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.