CHICAGO — Supper clubs are a distinct genre of dining out. Usually family-run and usually located near vacation spots in the Midwest, these restaurants are famed for good, homey food, hearty portions and surroundings that transport diners back to the mid-20th century.
That's a good thing. Supper clubs are so retro they seem balanced on the knife's edge of hip these days. And that's why you should conjure one up at home.
"Turn the air conditioning up really high. Pull the shades on the windows," says Michael Stern, co-author of "Road Food" and other books chronicling America's dining traditions. "You want it cool and tomblike."
Let the food be the star of the party: Meat (or fish) and potatoes, with plenty of cocktails to wash them down.
A relish tray is traditional, with an assortment of raw and pickled vegetables. "The vegetables are something healthy to nibble on while thinking how big a piece of prime rib you'll have," says Ron Faiola, a Milwaukee-based video producer, director and author of "Wisconsin Supper Clubs: An Old-Fashioned Experience" (Midway, $35).
Some supper clubs also serve a cheese spread and crackers. So popular has it proven to be with customers of the Moracco Supper Club in Dubuque, Iowa, that the cheese dish is offered in place of the relish tray.
"You can serve it with crackers, broccoli, carrots, any chips," says co-owner Jeanne Heiar, who notes some customers save a bit of the spread to put on their baked potatoes instead of paying extra for shredded cheese. "That's the world nowadays," she says, chuckling.
Have a well-stocked bar; supper-club customers arrive thirsty for classic cocktails.
"In Wisconsin, where the old-fashioned is the unofficial state drink, the overwhelming preference is to serve it with brandy instead of whiskey," Faiola writes in his book. Here's his version: Combine 1 maraschino cherry and 1/2 orange slice with 1 teaspoon sugar and 2 to 3 dashes bitters in a 10- or 12-ounce tumbler; muddle, or mash, together. Add ice, then 1 1/2 to 2 ounces brandy. Top off with 7UP. Garnish with an orange slice and maraschino cherry.
"Prime rib is about as supper club as it gets," says Bill Kozlak Jr., proprietor of Jax Cafe in Minneapolis.
Maybe. Many supper clubs do offer prime rib, often on Saturday nights, but they also offer fish fries on Fridays.
Fish is a huge draw at Midwest supper clubs, many of which are located near lakes or rivers. Jax Cafe patrons can net their fish dinner in the supper club's own trout stream.
If meat is what you want and prime rib is too pricey, consider a steak. Kim Bartmann, who is giving an updated twist to the genre at Red Stag Supperclub, goes with a rib-eye with grilled mushrooms, grilled onions and crumbled blue cheese.
Have your choice of potato. "There's french fries, potato pancakes, baked potatoes," Faiola says. "I'm a big fan of the potato pancake." Baked is Stern's choice, served with sour cream, butter, bacon or Bac-Os and chives.
Salad? Iceberg wedges rule, often crowned with creamy dressing.
Every supper club has a roster of desserts to cap the meal. Many customers choose instead to order a creamy, sweet, after-dinner drink.
"In Wisconsin, they're made with ice cream," says Jane Wimmer of The Del-Bar, a landmark supper club in Lake Delton, Wis.
One of the more popular requests is a brandy Alexander. Here's how Wimmer makes it: Blend 3 scoops vanilla ice cream with 1 1/4 ounces brandy and 3/4 ounce creme de cacao. Pour into a giant snifter, top with grated nutmeg and a squirt of whipped cream.