Behind the Scenes of Wisconsin Supper Clubs: Another Round
One of the hallmarks of the Midwest is gathering - and eating - together. Whether it's family or a chosen family of friends, we love to sit down to good food, laughter, and great conversation. However, each area in the Midwest has different traditions - and Wisconsin has a unique one: that of supper clubs. The state is covered with them - homegrown, comfortable restaurants that serve excellent, tasty, homemade food with such friendliness that other restaurants will start to look rude.
Wisconsin supper clubs are such a tradition that recently Travel Wisconsin announced the opening of a supper club concessions stand at Lambeau Field, home of the Green Bay Packers. Not at a game? You can find a supper club anywhere in the state - there are hundreds of them - from the big cities of Milwaukee and Madison to very small towns.
From thick-cut steaks to fish boils (a Great Lakes tradition, especially popular in Door County) and Friday fish fry, the food at supper clubs here is high quality - and there are some things not to be left out. The relish tray (cut vegetables, dip) and club cheese are standard, and come first. Then you laugh, perhaps have a cocktail out on the deck or at your window-side table, and when the food comes, you're enjoying life so much and that's the bonus. For that's what a supper club is about - socializing and eating in a very friendly and welcoming atmosphere.
If you don't live in Wisconsin, and want to learn more (and plan a trip!), pick up filmmaker and author Ron Faiola's new book, Wisconsin Supper Clubs: Another Round. It's the second book in his series, which follows his movie of the same name. I love this book, which profiles 50 supper clubs around the state. Here's where Faiola shines - he introduces each supper club with such intriguing details that we immediately want to go there. He shares the people behind the supper club, with stories of hardship, or passing it down through the family, or wait staff that have been there forever. And aren't the people the most interesting? Of course! But then comes the food, beautifully illustrated with photos that make us want to jump right in and eat. And perhaps there's a fantastic lakeside location, or a historical building - those details come through, too. Reading this is reading Wisconsin history - and the present. I love it, and am already planning trips across the big lake to eat. Highly recommended.
Want to learn more? Lucky for us, Faiola was available to chat about his new book. Take a look...
Please tell us about your book (the second in a series), Wisconsin Supper Clubs: Another Round...
I visit and profile another 50 supper clubs around the state. Plus I tell the story about a Wisconsin-born, world famous supper club entertainer, Hildegarde, and finish the book with An Ode to the Doggie Bag.
What IS a supper club, for those not in the know?
A supper club is family run, the family often lives on the premises, food is made from scratch and their decor has one or more of what I call the "Holy Trinity" of Supper Club decor - dark wood panelling, twinkly lights, and taxidermy.
Dining Room, Four Seasons Supper Club and Resort, Arbor Vitae
What inspired you to write this series of books?
I've been going to supper clubs since I was young, however, in 2009 I was shooting a documentary on the tradition of the Friday night fish fry (Fish Fry Night Milwaukee) and I was looking for a supper club fish fry to include and realized that Wisconsin supper clubs was a whole separate topic that hadn't been explored before. The movie, Wisconsin Supper Clubs - An Old Fashioned Experience was released in 2011 to PBS nationwide. A positive review of the movie by Rick Kogan in the Chicago Tribune resulted in my being contacted by Doug Seibold from Agate Publishing asking if I would consider doing a book. Next thing I know, I had a contract and was on the road working on the first book. That book did (and still does) very well and since there are so many supper clubs in Wisconsin, a second book was a natural follow-up.
Chef Alison Nave sends food out. The Village Supper Club, Kenosha
We're all about the research - what was it like, to research this book? How many miles did you log? What surprised you most?
I know I put on at least 5,000 miles on my car for each book. Pre-production research consisted of a master list of about 200 clubs, then I would try to find out as much as I could about them - including recommendations from people who saw the movie or had the first book. After narrowing my choices down to around 60, I tried to arrange them geographically so I wasn't doing them all in one area. Then letters went out to 55-60 places. Not all responded or wanted to take part which was a bit of a surprise, but I ended up with 50 solid choices which was my goal.
Two things stood out for me, from reading this book. First, that people LOVE supper clubs and are willing to carry on the tradition, whether in their family, or from previous work or dining experiences. Second, that this is definitely a phenomenon steeped in location - from Wisconsin fish boils to historical buildings (and ghosts). Your book is so good at sharing people and history - how do you tell a supper club's story? What stands out for you, that you are compelled to share? What traits do you see over and over again, in owners, chefs, and staff?
One of the most common traits that Wisconsin supper clubs share is their history of having a devastating fire at some point. But that's when they'd build a new dining room or add to or update the kitchen. Supper club owners do this out of their love for entertaining and serving great food. It's certainly not about money, especially when you see the stories of owners holding a second job in addition to running the club. Often times they have a background in food, but some don't and a good chef is key to their survival. Sometimes their chefs and staff are family members but even if they're not, they become part of the family and stay for many years. Same with regular customers - they're treated like family. If a regular doesn't show up on their usual night, the owners will call and check on them.
What's up next for you?
Right now, I'll be out promoting Another Round at the clubs in the book and at personal appearances and bookstores. After that, we'll see...
Is there anything else you'd like to share?
The cover image for Another Round. In the summer of 2015, I was finishing the last dozen clubs and we had the name of the book but did not have a cover photo yet. I told Doug that it would be difficult to top the photo at Ishnalla that is on the first book. But the next day, I was at the Silver Birch in Tomahawk and asked their bartender Jim for a brandy old fashioned and set it on the rail overlooking the view of Halfmoon Lake. I took a couple dozen shots and sent some samples to Doug and he loved them - we had the cover!
And read my interview (with recipe!!) with Faiola over at our food site, i8tonite: i8tonite with Wisconsin Supper Clubs Author & Filmmaker Ron Faiola & Recipe for Onion Pie
Author Photo © Art Mellor. All other photos courtesy and copyright Ron Faiola