Thursday, June 21, 2012

Supper Clubs

You may think of traditional Wisconsin cuisine as brats and cheese.  Indeed, they have their place in our history and on our table, but of all the edible traditions in Wisconsin, one of my favorites is the old town supper club.

Supper clubs used to be found all over the Midwest, but they are associated with no state stronger than Wisconsin.  In fact, their charms are enjoying somewhat of a renaissance in Wisconsin.  The Old Fashioned is one of the most popular bars in Madison and harkens back to the old traditions and rec-room d├ęcor of Dairy State supper clubs.  Capital Brewery has even named a lager after the dining institutions.  So what makes them special?  Why are they so beloved in Wisconsin; why did they survive here?

Supper clubs are more than dining.  They are more like an pub in rural western Ireland—the public living room.  They are not clubs in the membership sense, but a central place one can spend an entire evening dining, having cocktails, and maybe catching some entertainment.  Among patrons, you’ll see businessmen hosting clients and feeding them the charms and camaraderie of the bar.  A family will be celebrating a grandparent’s birthday in the dining room.   Games of Euchre played in the lounge with watchful eyes on the lookout for table talk between partners.  Supper clubs are the center of the community and have played a central role in preserving Wisconsin’s famous hospitality and small-town cohesiveness.

Some people argue what makes a restaurant a supper club and not just a ‘fine dining establishment’ or ho-hum steakhouse.  In my opinion, it comes down to a few key factors.  On the menu Prime Rib is key, relish trays come before every meal, and Friday will revolve around the fish fry.  Desert is Grasshopper ice cream, and the bar must be large and well stocked.  Of course, the Old Fashioned (brandy, of course) is ubiquitous. Patrons are all familiar faces to their server (whom they will often request by name), and meat raffles and Euchre are common.

In this grand dining tradition, I will be reviewing supper clubs across the state.  I am pleased to announce my first review is Benedetti’s in my hometown of Beloit.

Look at that slaw!
Benedetti’s is one of three two supper clubs in Beloit.  It opened in 1946 as the Yost Park Tavern, but after it burned in 1946, it reopened in 1953 as ‘Club 51’, so-named because it was on Highway 51.  This name is still painted on the mirror in the wonderfully dim-lit lounge bar.

Like any good supper club, the relish tray was brought out before any order was put in.  You gotta love a good helping of coleslaw.  It’s the illusion of a healthy salad with the nutritional value of Chinese newspapers.  But damn is this stuff good.  Paired with my Old Fashioned, this brought me back to old-time Wisconsin of Hank Aaron baseball and bowling alleys.

Walking into any old supper club in Wisconsin is like slipping into a well-worn shoes.  It should be comfortable and put you at ease.  The food is classic, fatty, and delicious.  I was fortunate enough to be there on a Friday, so I tried out the fish fry.  Good portions--not too big.  The breading was light and crispy and the homemade tartar sauce tasted great.  Fries were merely an accessory meant to supplement the fish, the star of this show.  Among the din of the restaurant, old familiar faces were laughing and chatting; catching up on the week.  The bar was busy with people celebrating the upcoming freedom of a summer weekend in Beloit, and everybody jumped into the in-house ice cream for dessert.

Fish is a miracle food.
It may not be the most complicated or innovative food, but the enjoyment of this meal cannot be described.  It’s an old standby, and it can be found all over this state.

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