Wisconsin Supper Clubs: An Old Fashioned Experience
When I was young, my parents liked to dine at supper clubs. To me, they were swank places of dark wood, bold colored banquettes, and oversized menus where your dad would order a martini and your mom a Manhattan while you, because you were only seven or so, had to do with a Shirley Temple. But at least it came with a pretty paper umbrella and a maraschino cherry
These were the supper clubs of yore. Often tucked away on back roads that seemed to take hours—no make that days—to reach when you were riding in the back of that big boat-like Buick your parents owned and no iPad or cell phone existed yet to keep you entertained. Just a coloring book and a box of Crayolas your mother handed you as you climbed into the car. If your brother came along you could kill time by arguing over whether the Cubs or Sox were better—a fight that endures to this day. If not, you colored and asked every three minutes (I know because my dad timed it once) “are we there yet?”
In Michigan there are few supper clubs that I know of. Maybe D’Agostino’s Navajo Bar & Grille in Bridgeman, family owned for almost 70 years would qualify. It has that feel. There’s Talon’s Supper Club in Norway way up in the U.P. where old fashioned ice cream drinks (typically one of the deciding factors in determining if a place is a supper club) like Grasshoppers and Brandy Alexanders are on the menu. But let’s face it, is anyone going to drive 400 miles one way to go to a supper club? In Norway Michigan—population 2,845? No, I didn’t think so.
Much more local, there’s the Heston Supper Club, in Heston, Indiana just north of LaPorte on the Michigan-Indiana border. And yes, it is in the middle of nowhere. In Syracuse, Indiana less than 90 minutes, The Sleepy Owl has been around for more than a half century. I haven’t been there yet, but definitely will when we can finally leave the house.
Geraldine’s Supper Club in Indy is a hat tip to the classic places of the 1930s and 1940s. There are a few more in Illinois, like the 60-year plus old Timmerman’s Supper Club on the Mississippi River in East Dubuque as well as several in towns I’ve never heard of like Scapecchi’s Supper Club in Farmington.
Because they’re becoming big again, Millie’s Supper Club in Chicago has the look—polished wood, red leather, low lighting—which is cool unless you want old.
But for the largest selection of real back-in-the-day supper clubs, the place to go is Wisconsin and Ron Faiola has got them covered in his two large, heavy-on-photos books, Wisconsin Supper Clubs: An Old Fashioned Experience and the follow-up Wisconsin Supper Clubs: Another Round both published by Agate, a Chicago publishing company. The books came about after Faiola’s film (its name is the same as the first book) was shown nationwide on PBS nine years ago. He also has a website, wisconsinsupperclubs.net, with lists of supper clubs organized by region including many not mentioned in his books. And amazingly, there are lots of them.
So what exactly is a supper club? You’d know if you walked into one of them but Faiola describes them as usually only open for dinner and family owned with great service and food as well as a club-like atmosphere. The reason for all that, he says, is because there’s usually at least one family member on the premises to ensure quality is maintained and guests are happy.
“When you come back to a place a few times, you get to be family too,” he says.
Expect steaks and classic dishes like shrimp deJonghe. The latter is totally Chicago-centric, dating back to Chicago and the three deJonghe brothers who immigrated from Belgium in 1891. Two years later they opened a restaurant at the 1893 World’s Fair: Columbian Exposition, a global celebration of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the Americas. The brothers went on to operate several restaurants including, from 1899 to 1923, DeJonghe’s Hotel and Restaurant at 12 E. Monroe Street. Their most famous dish, the one Henri deJonghe or their chef, Emil Zehr, is said to have created, is Shrimp deJonghe. Heston Supper Club has it on their menu as Sautéed deJonghe. They also serve frog legs, an old fashioned supper club dish if there ever was one and one even harder to find than Shrimp deJonghe. Ditto for The Sleepy Owl, though they call theirs Shrimp Scampi which really is pretty much the same. And yes, they have frog legs as well.
Lobster, ribs, prime rib, perch and Friday night fish fries are also popular supper club items. Oh and don’t forget, the relish tray and/or salad bar.
Drinking is part of the experience. That’s one reason there are so many Wisconsin supper clubs further north like in Door County says Faiola. During Prohibition as liquor was offloaded from boats coming from Canada and delivered via back roads to the big cities, supper clubs out in the boonies got their orders filled as gangsters, avoiding the highways and the cops, stopped by.
The cocktails people drank back then are popular again. But the thing with supper clubs is they never went out of style. In Wisconsin, the big one is the brandy old-fashioned sweet. I’d never heard of it but according to Faiola—and he should know—people in Wisconsin drink more brandy than anyone else in the U.S. and that’s usually by consuming a lot of brandy old-fashioned sweets.
But supper clubs aren’t cookie cutters, says Faiola. Each is unique because of the family factor. Just like going to one friend’s home versus another.
His books make great guides and people use them to explore the state, choosing which supper club to try next. Even in these days when we really can’t go anywhere yet, they’re still fun to look at—both a step back in time and a look forward when we can hit the road again. Also, I’m also going to be on the hunt for more Michigan supper clubs so if anyone knows of any, let me know.
Here is the original recipe served at the deJonghe Brothers’ various restaurants. It’s interesting because it calls for ingredients not usually associated with fish dishes—nutmeg and mace. But while both are more pie ingredients today, in Europe a century and more ago, they were often used in savory cooking as well.
As for why last place the deJonghe Brothers owned closed, supposedly it was because of liquor violations during Prohibition. But that doesn’t really sound like Chicago, does it?
Also, shrimp can be expensive. A reasonable substitute (after all, this dish is really about the butter, garlic and breadcrumbs) is a tender, mild white fish or even cauliflower that’s cooked in boiling water until barely tender just like the shrimp. For fresh mild white fish, it’ll bake in the oven and doesn’t need to be parboiled beforehand.
The Original Shrimp deJonghe
2 pounds large shrimp (40), or 48 slightly smaller
1 large garlic clove, mashed with the side of a knife or finely minced
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh tarragon
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh parsley
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh chervil
Pinch of dried thyme crumbled between your fingers and thumb
1 shallot, minced (very finely chopped)
1 tablespoon minced onion
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 1/2 cups fine dry breadcrumbs
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
Pinch of mace (optional)
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
Cook shrimp in a 4-quart pot of boiling salted water (see note below) until just cooked through, about 1 1/2 minutes. Drain shrimp in a colander, then immediately transfer to a large bowl of ice water to stop cooking.
Preheat oven to 350°F.
Mash garlic to a paste with 1/4 teaspoon salt using a mortar and pestle (or mince and mash garlic with salt using a large knife), then stir together with fresh and dried herbs, shallot, onion, 1 1/2 sticks (3/4 cup) butter, 1 cup bread crumbs, nutmeg, mace, 3/4 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper.
Melt remaining 1/2 stick butter and stir together with remaining 1/2 cup breadcrumbs, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper to make topping.
Arrange shrimp in 1 layer (slightly overlapping if necessary) in a buttered 3-quart flameproof gratin dish or other wide shallow ceramic baking dish. Cover with herbed breadcrumb mixture, then sprinkle with topping. Bake in upper third of oven until golden, about 15 minutes. Turn on broiler and broil until crumbs are golden brown, about 2 minutes.
Note: When salting water for cooking, use 1 tablespoon for every 4 quarts water.
Note: This can also be made in 8 small baking ramekins for appetizers, or 4 larger individual baking dishes for main dish-sized.
These are all suggestions. Add or subtract as you like.
Spreadable cheese and crackers
Olives stuffed with blue cheese
Bread and butter pickles
Pickled watermelon rind
Pickled baby corn
Pickled Brussel sprouts
Pepper slices (pickled or fresh)
Carrots, cut into sticks
Celery, cut into sticks
Hand-Muddled Brandy Old-Fashioned Sweet
1 maraschino cherry
½ slice of orange
1 sugar cube or 1 teaspoon sugar
2-3 dashes of bitters
1 ½ to 2 ounces brandy
In a 10-12 ounce tumbler, combine the cherry, orange, sugar and bitters. Muddle (mash) together.
Add ice, then the brandy and top off with 7UP. Garnish with an orange slice and a maraschino cherry.