on the salad bar!
Steak or Fish – the main dishes are quite hearty and they change depending on the night. The one thing you can expect though is that the food is cooked really well. The steaks are incredible! If you are not a meat lover, then supper clubs may not be for you.
Potatoes – Sometimes it’s as basic as a baked potato, but many places have hashbrowns, scalloped potatoes, or some special cheesy potatoes that are a signature dish.
Ice Cream Drink – Then you head back to the bar to have your Grasshopper, Brandy Alexander, or a Pink Squirrel boozy ice cream drink. I have to admit – this is my favorite part of the meal. A big colorful, boozy glass of ice cream! It’s fitting that the ice cream drink is so popular at Wisconsin supper clubs since the lightning shaker was invented in 1884 in Racine Wisconsin. James Tufts, a soda fountain manufacturer, patented the Lightning Shaker for mixing milkshakes in 1884.
Where to go in Madison for a true Supper Club Experience
Madison has a number of great supper club options that have years of history and generations of patrons. My sister and I were pretty excited to get out and try them!
Tornado Steak House
When I read the old neon sign, in my head it was Tornaaado – for some reason it sounded more vintage and sophisticated. However, I found out pretty quickly that the name was Tornado – like the funnel cloud. It seemed like a bit of a weird name for a supper club, but the owner, Henry Doane, said he chose it because it projected power and energy.
It wasn’t always called Tornado, it started as Crandalls Supper Club. Crandalls was in the neighborhood for 45 years. It fell into disrepair in the late 80s and Henry bought and remodeled it and reopened it in the late 90s. Tornado is an icon in downtown Madison, only steps from the state Capital building.
I loved the décor at Tornado, and the food was incredible. I was particularly tickled with the wedge salad with French AND Blue Cheese dressing mixed together. When was the last time you had French dressing? It’s a Midwestern thing, but I don’t even see it much in the Midwest anymore.
My family certainly likes their steak. My sister tried the Filet Au Poivre, a filet of local grass-fed beef with a peppercorn crust and mushroom cognac cream sauce. I had the NY Strip, and it was spectacular; it was at least 2 inches thick and cooked perfectly medium rare. It was so tender in the middle it practically melted in your mouth.
Toby’s Supper Club
Another Madison classic is Toby’s Supper Club has been family owned and operated for over 40 years. This is a more traditional and casual atmosphere (i.e. it pretty much looks like the 1960s) than Tornado, and it really has the feel I look for in small-town supper clubs. It’s located on what likely used to be the outskirts of town (south of the Beltline), so it was probably a rural restaurant when it started and then Madison grew up around it.
I pulled up to Toby’s at 5:30 PM and the parking lot was packed! In addition, it honestly didn’t look like a restaurant from the outside, it looked like someone’s home. The Both of these attributes signaled to me that this was going to be a totally traditional supper club night.
Inside the place was packed and the bar was hopping. In fact, they observed the traditional way to order too; you order at the bar, and when your food is ready they will seat you in the dining room. Another unique ‘rule’ of traditional supper clubs! The Wisconsin Old Fashioneds were deliciously sweet, the relish tray was appropriately simple, and their special house bread was a cinnamon roll! I had the fillet for dinner and of course, finished with a classic pink squirrel ice cream drink.
If you are looking for a classic supper club experience, Toby’s is the real deal. Just make sure you are prepared to wait for a table. After 40 years – this place is still crazy popular.
Harvey House Supper Club
The Harvey House is Madison’s modern take on the Supper Club. Don’t go here expecting to get traditional, instead, you will get a slight twist on typical supper club traditions. For example, the relish tray is anything but simple. It’s been elevated…literally! Served on an elevated platter, you’ll get carrots, celery, radish, and pickles – but they are slightly pickled and served with a whipped-to-perfection ranch dip and a smoked trout dip. Plus, you’ll find some delicious deviled eggs on the tray too!
The Harvey House is relatively new in Madison and is located behind the old train depot. They did a complete renovation keeping the old walls and decorating with old fixtures, but updating the bar, eating, and kitchen area. At its heart, The Harvey House is inspired by the Golden Era of Train Travel and the Post Prohibition boom of Supper Clubs in the Midwest. The manager of the Harvey House described it as a ‘love letter’ to the traditional supper club.
In fact, they didn’t even have a Wisconsin Old Fashioned on the menu…what?! Instead, I had another pre-prohibition brandy-forward drink – the sidecar. They had lovely steaks and fish entrees, and of course, offered a pink squirrel for a dessert drink. However – the pink squirrel had a super fun modern twist to it. It’s still made with Creme de Noyaux, but instead of a blended ice cream drink, it’s more deconstructed.
Where to go in Northwest Wisconsin – The Laurel
Since my sister lives in Northwest Wisconsin, I was lucky enough to also frequent her local rural supper club, The Laurel. They are so old school they don’t even have a website! I was tickled as we walked inside and I immediately saw all of the signature signs of a supper club; a dark, separate bar, and a seasoned bartender behind the bar muddling orange and cherries for old-fashioneds.
I loved their popovers, steaks, and cheesy potatoes; and the glass of tomato juice wasn’t too bad either!
The Real Deal
Much like how Indian food in America is a different, ‘lighter’ version of the same food you’ll find in India, the same goes for supper clubs. There are places that call themselves Supper Clubs (like in Denver!), but to experience the real supper club culture, you need to head to Wisconsin. For me, travel is about cultural exploration, and supper clubs (done the right way), are a way to do cultural travel here in the US.
This is a slice of Americana that shouldn’t be missed. Just make sure you plan for a whole night there; in fact, you might not want to leave the comfort of the bar.
I strongly believe there is still a place for classic foods in this sous vide world. Bring on the classic favorites, because this food has something all of the modern food doesn’t…it has memories of a bygone era…and memories taste good.
PIN IT FOR LATER!
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Still hungry? Check out these 5 supper clubs with Unique Appetizers in Wisconsin.
Learn more about Wisconsin supper clubs with these books:
I was a guest of Visit Madison during my time researching supper clubs, however all opinions expressed here are my own.