Saturday, May 17, 2008

Supper Clubs..."That peculiar Wisconsin Institution"


Hello everybody, I'm in California right now. I'm typing from the balcony of my hotel room, high on the cliffs between Shell and Pismo Beach, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Oddly enough, my thoughts are on that peculiar institution that Wisconsin did, and still does so well - Supper Clubs. Actually, let me digress, my thoughts are on the fact that (A) I'm typing (the whole world is typing) on the Milwaukee invented qwerty keyboard (B) the surfers on the beach below owe their lifestyle and board design to Wisconin's surfing pioneer, Tom Blake, and (C) I'm thinking about supper clubs because it's Friday night and there aren't any supper clubs here. I have in front of me a restaurant brochure that I grabbed in the San Fernando Valley. After a short history describing the first Tiki restaurants in California, it proudly proclaims that "Beverly Hills, California was the site of America's first Supper Club." True. It is true that in the 1920's, the first Supper Club was built in Beverly Hills...It was built by Lawrence Frank...from Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Supper Clubs are Wisconsin. Period. Other states may have them, but they are few, far between, they don't do Friday Night Fish Fry and they have no clue what a Brandy Old Fashioned Sweet or Sour is. Supper Clubs are defined by Wikipedia as being "an American dining establishment generally found in the Upper Midwestern states of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan". I've been to what Minnesota and Michigan call supper clubs - we call them "restaurants". Here's a definition from The New York Times that I can only paraphrase because I read it in the early 90's, "Supper Clubs are an institution peculiar to Wisconsin." And finally, from a restaurant brochure produced in Wisconsin: "The Supper Cub is a proud Wisconsin institution." That's more like it.
A supper Club can be located in town, like Ed Thompson's Tee Pee Supper Club in downtown Tomah. But most are outside of towns - usually, but not always located near a lake or a resort. The one's I remember best were exotic destinations at the end of long drives, always on a Friday night (don't you love it that the days of the week are named after Norse Gods?), and the names...The Fireside, The Norse Chalet, Club 26, The Pyramid (an actual pyramid), and that legend of legends among supper clubs, The Gobbler.

The Gobbler Motel and Supper Club was built in the late 60's on a gentle hillside just off I-94 in Johnson's Creek. The Club, it's interior a crazy mishmash of pink and purple shag carpeting and lava rock, was somewhat circular and when viewed from overhead it resembled a turkey hanging on the wall of The Museum of Modern Art. Here's the cool part - it had a rotating bar that made a full circle every 80 minutes, and a spectacular view of rolling hills in an area that was once a gathering place of ancient Indians. The Gobbler was the work Fort Atkinson architect Helmut Ajango. Ajango is the designer of all those swooping space age churches and bachelor pad police stations that dot the landscape of southern Wisconsin. He's amazing - everything he does has a Spacely Sprocket vibe. From the Gobbler's brochure - "The Gobbler Supper Club, the only one of its kind in all the world, was conceived to enhance the role of Tom Turkey as the all-American delicacy. The building's rotunda design permits dramatic use of natural lava stone to simulate ruffled turkey feathers and windows form the 'eyes of the Gobbler."

Supper clubs have to have a great bar with an adjacent dining room. The bar is a place where you get your drinks, hang out and socialize while waiting for your table. This is a happy time governed by a simple rule: The longer it takes to get a table, the better. Supper club dining rooms come in all sizes, the best ones have no windows (I have a theory that the Gobbler failed because the view was too pretty). You are there to drink, socialize, and most important, eat and comment on the goodness of the major quantities of food that you are being served. After you are seated, it goes like this: First course: get a refill for your drink and order a salad. "The Salad can be served directly at the table in indvidual bowls, family style, or a salad bar. The table is outfitted with a full range of garnish including: carrots, radishes, olives, green onions, baby corn, gherkin pickels and a varity of fresh dressings." The main course is always one of the following: Prime rib, Steaks, Roasted chicken,Fish and local specialty. There is always a Friday night fish fry and with servings sizes being very generous, one should leave with - a term coined by Supper Club inventor, Lawrence Frank - a "doggie bag". (Now I know why my wife keeps saying "doggie bag" instead of "box".) Supper clubs are still with us, but there was a time when there was so many of them that any out of state visitor would add "....and supper clubs" to the standard observation, "I've never seen so many bars in my life." If it was bitter cold outside (In days of cheaper gas prices) everyone left their car running in the parking lot. For me, the Supper Clubs of yesterday are like the great halls of the Norse Sagas - an eternal place where departed relatives gather. When I think of my Uncle Olaf, he's smiling and laughing at a supper club, When I think of my quiet and reserved Uncle Gerhardt, he's seated next to my father at a supper club with an ear to ear grin on his face. I see my father in law, Malan, happily enjoying his meal at Marcs East Side in Appleton. Most of all, I see the Rover Boys, Lennie Anderson and Totsie Mickelson, Deerfield's leading experts on supper club ambience. cuisine, size per serving and location.
I'll be writing more on this subject and various individual Supper Clubs in future posts. Right now, It's late, I'm hungry, and I can't wait to get home to Wisconsin.

I mentioned Ed Thompson, brother of the former governor, for one reason - So you people could comment on him. I'm looking forward to any and all excellent Ed Thompson comments.

39 comments:

Pare said...

The Gobbler! I haven't thought of that place in years!

The Gobbler was so utterly fantastic I could have cried when they tore it down and replaced it with what, a Subway and a Super WalMart?

Sigh.

Poor Gobbler. Long live the supper club.

BigT said...

Does anybody remember Butch Van's Steaks? I remember it as a kid somewhere along Hwy 42 or 57 in Sheboygan or Manitowoc County.

They had a series of billboards that did a countdown in miles to the supper club, then the sign outside said "Slam on your brakes for Butch Van's Steaks!"

talkbox said...

The Camelot, The Castaway, Romy's Nightingale, Arne's Chalet, the Arbor Dell, nice post.

Steve said...

Frank,
Remember Arbor Dell in Cambridge? That was one of the big Lennie/Totsie hangouts, particularly on Friday night for the fish fry. Huge plates of battered cod served family style with heaps of french fries with a view of Beautiful Lake Ripley.

I remember family gatherings where my Thorstad uncles and cousins literally talked for hours about the best supper clubs in the area, comparing prime rib to steak to walleye to roast chicken, etc, all washed down the gullet with brandy. It was like listening to a debate on the relative merits of death by heart attack or stroke.

Here in Menomonie, there used to be one named after the owners dog, a Labrador Retriever. The dog's head was woven into a repeating pattern in the carpet. It was amazing. Steve

flasputnik said...

The Arbor Dell was great. The anonymous person in
comment #3 even mentions it. It was the site of my second ever pedal steel gig as a young teenager. $30
a night plus tips.

Too Much Coffee said...

The one in Menomonie was The Bolo. I was there once, and remember the retriever theme. There was a motel that was part of the complex. It was a lot of real estate at a high traffic location. People were not driving past the modern places to stay at a property that was dated. So there were higher value, if less esthetically pleasing, uses for a parcel of that size.

Steve said...

The Bolo. Thanks, couldn't remember the name. It closed shortly after the only time I ate there with my wife.

Anonymous said...

I voted for Ed Thompson. His supper club is only ok.

Kahuna Accidentale of the Dells said...

Oh yes--let's not forget such staples of the Wisconsin Dells region as Ishnala, Jimmy's Del-Bar, Field's Steak and Stein, Wally's House of Embers and the Ravinia Inn?

(The "Del-Bar" comes from the fact of its location between Wisconsin Dells and Baraboo, and is not a contraction of "Dells Bar." Now you know.)

ajs said...

I'm looking for a sure thing for this Sat. pm- supper club/brew pub type atmosphere in the Lake Mills- Cambridge- Deerfield area.

Thoughts?

John Foust said...

The Gobbler still stands. It's not open, though. It's in Johnson Creek, at I-94 and Hwy. 26, on the southwest corner. The Outlet Mall is on the northwest corner, along with the Pine Cone truck stop. There's a Kohls and Menards on the southeast corner. There's a Wal-Mart ten minutes to the north in Watertown and ten minutes to the south in Jefferson, but none in Creek.

Jeff said...

Great article...and thanks for the link to my review of Ed Thompson's Tee Pee Supper Club on EatWisconsin. Some of my favorites are Bootleggers in Tomahawk and Marty's Place North in Woodruff, which I also reviewed here: http://eatwisconsin.wordpress.com/2007/10/19/martys-place-north/

Feetz said...

"Butch" Van's Supper Club was on Hwy 42 near Kewaunee, in a hamlet now labeled as "Rostok" (Though it never had a sign when Van's Supper Club was there). The building now houses "Pots R Us" which sells clay pots. The old "Slam on your brakes" sign board still stands, but it was empty last I looked.

But the C&C Supper Club in Fish Creek still gives you a pretty good old supper club feel. And the Sister Bay Bowl gives you all that plus, obviously, bowling.

Anonymous said...

Anyone from southern Wisconsin, remember the 'Sterlingworth Travel Lodge', located on Hwy. 67 north of Elkhorn, on the east side of Lauderdale Lakes.

Essentially, a great supper club and hotel combined. It had a quaint, rustic lodge decor until the original buildings suffered fire damage sometime in the early or mid 70s. They rebuilt, but it lost all its ambiance.

The other places I'd been to as a kid in the '60s was the Gobbler (great place), the Embers, and someplace in Madison that I can't remember - we used to call it Fisher's, I think. Can anyone help out with that? I think the same family owned a similar place in Hebron Ill if I'm not mistaken.

Jill and Kevin said...

I hope ajs found Pine Knoll last May. Did you know the Gobbler had the turkey theme in the first place because the owners, the Hartwigs, were turkey farmers? Ah....the Ishnala...haven't been there for a couple of years. Can't beat a supper club with real trees growing up through the floor all the way through the ceiling. And isn't it a requirement at supper clubs that when sitting at the bar you're higher up than the bartenders? The floor inside the bar is always lower than where the customers sit. THAT'S how you know you are in a REAL supper club....

Anonymous said...

The Gobbler is for sale! It will only cost you $2.7 million for the building and all the land.

http://www.buythegobbler.com/

Anonymous said...

My family was sitting around the breakfast table in Palm Desert, CA talking about Sterlingworth when I wondered if they were still there and had a web site. Up came this site, a very interesting review of the subject! Thanks!

Everytown had their own places, Monroe had Marco's, The maple Grove, and later The Mansion. We haven't been there for years, but they seem to have died out.

One subject missing is the music! They usually had a keyboard player who handled the organ (often a Hammond B-3) with a grand piano. They had a mic and would sing as well as announce weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, and whatever. Always in formal wear, either a tux for the men or a formal gown for the women entertainers. They usually played the same joint for the whole season, from September through May, and sometimes year after year. Sing along tunes, broadway show tunes and some popular music from the early '50's (certainly NOT rock 'n' roll!) were the standards. "Studie" Green was our favorite; her family was actually related to the automaker Studebaker, but she was there in Monroe every year, pounding out the favorites!

Another whole subject is the taverns and bars in the state where you can get a burger, a shot and a beer, bring the kids, and maybe have a band on the week-ends. They were for less important outings, or for after work relaxation.

Great web site; please keep it up!

Tom Claassen said...

Babe Van Camps club resturant, in
Appleton by valley fair mall
was fantastic to and the
Wonder bar was great to.

Anonymous said...

"Slam on your bakes for Butch Van's Steaks"! :)

Anonymous said...

The Supper Club in Wisconsin is still alive in Kenosha at The Hobnob on Sheridan Road. The place drips of swank, the food is classic supper club faire and the view of Lake Michigan is wonderful. Great neon on the exterior and good service on the interior. Its a step back in time.

Anonymous said...

the best memories I have is going to the Gobbler for xmas break and spending every summer at the sterlingworth hotel. I am from chgo so my family would vacation at both places for years in the 80's. Hanging at the general store next to the sterlingworth was cool renting speed boats, I had the best childhood memories from both hotels. I just wish I had pics to look at of the sterlingworth, nothing on the internet ??

Kevin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Having grown up in Kewaunee I remember Butch Vans Steaks well. Butch Vans was the place to take your date for a "fine dining" experience prior to the Homecoming Dance or prom. A good size sirlion dinner went for about $4 back in '65 or '66.

lindao said...

WOW... I SAW WHAT I MISSED!!! I WAS JUST BY THE OLD STOMPING GROUNDS A WEEk AGO AND AM NOW SO GLAD WAYNE DIMMEL of past ARBOR DELL gave me the low dine and how it all really was...ISO MISSED OUT ON ALL OF THE GREAT DINING!!!!

lindao said...

I am so upset that I did not get a hance to be a patron in arbor dell in it's day. I know i would have been a regular for sure as i have heard over and over about the food and service and the owner who was Wayne DIMMEL.toggors

Anonymous said...

Number one Prime Rib in Wisconsin -- way better than anything you will find at Lowrey's in Chicago is at The Pine Tree supper club in the town of Royalton in between New London and Waupaca. I always stop whenever I go up to see my folks.

Anonymous said...

For lake side great Prime Rib, the Buckhorn Supper Club on Lake Koshkonong, Milton, WI. Been there since the 1930's. Very nice outside patio, and ribs are very good.

Tim said...

If I remember correctly "The Gobbler" had a revolving bar that took one hour to go around.

Scott said...

Does anyone else remember Molegaurds Indian Lodge in St Germain, or The Camelot in Kingston. How about The Coach Light in Princeton I did find a good spot in Ripon this last summer called Alibi's. The bartenders will be sure to ask if your old fashioo or manhatten is everything you expected.

Supper Club Guy said...

There's a movie about Wisconsin Supper Clubs on WPT/MPTV, called Wisconsin Supper Clubs: An Old Fashioned Experience. And in April, 2013 a book on Wisconsin Supper Clubs is being released by Agate/Midway. 50 clubs, 225 pages - covering every part of the state and some of the places mentioned here.

Anonymous said...

The Owl's Nest just outside of Poynette. Regular stop for Capone and Co between Chicago and Couderay. Their cheese spread on the relish tray was so popular that it is now sold in stores even though the supper club is gone.

Colleen said...

Southwest WI has several fantastic supper clubs: The Elmo Club outside of Platteville, Red's in Darlington, Three Mile House on the IL/WI state line (located IN WI though), and our favorite, The Red Top outside of Dickeyville.

Anonymous said...

Bring back Arbor Dell on Lake Ripley in Cambridge.

Venice said...

When we would go up to Shore Place Resort in the 60's and 70's Arbor Dell was a regular stop for our parents and every once and a while the kids, during that time it was owned by the Damp Family. The other place was Judd's on 18.

Kathy Brozek-Cammack - Worth, IL said...

I remember going to Lake Ripley when I was around 14 yrs old around 1971. We bought a 60 FT. Mobile home at a trailer park at the top of a hill on Lake Ripley and walking down the steep hill to Arbor Dell that had the most delicious fish entries anywhere. They had the huge picture windows that looked out to the lake. If you needed to borrow a Pontoon boat there were plenty parked at the boat dock and someone would just hand you the keys. I remember the Damp family and always a friendly hello from Bob the owner. It was a special place that I will always remember from my youth. We need to bring those family friendly places back. They were what made Wisconsin a great family vacation destination.- Kathy from Worth, IL

Anonymous said...

Bricks Club 47 in Black Creek was one of those steakhouses where the steaks come out on the aluminum platters sizzling with melted butter as they come to your table from the kitchen..Always a salad with a veggie trsy on the table..Mixed drinks were always good at the bar until your number was called

Anonymous said...

The C&C is gone, replaced by a wine bar or something of the sort. The Owl's Nest is still operating, we ate there this summer.

Anonymous said...

Hoffman's at Riverdale Country Club was one of the most popular supper clubs between Milwaukee and Green Bay. During the 60s, it was not unusual to see Packer players like Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, Ron Kramer and Max McGee in the dining room, or at the bar after a round of golf. People loved being able to say they were eating at the "country club" without having to join a country club. Great food, piano bar six nights a week, live band for dancing on Saturday nights.

Anonymous said...

Marco's Supper Club in Monroe.....there would be no finer place to be than there on a Friday or Saturday night. Marco and Helena Bregenzer were always there making sure you were full, happy, and having a good time. Rudy Burkhalter, Ray and Connie Oles, Hap Hogan sang in the background. Brandy Old Fashion Sweets and Tom Collins were going down faster than. The bartenders could make them. The steaks were always sizzling and the seafood was fresh, big, and delectable. Ahhhh...those were the days!!