The Midwestern Supper Club Revisited
Travel along a rural highway in the Upper Midwest, and chances are you’ll run into a classic supper club before you find a set of Golden Arches. Hearkening back to the post-Prohibition days when diners enthusiastically embraced their new ability to mix (at least publicly) food and drink, these roadside stand-bys offered hearty fare, ample libations, and, often, musical entertainment to keep the crowds going all night long. They were one-stop shops for people looking for an evening out — restaurants within easy driving distance from their country homes where they could see the same friends every Saturday night.
Today, of course, our more urban and mobile population doesn’t have to rely on regional establishments like supper clubs to enjoy a night away from the kitchen. With hundreds of restaurants within easy driving distance, city dwellers, at least, have an overwhelming number of choices when it comes to eating out. But intrigued by the supper-club concept and curious to see if the traditional model is still relevant today, the Heavy Table embarked on a 350-mile odyssey to visit both its classic and modern-day versions. We devoured relish trays, dug into hot, fresh popovers, and made room for humongous steaks. We talked to the restaurateurs who are keeping the flame of these pre-World War II era institutions alive, and those who are putting their own spin on the decades-old phenomenon. What we found is that while Midwestern supper clubs may automatically conjure up images of old-timers chowing down on all-you-can-eat walleye dinners, the dining establishments are thriving throughout Minnesota and Wisconsin today — just in a slightly different format than our grandparents would recognize.
The Time: 1920s
The Place: Laurel Supper Club, New Richmond, WI
“The common denominator in todayâ€™s notion of a supper club is simple American cuisine like surf and turf, shrimp cocktail on ice, charbroiled garlic toast, an ample relish tray, homemade salad dressings, and a signature dish Ăˇ la â€™sconi, from watermelon pickles, patĂ©, or potatoes au gratin to whitefish livers, monster steaks, or pan-fried frog legs,” Brenda K. Bredahl writes on TravelWisconsin.com.
Follow Highway 64 east from Stillwater, cross the state line, and pass through the burg of New Richmond, WI. The Laurel Supper Club sits unassumingly along the quiet roadway, as it has since the 1920s when it was originally called the Timber Wolf. Its name and ownership has changed hands multiple times since then, but not much else has, according to current owner Roberta Little, who bought the Laurel three and half years ago with her husband, Glen.
“We didnâ€™t change anything — we kept all the staff, all the chefs. The head chef has been the head chef for 30 years,” Little says.
And apparently, what has worked for all those years continues to please customers today, with the reservation book filling up for weekend nights weeks in advance. That relish tray, a dinosaur-sized tray of cruditĂ©s, pĂ˘tĂ©, and crackers, remains a staple for the appetizer course, and dishes like the queen- and king-sized prime rib tempt meat-loving diners with their more-than-generous portions and side dishes, which include popovers, salad, soup or tomato juice, bread, and potatoes. We couldn’t resist the 24-oz. steak for two, which also comes with your choice of a bottle of champagne, merlot, or white zinfandel. Perhaps the white zin, a high-school flashback if there ever was one, wasn’t the best choice for the juicy steak, but it provided the kitsch factor that seemed appropriate in an old-fashioned dining room that could have been found at Grandma’s house.
“You got to keep your quality good and your service has to be good. Everything is homemade. Everything thatâ€™s put on the table is made here. We cook on charcoal. Fresh-baked bread every day,” Little says.
Though you’ll find a full bar at the front of the club, as expected, what you won’t find is entertainment, which Little attributes to a lack of space and lack of interest among her patrons.
“It would be nice, but I think things have changed to the point where a lot of people donâ€™t do that much anymore, because of the drinking laws and such. Weâ€™re a supper club, weâ€™re only open until 10 p.m. on the weekends,” she says. “[Customers] used to dance — they used to polka and stuff. The cars would be lined up on the highway. It sounds like it was quite the hoppinâ€™ place.”
The Laurel is still hoppin’, to a degree, but more with multiple generations enjoying a family meal rather than couples looking to swing dance after their steaks. That suits Little just fine, as she touts her confidence in the Laurel’s staying power.
“Itâ€™s a different type of atmosphere than Applebeeâ€™s or Perkins. People always look for a special place to come and eat and celebrate a special occasion,” she says.
The Time: 1930s
The Place: Fisher’s Club, Avon, MN
“It’s like a country club of rural America without the pretension. What’s present is the sense that you’ll always know someone here,” says Colleen Hollinger-Petters, co-owner and manager of Fisher’s Club.
If you venture west on I-94 past St. Cloud and pull off the highway at exit 153, you’ll come across the tiny town of Avon, which looks idyllic now but was part of the notorious bootlegging operations of central Minnesota during Prohibition. There, a former major league baseball player named George Fisher opened a summer-only bar (he didn’t want to be tethered to a year-round occupation, according to the website) called Fisher’s Club in 1932, and later he began serving fish that his sons would catch in nearby lakes. A switch to walleye and the development of a secret batter made Fisher’s Club a popular destination for area residents and vacationers, and today it remains a lively seasonal destination for generations of Minnesotans.
And the fried walleye isn’t the only attraction — the reputation of current majority owner Garrison Keillor, an area native, also brings in diners. Keillor, along with managers Karl and Karleen Petters, their niece Colleen Hollinger-Petters, and other local families, bought Fisher’s Club from George’s son, George Jr., and his wife, Sally, in 2005. But those hoping to catch up regularly with their favorite radio host will be disappointed, as Keillor only comes up a few times each year.
“[Buying into the supper club] was more altruistic on his part rather than him wanting to be a restaurant owner,” Hollinger-Petters says.
What you will see regularly, however, are familiar faces, of both those dishing up the food and those sitting at the tables, who come early in the evening and stay until closing time Thursday through Sunday, greeting old friends and sharing BYOB liquor. (Fisher’s Club holds one of the few bottle club licenses in the state and has the old storage lockers to prove it.)
“It’s kind of a social event — they go from table to table and they’re here until 10,” Karl Petters says.
Dinner service begins in late April or early May and extends through October, allowing diners to enjoy scenic lake views and warm summer breezes as they wait for their broasted chicken, ribs, or walleye. Fisher’s version of the relish tray differs slightly from the Wisconsin edition, adding meatballs and pickled herring to the platter, but you can still order shrimp cocktail and many other supper-club favorites. The Petters family made a few modifications to the menu when it took over the supper club five years ago: beefing up the wine list and salad selection, offering a delicious walleye sandwich in addition to the full-size dinner, and developing a “5 Under $10″ menu for those looking for smaller portion sizes and dinner bills. But chef Pat Scott and the Petterses know they can’t fool around too much with the menu with so many returning customers every weekend.
“If you mess with the food, they’ll tell you about it the next day,” Karl Petters says.
Still, the current owners acknowledge that for any supper club to thrive — especially one that operates on a seasonal schedule — it has to draw in new customers who skew younger than the 50+ age group this type of eatery attracts.
“For the survival of supper clubs, you need to appeal to the peripheral crowds so they become your clientele,” Hollinger-Petters says. “At the same time, you can’t lose your signature items or you’ll lose your identity.”
So that means the walleye dinner stays, but tableside s’mores and fish tacos join the menu, too. The red wallpaper that Flo, George Sr.’s wife, hung in the 1940s and the vintage popcorn machine near the bar remain untouched, but porches were added to seat extra patrons, and plans are being made to renovate the adjoining beach. And customers expect the same table week after week, regardless if there are newcomers’ names on the Fisher’s Club reservation book.
“We have found a lot of people who have moved away and come back on Friday and Saturday nights,” Hollinger-Petters says. “We’ll see plenty of Lexuses and Cadillacs out in the parking lot — and we’re a fish shack!”
The Time: Present Day
The Places: Jensen’s Supper Club, Eagan, and Red Stag Supper Club, Northeast Minneapolis
“Supper clubs as an experience are very convivial. They’re supposed to lend themselves to anything,” says Kim Bartmann of Red Stag Supper Club.
Despite the historical implications behind the term “supper club,” a restaurant doesn’t need to have been around since the 1930s or ’40s to carry the moniker. Newer urban establishments, like Jensen’s Supper Club in Eagan and the Red Stag Supper Club in Northeast Minneapolis proudly wear the name, though their modern-day interpretations of the supper club vary in authenticity.
Jensen’s Supper Club, founded by Doron Jensen, the grandson of long-time Nebraska restaurateurs, came to the local dining scene in 1996 as a tribute to Doron’s grandparents. Described as “a place not merely to dine, but to celebrate” on the club’s website, Jensen’s offers the traditional supper-club staples on its extensive menu in a more upscale venue than the older clubs. Yes, you’ll get that relish tray and popovers at the start of every meal, but don’t expect live entertainment — the focus here is strictly on food and drink. Strong martinis, flavorful fish (walleye, of course), and surf and turf specials make it easy to find a meal for every palate, and the value of the early-bird and “new deal” menus allow diners to feast like kings for less dough than you’d think.
Nostalgia also played a large factor in Kim and Kari Bartmann’s decision to open the Red Stag Supper Club in late 2007. Having grown up in northern Wisconsin, Kim was inspired upon finding the raw warehouse space that now houses the restaurant to evoke the same dining experience she still enjoys whenever she travels home. However, she did have another motive.
“I didn’t want to re-create the food itself. I wanted to have the atmosphere and experience of a supper club but contemporize the food,” she adds. “We have more salads, we have steaks, but they’re grass-fed. It’s still an American palate.”
But one traditional aspect of supper clubs that Bartmann was determined to keep was the entertainment. Local musical acts frequent the club in the 10 p.m. hour and later, and the Red Stag hosts a trivia hour every Sunday afternoon. With a 2 a.m. closing time, the Red Stag caters to more night owls than your typical supper club — a calculated move, according to Bartmann, to create a signature “whole-night” experience.
“It’s about being with friends and hanging out for a period of time. It’s the polar opposite of fast-casual dining,” Bartmann says. “I focus on people having a [good] experience and then wanting to come back.”
Built with many salvaged materials and hand-crafted touches, Red Stag also has the distinction of being Minnesota’s first LEED-CI certified restaurant. But while customers may feel good about patronizing a place that uses LED lights and sources local ingredients, it’s the family atmosphere and versatility of the restaurant that makes the Red Stag a draw, Bartmann says.
“There’s something for everyone’s budget. It’s a value I have, and I do feel like that’s a characteristic of a supper club. They have to provide a range of experiences — celebrations or everyday dining,” she adds.
So whether they’ve been around since your grandparents’ era or sprung up in the past three years, supper clubs seem to be here to stay. You may not be able to expect a uniform experience from place to place, but the people who run them maintain that you will find something special.
“Itâ€™s not a chain restaurant. Itâ€™s something personal that goes into a supper club. You put a little personability and a lot of care into everything you do, and I think youâ€™re going to come out with something really grand,” says the Laurel Supper Club’s Little. “I just think that supper clubs are few and far between. You gotta stick out with the good. People are never going to stop wanting to have good food.”
Laurel Supper Club
1905 Hwy 64
New Richmond, WI 54017
429 Stratford St W
Avon, MN 56310
Jensen’s Supper Club
3840 Sibley Memorial Hwy
Eagan, MN 55122
Red Stag Supper Club
509 1st Ave NE
Minneapolis, MN 55413