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Monday, April 29, 2013

In Search of Supper Clubs

New book explores Wisconsin’s culinary heritage

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Ron Faiola
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Chef Michael White is opening a “Wisconsin-style supper club” in New York called the Butterfly in honor of the Butterfly Club in his hometown, Beloit. The Butterfly Club is one of 50 such places in the Badger State featured in a colorful new coffee table book, Wisconsin Supper Clubs: An Old-Fashioned Experience (Agate Publishing).

The project was a long time coming for Milwaukee author Ron Faiola, who often dined at the Rafters in Oak Creek with his parents and at supper clubs up north on fishing trips with his grandfather. While making his first feature documentary, Fish Fry Night in Milwaukee (2009), “I realized that there were so many interesting supper clubs and decided that my next film would be a documentary” on the subject, he explains.

The homespun culinary delights of his home state proved to be Faiola’s meal ticket. Wisconsin Supper Clubs (2011) was picked up nationally by PBS and reviewed in the Chicago Tribune and The New York Times. Next thing: a Chicago publisher approached him for a book on the subject, which allowed Faiola to widen his scope. The movie featured only 14 supper clubs from across the state while the book is more inclusive. If the author didn’t hit every remaining supper club in Wisconsin, he probably added an inch or two to his waistline while trying.

The definition of supper club is slippery; they are locally owned (and often family run), focus on dinner (though a few open for lunch), prepare most things from scratch and, as Faiola explains, “serve food you wouldn’t make at home—fish fry, lobster, prime rib, duck.”

Well, some people prepare duck at home, but you get the point. Supper clubs proliferated after World War II, patronized by America’s growing middle class with money to spend on special nights out. The interiors of the clubs featured in Faiola’s book vary from rustic (with antlers) to mid-century modern. Many but not all aspire to a picture of luxury with linen napkins and candles on every table. Dining at a supper club was meant to be out of the ordinary but not strange enough to intimidate.

Faiola visited six supper clubs in southeast Wisconsin, including Diamond Jim’s Stoneridge Inn in Hales Corners with its Blue Plate Special and live music by country singer Red Deacon, and the Jackson Grill on Milwaukee’s South Side with its curvaceous bar and lavish selection of steaks. “When I made the movie, some supper clubs were closing and some were wondering what the future would be,” Faiola says. “Now there seems to be a return to the ‘restaurant of yesteryear’ as people get tired of the cookie-cutter chains.”

Ron Faiola will appear at Boswell Book Co. at 7 p.m. on Thursday, May 2.

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