The modern supper club in Madison
The history of this beloved Wisconsin dining tradition is still being written, and a few Madison-area restaurants demonstrate just how much has changed — and what’s stayed the same.
Defining the supper club — from its origin to what it has become today — is a nearly impossible task.
Even Ron Faiola, who wrote the bestselling Wisconsin Supper Clubs book series and is considered by some to be the nation’s leading expert on the subject, says there is no consensus on what makes a supper club a supper club. But there has always been a common element, Faiola writes in his latest book: “People sharing a late meal with others.”
The definition expands from there. The elements you’ll find in advertisements, menus and matchbooks from bygone eras featured in Faiola’s 2021 book, “The Wisconsin Supper Clubs Story – An Illustrated History, with Relish,” provide evidence that a supper club has long been a place for fine cocktails, multi-course steak dinners and sandwiches. The supper club offers “American cuisine,” which often includes fish, prime rib, chicken dinners, shrimp cocktail, pasta, potatoes, crudités and cheese platters. Back in the 1800s, a London law that mandated pubs and restaurants close by 12:30 a.m. created a need for a late-night spot that the city’s actors, performers and theatergoers could patronize after Saturday night shows that most often ended around 11 p.m. Members-only clubs popped up, introducing the world to the very first supper clubs, according to Faiola. Today’s Wisconsin iterations aren’t so much spaces for the all-night affairs of decades past as they are dinner-only places that open at 4 p.m. and typically close by 10 p.m. Some are dining destinations that require a road trip, while others are filled to the brim with locals. Some provide dinner and a show. Many have salad bars that will lure you away from your table at the start of your meal. Others bring the relish tray to you.
What may be more significant, yet more difficult to assign to the historical cachet in a few words or less, are the countless stories and traditions that have helped define a supper club. To some, there’s only ever been one acceptable sequence at such an establishment. You must arrive at least an hour before your reservation to enjoy a cocktail at the bar. Whether it be with a martini, a Manhattan or a brandy Old-Fashioned in hand, you should enjoy mingling with strangers who turn into friends by the end of the night. Once the table is ready, it’s time to enjoy the bread service, then course one, course two and so on and so on. You laugh, tell tales, clink glasses and make plans for your next visit. After supper, you stop back at the bar for a boozy ice cream drink — perhaps a grasshopper or a pink squirrel — and you only leave early if the babysitter is getting picked up by a certain time.
Nights like that have been unfolding across Wisconsin for close to 100 years, and they’ll continue to. But a lot has changed along the way. It’s happening in real time at the four places we feature in this story. Some of these “adult playgrounds” have become spots for the family to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries, sparking multigenerational traditions. Others are restaurants in their infancy trying to capture that supper club magic in their own ways. Many of their menus are progressing (think zero-proof alcohol and healthier entrees) to appeal to modern palates. A few are treading lightly with a “supper club” label while others are leaning into it, with owners signing autographs in tribute books like Faiola’s.
All are writing the supper club’s next chapter.
Read more about: The Harvey House | Driftless Social | Cranberry Club | The Del-Bar
A Very, Very Brief History of the Supper Club
Humor us as we cover more than 100 years of history in about 300 words.
New Yorkers got their first taste of fine dining in the early 1800s, and the phrase “supper club” came about in 1844 — nearly a century before Wisconsin’s first supper clubs opened. It’s an evolution rather than a hard and fast beginning. The lines blur between the wet parlors, speakeasies, dance halls, roadhouses and supper clubs, both casual and elegant, whose histories coincide with the Prohibition era.
Some of Wisconsin’s first supper clubs opened between 1928 and 1935, according to author Ron Faiola’s latest supper club book, “The Wisconsin Supper Clubs Story – An Illustrated History, with Relish.” The first few included Ray Radigan’s near Kenosha, The Turk’s Inn in Hayward, The Beverly Supper Club in Oshkosh, Riviera Supper Club in Green Bay, Paul’s Nautical Inn in Sturgeon Bay and Jake Skall’s Colonial Wonder Bar and Dining Room in Appleton.
Closer to home, the Hoffman brothers started two of the Madison area’s most iconic supper clubs. The Hoffman House opened in 1946 at 514 E. Wilson St. (the current location of Essen Haus). While no longer in Madison, Hoffman House remains in its current Rockford, Illinois, location. In 1953, the brothers purchased Ishnala, a former meeting place for the native Winnebago tribe. It has become one of Wisconsin’s most well-known supper clubs and a scenic location for candlelit dinners overlooking Mirror Lake. While some Madison-area supper clubs live on only in memory, others are keeping supper club traditions alive, including Delaney’s Steak Seafood and Wine, Green Acres Restaurant, The Hilltop, Kavanaugh’s Esquire Club, Toby’s Supper Club, Mariner’s Inn, Rex’s Innkeeper and Tornado Room Steak House.
We’ve missed a lot here — including Ishnala’s involvement in the largest manhunt in Wisconsin history; the wacky and bizarre era of supper clubs in the 1960s; the tide change in the ’70s and ’80s when restaurant chain imitations rolled into town; and live entertainment highlights, from Liberace shows to punk rock concerts. Faiola’s latest book, a feast for the eyes, has all of that and more.
Read more about Modern Supper Clubs in one of these links:
The Harvey House: Witnessing an Origin Story
The Del-Bar: A Classic Remains
The Modern Supper Club Meal of Our Dreams
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