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.
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 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 Wisconsin supper club feel. 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 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 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 60’s. 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 1940’s. It was a way to experience luxury without the price tag. Their popularity grew in the 50’s and 60’s serving special meals that you wouldn’t normally make in your home. Such as prime rib and lobster.
Their popularity started decreasing in the 80’s 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 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 have 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 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.
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 a 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 desert 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 a Wisconsin Supper Club 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 their 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!
Don’t Forget the Bitters
Bitters is the other core ingredient in a Wisconsin old fashioned. We typically don’t think about bitters too much; a couple dashes here, a dash there. However do you really know how bitters are made and what’s in them? Madison Wisconsin has the answer to that in their Bitters Boot Camp.
Bitters Boot Camp at the Avenue Club and Bubble Up Bar is one of the Essential Madison Experiences. It’s a way to fully immerse yourself in hands-on adventures, and a culture that can only be found in Madison, Wisconsin.
My sister and I attended the Bitters Boot Camp and it was a highlight of our time in Madison. It doesn’t just cover how to make bitters (and you get to take your creations home), it covers the whole history of the old fashioned and Wisconsin supper clubs culture.
It’s a tradition to have a brandy old fashioned, however, there are of course other options. Here are 5 classic supper club cocktails.
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 cocktail 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, cinnamon rolls, and some like The Laurel near my sister’s home has 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 oinion) 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 to 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 lightening 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 80’s and Henry bought and remodeled it and reopened in the late 90’s. 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 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.
Avenue Club and Bubble Up Bar
While in Madison we also tried out the Avenue Club and Bubble Up Bar since that is where our Bitters Bootcamp was held. The Avenue Club also has a long history in Madison. It opened in 1956 on Madison’s East side and was a hot spot for local politicians, neighbors, and factory workers who would meet and spend hours there eating and drinking. It is now a bit more of a modern take on the Wisconsin supper club – but they still abide by the supper club ‘rules’ with brandy old fashioneds, relish trays, wedge salads, steak, and ice cream drinks. They actually had my favorite ice cream drinks!
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 say all of the signature signs of a supper club; 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), is 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 the 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 the 9 Best Supper Club Starters & Dishes
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.