Ron Faiola is no stranger to supper clubs, especially those scattered throughout our neighbor state to the north. Wisconsin Supper Clubs: Another Round is his second glossy coffee-table book focusing on these out of the way locales. In addition to his books, Faiola is like a grand master of classic Wisconsin culinary traditions, having produced several documentaries focused on this fare, most notably, the classic fish fry.
But, to those not in the know: what are supper clubs? And why should we care?
The former question is the easiest to answer. Supper clubs were some of the earliest restaurants in the United States. Sprouting up in the early 20th century and peaking around its mid, supper clubs were local places (often the only place in town) owned and operated as family businesses, that broadly combined heavy, earthy meals of meat and potatoes, alongside live music, and a selection of esoteric cocktails.
Some of the stock-in-trade dishes supper clubs served are downright quaint, such as the insistence on salad bars or relish trays, a melange of pickled vegetables, cheese or liver pate spreads, along with meatballs or cocktail wienies. Steak and prime rib were on tap. Friday was always fish fry. European staples graced the menu. Old Fashioned cocktails (no pun intended in many supper clubs’ irony-free spaces) were in high demand.
Faiola has trekked across Wisconsin (where these spaces are over-represented for various historic, cultural and geographic reasons) documenting as many supper clubs as possible. Although he refrains from ranking one over another, he expresses his confidence that each place featured has something unique to offer. At each spot he presents a series of photos documenting the owners (often elderly operators, or younger faces two or three generations apart) alongside glamour shots of their signature dishes. Given that supper clubs conform to a certain genre of dining, there is a great deal of sameness in these photographs.
However, the question of what defines a supper club, who runs them, and what they have to offer is overshadowed by the infinitely more vital one: why do they matter?
Urban dwellers may be less familiar with supper clubs because most exist in rural spaces, or, through some miracle if they haven’t been pushed out by chain restaurants, in older suburban areas. Many more are long extinct. Faiola, in his foreword to this sequel, notes the various misfortunes of clubs he’s visited in the past, or meant to visit in the present or near future. Fires, foreclosures, the death of owners and reluctant heirs have made the supper club a sort of endangered species.
Supper clubs represent a link in a long chain of history. Supper clubs were operated by recent immigrants who brought with them hopes and aspirations and the cuisine of their native Germany, Hungary, Greece, Italy, and more. They married their customs with that of their new home. Over time, these community institutions were buffeted by changes in palettes and the homogenizing comfort of chain franchises. In a way, supper clubs are time capsules of an earlier form of dining.
Of course, there are revivals, even in urban spaces, to hold onto and enliven these traditions. It isn’t hard to draw a line between the rich bar tending history of supper clubs and many of the hipper mixologists found in Logan Square, Bucktown, Pilsen, and Wicker Park. Many supper clubs still standing are beloved by locals, where lines still form hours in advance for Friday fish fry, with many ingredients locally sourced from the surrounding community. In a way, the ultimate survival of supper clubs may be wedded to the dissemination of their tradition of locally conscious dining.
Faiola, without ever lecturing, highlights this important culinary touchstone through his numerous profiles. He preserves these spaces in his writing, photography, and documentary work just as supper clubs preserve culinary tradition through their recipes and consistent service to loyal clientele. Whatever may come of those featured in Wisconsin Supper Clubs: Another Round, they will not be forgotten.