Today is National Happy Hour Day, and what better way to celebrate than by knocking back a cocktail and learning about some fine Midwestern dining establishments? Following the success of his first book on the topic, Ron Faiola has once again driven across Wisconsin to document some of the most exceptional and long-lived restaurants that embrace the decades-old supper club heritage. His newest book captures a rich cultural tradition that will appeal to travelers and food lovers across the Midwest and beyond. It offers a new, intimate look at this unique American tradition, one that invites supper club enthusiasts and newcomers alike to enjoy a second helping of everything that made Wisconsin Supper Clubs such a hit.
Learn more about Ron Faiola and his book below!
Your first book, Wisconsin Supper Clubs: An Old-Fashioned Experience, is a runaway hit. In what ways was it different to travel and research the clubs after the success of the first book? Did you approach anything differently? Did you have any encounters with fans?
Obviously the supper clubs I went to for the new book were happy to be in the second book, with some owners giving me some good-natured ribbing about not being in the first book. There were two things I did differently this time around. The first was to only visit one supper club per night. For the first book, I was on a tight deadline and would have to do two or, on the rare occasion, three supper clubs per day. This time, doing one per night meant I was there when the kitchen was active and customers were there. The second thing was that I asked the owners to invite customers, friends, and family to be at the club while I was doing the profile so they could socialize and enjoy the food. It worked out great in that I was able to get plenty of food photos and try a bit a food myself while the people that were invited got to enjoy some great meals.
Why did you decide to go back for “another round”?
I had originally wanted to visit 100 Wisconsin supper clubs for the first book, but I just didn’t have the time, so I ended up visiting 50 clubs. Once the book was released, the reaction was so terrific that I realized I needed to update my master list and visit 50 more.
Let’s say that Ron Faiola is going to open his own supper club. Where would you open it and what items would be must-haves for your menu?
I’d reopen an old supper club, maybe the former Pyramid Supper Club in Beaver Dam. Who could resist an Egyptian-themed supper club housed in a pyramid in the middle of a cornfield? The menu would have the classic supper club dishes like prime rib, fish fry, and a relish tray with cheese and liver spreads, homemade salads, raw veggies, and ripe green olives. The olives are hard to find, but they are very tasty and unique (and available in Italian grocery stores under the Cento brand).
What is the mark of a good supper club?
A full parking lot and a two-hour wait for a table.
Why is the cocktail so synonymous with supper clubs? Do you think it has anything to do with the fact that so many clubs seemed to have been friendly with bootleggers during Prohibition?
Supper clubs as we know them today didn’t exist during Prohibition, especially in Wisconsin. They were dance halls or resorts or former taverns that served whatever was available from the bootleggers. After Prohibition ended, the food as well as the cocktails got more sophisticated, especially at supper clubs. Cocktails were a more upscale choice than the usual shot and a beer that was served at a tavern. Of course, in Wisconsin, the supper club cocktail of choice was and still is the brandy old-fashioned, which is enjoyed by both men and women.
As in your first book, this book is full of anecdotes about the history of each supper club. What is your favorite story from this round of clubs?
I love the ghost stories because I’m sort of on the fence about ghosts. I’ve never seen one, and I’ve never had a spooky encounter—yet there are lots of people that have these very detailed and very similar experiences at the supper clubs. So I’m like the Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz . . . I’m all bravado until I meet up with a ghost.
This book includes a few reader polls related to traditional supper club offerings, such as relish trays (though we won’t give the results away here). What’s your favorite element of a supper club dining experience?
I enjoy walking in, sitting at the bar, relaxing with a drink, reading the menu, and deciding what to order.
You’ve now produced and directed a documentary and published two books—all about Wisconsin supper clubs. How did it all begin?
It started with the economic collapse in late 2008 and 2009. All my corporate video production work disappeared in 2009 and instead of panicking, I decided to shoot a documentary on the Wisconsin Friday night fish fry tradition. No one had done that before, and the film, Fish Fry Night Milwaukee, was immediately licensed by both Milwaukee Public Television and Wisconsin Public Television for broadcast in 2010 and beyond. During production of the fish fry movie, I was looking for a supper club fish fry to feature in the film and realized that no one had documented Wisconsin supper clubs either. That topic became my second film, which was licensed to PBS nationwide. Rick Kogan who is on WGN Radio and writes for the Chicago Tribune wrote a glowing review of the film, which led to a book deal from Doug Seibold at Agate Publishing in Evanston. I agreed to write the book, and the result was huge—both for the book and supper clubs.