The Chefs Reinventing the Midwestern Supper Club

The Chefs Reinventing the Midwestern Supper Club 1

THE LIGHTS ARE dim, set to eternal dusk. You enter and blink. If there are booths, they should be plush: Naugahyde or brocade limned in gold. Napkins are linen, tables likely cloaked. Maybe a Persian rug lies underfoot. Taxidermied animal heads peer from the walls. From your seat, you might see a living white-tailed deer out the window; like you, it is ready to feed.

But eating is only half your purpose here, for this is a Wisconsin supper club, a distinctly American subgenre of restaurant that for nearly a century has largely and triumphantly ignored the passing of time. The owner greets you at the door and shows you to the knotty pine bar — no rush to get to the dining room — where there might be a cracker table waiting, with cheese spreads to sample, and a relish tray of cold crinkle-cut carrots and sweet-and-sour pickles. The bartender makes you a drink, muddled by hand. It’ll be a brandy old-fashioned, if you’re doing this right, a cocktail that bears only the faintest resemblance to the whiskey version found elsewhere in the land; the German immigrants who settled the state preferred their alcohol on the sweet side, and, according to Holly L. De Ruyter, the director of the 2015 documentary “Old Fashioned: The Story of the Wisconsin Supper Club,” the drink was refined during Prohibition, when people had to use fruit and sugar to mask the taste of rotgut liquor.

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The supper club’s roots likewise go back to Prohibition in the 1920s, with its glory days coming after World War II. In recent decades, its numbers have diminished throughout the Midwest, as owners and their descendants have died off or chosen other professions, and as diners have grown increasingly sophisticated, attuned to the momentum of global culinary trends. The old-timiness that was once the supper club’s allure — iceberg wedges, décor untouched since Eisenhower, ice-cream cocktails like pink squirrels for dessert, even in the polar depths of a Wisconsin winter — became its downfall.

And yet, paradoxically, this very stasis could be its salvation in our accelerated age, as we exhaust ourselves with our unceasing appetite for novelty and the swiftness with which one pleasure is supplanted and erased by the next. In late June, the Minnesota-born chef J.D. Fratzke opened a modern edition of a supper club called Falls Landing off Highway 52, just south of the Twin Cities. A week later, in Chicago’s Fulton Market district, the avant-garde chef Grant Achatz unveiled the St. Clair Supper Club, a throwback to his youth in a small town of that name in eastern Michigan. June also brought the resurrection of Turk’s Inn — a supper club established in 1938 in Hayward, Wis., and closed upon the death of the founder’s daughter 75 years later — at a new address, in Bushwick, Brooklyn, its pieces carted across the country by Varun Kataria and Tyler Erickson, childhood friends from Minneapolis. All are banking on the allure of nostalgia, although it remains to be seen if big-city cynics are ready to buy into the supper club’s seemingly guileless creed: Take your time, everyone’s welcome here, why don’t we all just get along.


CreditMatt Harrington

CreditMatt Harrington

EARLY IN AMERICA, the word “dinner” began to mark a line between country and city. Dinner had never been anchored in time; it was defined not by the hour it took place but by the size and heft of the meal, its roots in the Vulgar Latin disjejunare (to break a fast). If you were tilling the land, logic dictated you fortify yourself with dinner at noon, having been up since dawn, and end the evening with supper, historically lighter fare, its name derived from the Old French souper, with its hint of sipping broth and sopping it up with bread, and the Old English supan, which originally meant simply “to drink” (often to excess).

It was the arrival of gaslights and, later, electricity that allowed privileged city dwellers to stay up late, pushing back the dinner hour and making supper a more impromptu, round-midnight affair. Meanwhile, their thriftier country counterparts continued to eat at sundown before snuffing out the candles and going to bed. Noah Webster, in the inaugural 1828 edition of his American Dictionary of the English Language, noted, “The dinner of fashionable people would be the supper of rustics.” Industrialization also disrupted the pattern: Factory workers had less time to dine during the day and were separated longer from home. Suddenly the evening meal had gravitas and urgency, becoming essential not only for nourishment but for maintaining family accord.

To many in the Midwest, however, it was still called supper. And that was the name used in those freewheeling days when Prohibition made every night out an invitation for delinquency and subterfuge, and when a new kind of restaurant started to appear in Wisconsin: the supper club. It was set on the outskirts of town, far enough away that city folks could feel free to make mischief. Some historians suggest an affinity with the New York City nightclub-restaurant hybrid of that era, which used food, music and dance to camouflage illegal tippling; as Dave Hoekstra wrote in “The Supper Club Book” (2013), one Wisconsin supper club kept lockers on hand where regulars could hide their liquor (fitting, considering the etymology of supan). But once the 18th Amendment banning alcohol was repealed in 1933, the supper club became more properly focused on supper as an event in itself.

The food tends to be straightforward surf and turf, barring the occasional wild alligator brought in studded with buckshot. Serious attention has always been paid to steak, which must be fit for the palates of farmers who know their beef, and walleye from local waters. Friday night is fish fry, all-you-can-eat, if you’re lucky. Saturday night belongs to prime rib — although it’s served every night at Achatz’s recently opened supper club, and always medium-rare. (A message is appended at the bottom of the menu, next to a sketch of a mournful-looking cauliflower: “We love all our guests but there are no vegetarian options at St. Clair.”) Décor varies by the owners’ whims — you could find yourself “inside a Swiss chalet or a U.F.O.,” Kataria said — but die-hard customers have certain expectations of the kitchen. In Ron Faiola’s history “Wisconsin Supper Clubs: An Old-Fashioned Experience” (2013), he parses the prerequisites for one group of regulars: Jell-O offered as a salad, cocktails built to share and “no cappuccino, ever.”

“SUPPER IS THE most intimate meal there is,” Emily Post wrote in “Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home” (1922), “since none but family or closest friends are ever included.” At a supper club, the notion of family and friends was always more fluid. “It open-armed everyone,” said the writer and New York restaurateur Brian Bartels, who grew up in Reedsburg, Wis., and got his first job as a busboy at age 15 at the iconic Ishnala Supper Club on Mirror Lake, which he still holds up as a model of a convivial retreat with “the polish of fine dining, but accessible.” This ecumenical embrace was eye-opening for Kataria, too, who first set foot in Turk’s Inn at age 14. “You’re just as likely to see someone in a tux as in camo,” he said. “Neither would be out of place.”

But while the supper club may have broken down certain class barriers, treating blue-collar locals and urban high rollers with equal deference, it also harks back to a time when America was less racially and ethnically diverse. From the 1920s to the 1950s, Wisconsin’s population was 99 percent white; today, that measure, not including whites who identify as Hispanic or Latino, is around 80 percent (compared to 60 percent nationwide). If part of the supper club’s appeal is a yearning for simpler days, we’re burdened with the knowledge that nothing was ever that simple, and that what looks from one angle like coziness — a country club that eschews snobbery, exacts no dues and honors the workingman — can from another function as de facto exclusion, however unintended.

Turk’s Inn is an anomaly in this regard, and perhaps a model of adaptability to setting and circumstance: The original owner, George Gogian, was an Armenian immigrant from Istanbul who freely and irreverently mixed Americana and Orientalism. Customers ate borek (flaky filled pastry) alongside porterhouses and ended the meal with Turkish coffee poured from a brass pot. Kataria, who is of Indian descent, found particular resonance in Gogian’s story and how an outsider found a way to “market his culture and spin a yarn for the locals,” he said. He and Erickson are trying to do the same: share the more arcane pleasures of their Midwestern upbringing with the people of New York.

The two friends, who have no previous restaurant experience, bought much of the supper club’s décor, including the sign and the red-lipped bar, at auction five years ago after a drunken night, with no immediate plan beyond a nostalgic desire for preservation. (“The first step in a parade of folly,” Kataria said.) They shuttled the pieces from garage to garage until they decided to commit to bringing Turk’s to New York. Ultimately, they found a Bushwick space expansive enough (5,000 square feet) to approximate the sprawl of a supper club, which often unfolds as a series of rooms — a procession honored here with a separate music venue that has already hosted secret shows by the likes of Alicia Keys, a rooftop to invoke Wisconsin’s bucolic outdoors and a döner kebab stand for late-night snacking, inspired by Kataria’s time at law school in Germany, where he lived in a neighborhood of Turkish immigrants.

The key to understanding the new Turk’s is that it’s not a simulacrum of the original, trapped in amber. Although every corner is crammed with tchotchkes, Kataria put up only a small fraction of the Gogian collection — commemorative presidential plates, mysterious ceramic figurines — and added touches of his own, including fabric from India to cover the walls, with leftover scraps used for servers’ neckties and aprons, and a drawing of a cat that dominates a silk brocade alcove. The visual overload suggests Instagram bait, but Kataria insists it’s not an exercise in irony or winking, self-conscious garishness. “It’s legitimately beautiful,” he said. Nothing is artificial; old and new are presented as they are.

It’s hard to resist the exuberant silliness of the atmosphere — and “silliness” is the word; asked for the defining characteristic of a supper club, Kataria said, “There’s no amount of silliness that they won’t tolerate.” As the unfettered expression of an idiosyncratic personality, it’s charming. But is it possible to recreate the supper club’s more ineffable warmth and loose-limbed tempo amid the crush and heave of the city? “The rents here do not allow lingering,” Bartels said with a rueful laugh. To survive, you have to turn tables. You have to be nice, but maybe not too nice.


CreditMatt Harrington

CreditMatt Harrington

ON A RECENT Monday night at the new Turk’s Inn, there were no reservations available before 9:30 p.m. for a group larger than two. I arrived alone, my dining companion still interred in the subway, and the host informed me that I would be seated only when my party was complete — it was a greeting typical of New York restaurants but lacked the kindness I’d been expecting. (“If a supper club is anything, it is connection,” wrote Edward J. Lump, the former president and C.E.O. of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association, in a foreword to Mary Bergin’s 2015 “Wisconsin Supper Club Cookbook.”)

Once my friend showed up, we were led to our table, without a pause at the bar. The cocktail menu was shaped like a fez, complete with dangling tassel. We dutifully ordered the $7 relish tray, a small quartet of olives, pickles, nuts and chips, then bypassed the night’s special, a porterhouse for two, in favor of smaller dishes with a Middle Eastern bent, in the Gogian style: two tongues of eggplant lashed with a sherry tahini sauce; root vegetables shredded into slaw and brought to life by the New York-based La Boîte’s Shabazi spice blend, modeled after Yemeni zhoug (a fiery chile paste, at once earthy and sun-bright); dainty lamb meatballs that proved just big enough; and a slab of grilled cabbage awash in date vinaigrette, standing in for steak. The food wasn’t memorable, but we enjoyed it just the same, dining in the low light that gave everything a lazy burnish.

Still, we didn’t feel like we could truly lose track of time. Maybe we were too used to our whirlwind New York lives, the hurtling hours, the haunting suspicion that something better was happening elsewhere. Maybe we were too harried to recognize an oasis when we’d found it — although in our defense, the room was packed, the waitstaff besieged. When the bill finally materialized, we’d been charged for items we didn’t order and had to hunt our waiter down. He looked like a drowning man.

But in the middle of the meal, before the bungle of the bill, a woman appeared at our table in a Revlon-red pantsuit with ruffly sleeves. She set down two shot glasses, unbidden: grasshoppers, green as mouthwash, with a snowy froth on top. “They made them at the bar,” she said with a smile and a shrug, as if this were all the information we needed. Then she was gone, on to the next table. It struck me that she wasn’t greeting customers or inquiring after their well-being; she was simply visiting with them, moving without haste or urgency, as if in a different time zone; as if there was nowhere else she’d rather be.