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Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Wisconsin Supper Clubs: An Old Fashioned Experience

Ron Faiola searches for an old-fashioned dining experience

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Ron Faiola has become Wisconsin's legacy filmmaker. His previous documentary, Fish Fry Night Milwaukee, was a loving celebration of one of our city's favorite culinary traditions. But while the fish fry seems to be thriving in the face of globalization, the subject of his latest documentary is more embattled. In Wisconsin Supper Clubs: An Old Fashioned Experience, Faiola travels across the Badger State in search of that certain dining experience familiar to every Wisconsin resident in the middle of the last century. Nowadays, the supper club is a little like a classic Thunderbird or a hi-fi stacked with vinyl LPs. It's a holdover from a past that seemed more grounded in tangible things.

But first things first: What is a supper club? Many of the owners interviewed by Faiola had trouble defining the term beyond insisting that you'll know one when you see one. Some point out that a supper club can only serve supper, not breakfast or lunch. It's not gourmet, but it's not fast food—just a little slow and good. Most have existed for decades and many have a retro vibe of one sort or another. They tend to serve familiar Upper Midwest comfort food—steaks, chops and, yes, the Friday fish fry. However, time has not stood entirely still. Beloit's Liberty Inn offers a unique shepherd's pie with duck as well as beef and pork; Chippewa Falls' High Shores serves alligator (unheard of in these parts until the '80s); and at Milwaukee's Jackson Grill, Kobe beef has joined New York strip on the menu.

Historically, the supper club represented the aspirations of the growing middle class for a touch of class. With the private clubs of the wealthy out of reach and the blue-plate special all too familiar, supper club patrons of the 1940s, '50s and '60s were looking for a dash of affordable elegance, a touch of the high life. Those neon cocktail signs promised relaxation after the workday. The food was well prepared, generously portioned and reasonably priced—fancier than you could make at home, but not too exotic or highfalutin.

One or two of the self-styled supper clubs Faiola profiles fall short on elegance, but most provide an ambience refreshingly different than the cookie-cutter atmospheres of the big chains. Some of the rustic clubs along Wisconsin's many little lakes hang canoes from their rafters or fill the walls with taxidermy. The Jackson Grill displays a colored-glass collection. Some have maintained or cultivated a distinctly '40s-'50s feel and one has even retained a rotary pay phone. All of the places Faiola has discovered are family owned, and many have been in the same family for generations. They tend to eschew plasma TVs tuned to sports in favor of leisurely evenings of conversation. Alcohol flows liberally, but the whole family is welcome.

Faiola's topic is endearing and he keeps the narrative moving forward at a snappy pace. There is anxiety among some owners that supper clubs will follow the carrier pigeon to extinction, but others have linked their fortunes to rising trends, buying local produce, stocking craft beers and going green. "Our challenge is to get the younger people to experience this dining experience," one of them remarks.

And that may be Faiola's point. Supper clubs are for hipsters of all ages. Support them, unless you want to live in a McWorld.

Wisconsin Supper Clubs: An Old Fashioned Experience
premieres 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. April 17 at the Times Cinema. Faiola will answer questions at each screening.