In the Mood for Supper Clubs
AT FIRST, Adam Siegel, a James Beard Award-winning chef who shapes menus at fine-dining spots like Bacchus and Lake Park Bistro, couldn’t quite grasp why at Joey Gerard’s Supper Club—with two Milwaukee-area locations that opened last fall—there needed to be foil-wrapped butter and individually wrapped crackers on each table. “I’m not from Wisconsin and that’s the one thing I didn’t get initially,” he says.
There were also plans to have a relish tray at each table, another aspect that baffled Siegel. Also—and this was the most difficult for the 39-year-old chef to imagine—a Lazy Susan piled high with a Merkt’s cheddar-cheese ball, deviled eggs, butter pickles, and pickled herring. And why were the olives on the relish tray from a can and not the more upscale Niçoise brand?
But Joe Bartolotta, owner of the aforementioned restaurants within the Bartolotta Group, remained insistent that diners would fall head over heels in love wih a supper-club restaurant so long as it had all the little accoutrements evoked by nostalgic memory. Indeed, Siegel recalled those black olives in a can. “As a kid I remember polishing off a can. They were my favorite.” Convinced this had to be part of the relish tray, he added these along with bread and butter pickles and carrot and celery sticks.
Spawned by the Glen Miller era, supper clubs opened with reckless abandon throughout the upper Midwest in the mid-1900s, promising diners not only a hearty multi-course dinner but also live entertainment beginning with a drink at the bar before being seated. It was a night to dress to the nines and linger over a martini as a preamble to the meal, which often included steak or lobster. Yet—even with all this flair—the focus was on decent price points and attracting repeat clientele.
In his recently published book, Wisconsin Supper Clubs: An Old-Fashioned Experience, author Ron Faiola features 50 Wisconsin supper clubs. Faiola, who also directed and produced a documentary about supper clubs, isn’t surprised the retro trend has been resurrected.
“Now that the economy has gotten better, people are going out and they’ve had their fill of chains,” says Faiola. “Many of the supper-club restaurants are family-owned throughout the generations. They started out as dance halls and speakeasies, and eventually morphed—after World War II—into a fancier place than a tavern.”
In opening Joey Gerard’s, Siegel explains he started by “picking owner Joe Bartolotta’s brain about items that were there when he was a kid. There was some nostalgia there.” Next, the Chicago native embarked on a road trip to experience just what a supper club is all about. He also consulted menus for supper clubs that had shuttered. “We looked at all styles, from the mom and pop supper clubs to the Beverly Hills style,” says Siegel.
On the menu at Joey Gerard’s—where the vintage-themed décor features dark-wood tones and walls adorned with black-and-white, Hollywood-style photos of supper clubs—are nightly specials that are equally nostalgic: the Friday fish fry, Saturday prime rib, and retro favorites Steak Diane and Beef Wellington.
But the food preparation embraces contemporary techniques and flavors. Much of the meat is cooked at 800 degrees in a high-end Josper by Wood Stone charcoal broiler oven, one of only two in the Midwest and only 30 nationwide. “We’re making great steaks,” says Siegel. “They get a really nice char on them and they cook really fast.” A light marinade of thyme, black pepper, garlic, and olive oil is also used on each steak.
Beyond Glenn Miller
Kim Bartmann, a semifinalist for a James Beard Award this year in the category of outstanding restaurateur, opened Red Stag Supper Club inside a former warehouse in Minneapolis in 2007. On some nights the restaurant hosts live music, just as earlier supper clubs did. Only it’s not old-school jazz or big-band swing. Instead, the music features electric guitars, New Orleans-style jazz, afro beat, and other contemporary influences.
Red Stag Supper Club, which is open for lunch, dinner, and weekend brunch, has also achieved something that none of the supper clubs of the last century could: It’s the first restaurant in Minnesota to achieve LEED certification and sports such eco-friendly measures as composting waste, using LED lights, and practicing water-conservation. As for the food, it’s decidedly comforting—with many ingredients culled from local farms. Castle Rock Creamery cheese goes into the fried organic cheese curds and braised bison is part of a stroganoff dish. There are supper-club traditions, including a relish plate, a shrimp cocktail, and the ever-popular Saturday prime rib specials, and modern twists on old favorites, such as a raw kale side salad, kettle corn popped with truffle oil, and lobster tossed into the mac and cheese.
The rebirth of supper clubs extends far beyond the Midwest, however. Beloit, Wisconsin native Michael White plans to unveil The Butterfly in New York City’s Tribeca neighborhood this month, as an ode to his home state.
“Butterfly will be predominantly a cocktail bar with a supper-club feel, featuring classic American cuisine,” explains Olivia Young, head of media and communications for Altamarea Group, which owns the 55-seat restaurant.
The food menu, with nostalgic mainstays such as fried chicken and steaks, will be complemented by top-notch cocktails, including the Grasshopper, a favorite from the 1950s, and a Brandy Old Fashioned.
Faiola observes,“Butterfly is replicating supper-club food in general—but at supper clubs in New York you’d [typically] go out for dining and dancing and see a big show.”
Such is the case at Maryland’s Bethesda Blues and Jazz Supper Club, located in the completely restored 1938 Boro Theatre—restored to the tune of $8 million—and opened last December. With 300 seats for dinner plus an additional 200 seats for performances, the supper club’s menu runs the gamut from hushpuppies and seared crab cakes to filet medallions, shrimp, and chicken jambalaya. A full wine list, entrée-portion salads, and decadent desserts such as black-and-white mousse and vanilla bean beignets complete the offering.
A similar blend of entertainment and dining is found near Pittsburgh in The Supper Club at the Greensburg Train Station, which opened inside a space that had most recently been a brewpub but in its former life had served as a train station for more than 100 years. Live jazz fills the restaurant on Friday and Saturday nights. “We’re going for that upscale feel of a supper club in the 1940s and 1950s, where people could have a drink at the bar and then stay for a four- or five-course meal,” says executive chef Greg Andrews. “We wanted to hearken back to more than getting a bite to eat and then going to the movies or something.”
Cocktails and desserts feature seasonal ingredients, as does the food, which ranges from local Pocono Trout with glazed pearl onions and Bardine’s slab bacon broth to the Farm to Table Five Star Burger, with saffron mayo and truffle oil, along with Pennsylvania artisan cheese.
While the vibe recalls an upscale experience from more than 50 years ago, today’s supper clubs have effectively adapted to marry the vintage past with current menu trends.