“Susan wants an authentic Wisconsin experience, so let’s take her to a supper club,” the calendar invite said. My best and oldest friend, Rachel, had invited her girlfriends to show me the “real Wisconsin” on my December visit.
I wondered briefly what a supper club was. Back in college in Arkansas, a supper club was a convenient workaround for the fact that we were in a dry county. You paid your “dues” of $1 and were given access to the “club.” Read: plain ole honky tonk bar.
I wasn’t far off. According to WisconsinSupperClubs.net:
The original Wisconsin Supper Clubs may have started in the 1920’s as Prohibition roadhouses where gangsters stopped while moving moonshine. After Prohibition was repealed in 1933, liquor licenses were first granted to establishments outside city limits that served food, thus giving birth to the supper club.
When I asked Rachel to describe a supper club, she said, “They are known for their Old Fashioneds and fish fries. Oh, and they always have carpet.”
Carpet indeed. Rachel knows I’m a sucker for any vintagey throwback, and the wood panels, middle-aged waitresses with bows in their hairs, and yes, nondescript carpet won my heart over as soon as we walked in the door.
There’s a Process at a Wisconsin Supper Club
After finishing my giggle over the fact that there was a communal place to hang our coats (completely unnecessary in San Diego), I followed Rachel to the hostess stand. We were given a big red plastic number. She ushered me to the large bar and we plopped down on swiveling stools to wait for her friends.
“What’s the number for?” I asked, while peering over to see if they had any stouts on tap.
Rachel explained the process. You take a number and go drink in the bar. When your table is ready, a waitress comes and takes your order. When the food is nearly ready, she escorts you to said table, which has your number on it. Ta daa!
Then you visit the soup and salad bar. Nothing crazy here, except a variety of spreads like uber salty liver pate, as well as salted herring. Didn’t dig that.
Food arrives. You eat. And drink some more. And then laugh inside at how little you just spent to have a really unique evening.
Now Let’s See It in Slo-Mo
I don’t want to cheat you out of the Wisconsin supper club experience, so let me walk through the evening more slowly. There are over 300 supper clubs in the state, and while Rachel isn’t a fan of many of the ones in her area, she did give this one, Black Otter Supper Club, two thumbs up. It’s gotta be that carpet.
Because I despise whiskey, I wasn’t about to order an Old Fashioned. I opted for a Cosmopolitan at our cheerful bartender’s suggestion. It seemed fittingly old school. I later switched to a Moscow Mule.
“But we’re out of the mugs. People kept stealing them,” our bartender said with a frown. I love this place.
We browsed the menu. I was at a loss. Should I get the $18.85 ribeye, or one of the many fried fish options? And deep fried lobster: what was that all about?
Before I could make any decisions, Mary and Sandy arrived. While the three of them talked about work, I stared at their Old Fashioneds with confusion. Were those pickled mushrooms on a toothpick? And more olives than an Italian could handle? Why yes, the were. Apparently it’s a Wisconsin thing. As is giving a beer shooter with a Bloody Mary:
We weighed the various food options, and I decided on the surf and turf with a tenderloin steak and bluegill fried fish.
A couple of drinks later, our waitress summoned us to our table. Salad bar time! Like I said, nothing of particular interest that you wouldn’t find elsewhere except the spreads.
The food arrived. A perfect steak and exquisitely fried fish. I couldn’t have asked for a better meal. All for under $27!
While I love me some sustainable, local, organic, fancy schmancy hipster food in San Diego, something’s got to be said about an old fashioned meal done right.
And while I opted not to order the 116 ounce prime rib to get a t-shirt and my photo on the wall, I had to admire the dozens who did!
All in all, I loved my Wisconsin supper club experience! There are too few wholesome things in the world, so when I find one, I eat it up. Quite literally in this case!