Welcome to the Wisconsin supper club. The first rule is that time doesn’t exist here. Second, you take your old-fashioned with brandy. And go ahead, shout across the linens and the taxidermied moose head, “How’s the cheesecake tonight, Linda?” No one will mind. The third and final rule of the supper club is that everyone is family.Chain restaurants and sports bars may have stolen some of their clientele over the decades, but supper clubs have been striking a nostalgic nerve as of late. Why? Novelty is blasé, and these kitschy eateries serve up familiarity with a relish tray.
During Prohibition, these countryside hideouts offered a place of refuge; some even let regulars bring in their own liquor and store it in lockers. This tradition of taking care of people hasn’t faded. Going to a supper club, no matter where you are, isn’t just about dinner. We want to get away, to escape the real world. We have a pining for the past, and supper clubs have made nostalgia an official restaurant genre.
Today, admirers are recreating supper clubs to appeal to a new crowd. Consider the Turk’s Inn. It first opened in 1934 in Hayward, Wisconsin, and closed 79 years later. Last summer, this icon was reincarnated by Minneapolis childhood friends Tyler Erickson and Varun Kataria in Bushwick, Brooklyn. It was one of a handful of such debuts in 2019, with Chicago chef Grant Achatz opening his St. Clair Supper Club (an homage to his Michigan hometown) and Minnesota’s J.D. Fratzke launching Falls Landing in Cannon Falls (inspired by north country fish camps and hunting lodges).
So what’s different about these new-age supper clubs? Although pieces of the original Turk’s Inn — like the 800-pound neon sign and the trademark heart-shaped bar — trekked some 1,200 miles east for the rebirth, the new iteration has an updated touch when it comes to decor: India-inspired fabric walls, a giant painting of a smug white cat, and hanging pendants sourced from Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar.
The dishes are smaller, too. The Turk’s Inn offers minimalist salads, inventive shish kebabs and Instagram envy. The standard Wisconsin supper club, in contrast, serves in abundance — a reflection of immigrant culture in the early days, when plentifulness meant you’d made it. Doggie bags of New York strip are popular souvenirs.
Chicago’s St. Clair Supper Club captures the true essence, serving up righteous medium-rare prime rib and frozen grasshopper pie. Vintage cartoons adorn the walls, while paper placemats proclaim “We’re glad you’re here!” True to form, the check comes with an Andes mint.
And it’s the Andes mint, that special touch, that signals the most unchanging element of the supper club. The experience isn’t about the food; it’s about the ceremony. It’s about the familiarity. It’s about enjoying the here and now, albeit with a blast from the past.
Which is why the Wisconsin supper club will never die. Here, everyone is family. And we all just want to belong. We want to ask Linda, a few tables down, if the cheesecake special is strawberry or mint Oreo — oh, and how is her granddaughter doing? She will of course answer, “She’s wonderful. And how’s your mother, sweetheart?”