The Wisconsin Supper Clubs Story: An Illustrated History, with Relish, is now available for purchase online or at your favorite local bookstore! In this third installment of his popular series, Ron Faiola invites readers to pull up a chair as he regales us with more than a century of history behind this beloved dining tradition, guiding readers from London to Hollywood, to New York City, and finally, to his own home state.
The journey begins with the world’s very first supper clubs, which emerged in London in the mid-1800s. The phenomenon was adopted by New York’s restaurant and saloon owners in the late 1800s, and soon spread to suburban and rural areas. Across the United States, supper clubs enhanced culinary and dining traditions, and greatly influenced the evolution of live entertainment such as cabaret, comedy, and jazz, and dance crazes such as “The Charleston,” “Turkey Trot,” and the eyebrow-raising “Wiggle Wiggle.”
Faiola unfolds the history of Wisconsin’s supper clubs with stories of its most iconic establishments, such as Ray Radigan’s, Hoffman House, and Fazio’s on Fifth. He reveals the remarkable durability of the supper club tradition as it withstood WWI, the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, Prohibition, the Great Depression, WWII, as well as the mid-twentieth century advent of fast food franchises and casual dining chains. Through their innovation and determination, supper club owners and their staff have managed not only to survive, but to maintain generations-spanning restaurants that remain prominent features of their communities to this day.
Bursting with full-color photographs, newspaper clippings, and first-hand interviews, The Wisconsin Supper Clubs Story: An Illustrated History, with Relish offers a hearty buffet of the history of Wisconsin’s most iconic supper clubs and the folks who keep the cocktails poured, the relish trays fresh, and ensure there’s always an open seat at the table.
Q&A with Ron Faiola, Author of The Wisconsin Supper Clubs Story
This book has a bit of a different flavor than your first two books, Wisconsin Supper Clubs: An Old Fashioned Experience and Wisconsin Supper Clubs: Another Round. How was your approach to this book different than your approach to your first two?
The first two books required months of travel to visit all 100 clubs. The Wisconsin Supper Clubs Story involved about three years of research into old newspaper stories, books, the odd online reference, and lots of memorabilia. It was a fascinating deep dive into what was happening in the US so many decades ago.
Of all the supper club “eras” you detail in the book, which do you most wish you could time travel back to and experience for yourself?
I’ll be 59 this year, so I have many fond memories of supper clubs from the 1960s onward. That said, it would be exciting to go to a supper club during Prohibition. Places like the 21 Club in New York City, which began as a Greenwich Village speakeasy in 1922 called the Red Head, then became Club Fronton, which offered upscale dining along with a full bar and fine wines. It must have been a thrill to know that there was every possibility that the place could be raided (which it was, several times). On the other hand, it would be quite an experience to witness the all-night revelry at the London supper clubs in the late 1800s.
Do you have a favorite of the older supper clubs you profiled for this book?
I mention in the book that when I was young my family used to frequent the Rafters in suburban Milwaukee. We didn’t do fast food—what little of it existed back then—because there were so many supper clubs around. My grandfather and I would often head up to the northern part of the state to go fishing and we’d always go to a supper club. Those are fond memories.
What was the most surprising or unexpected thing you learned during your
Menu prices were fairly comparable to what we pay in today’s dollars. Those three dollar steak dinners in the 1950s would be about thirty dollars today. It’s still fun to dream about paying sixty-five cents for a brandy old fashioned and a buck-fifty for a shrimp cocktail.
How has the definition of a supper club changed over the decades?
It’s always been difficult to give an exact definition of a supper club, other than you’ll know it when you see it, which really doesn’t work for people who’ve never been to one. At one point in American dining many restaurants were called Supper Clubs, and diners knew what to expect because of that label.
In Wisconsin it’s different now, as there are the Supper Clubs and the supper club-ish places that go by so many different labels: steakhouses, inns, pubs, grills, taverns, and even restaurants. This blurring of the line of what is and is not a supper club is now the genesis of many arguments. Some people have very specific criteria (must have a relish tray or prime rib on Saturday), others are more flexible, but either way, they always stand by their opinion.
Nowadays, a supper club in Wisconsin is not necessarily like a supper club anywhere else in the US. There are so many differences, including the type of food served, Las Vegas-style entertainment, and actual clubs that require membership.
How do you think supper clubs and the supper club tradition will change in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic?
During 2020, people were supportive of supper clubs, even if it meant just getting take out meals or buying gift cards to support a favorite one. As much as the pandemic was an unimaginable disruption for the owners, the strength of the supper club tradition helped bring customers back to the clubs—in droves, as it turned out, which became too much of a good thing.
Nearly 15 years ago, most supper club owners managed to weather the Great Recession, when people cut back on dining out to save money. Right now, the issues that the clubs are facing are coming from all sides—shortages of food and supplies, higher wholesale prices, and a lack of staff. These challenges have caused supper clubs to limit their hours and even the number of days that they’re open. It’s going to take some time to sort these issues out, and we may never really get back to pre-pandemic “normal” again. As customers, we’ll have to get used to paying more, having to wait longer for a table, and learning to accept the limited availability of popular menu items.
While there will always be appreciation for the supper club tradition, we all have to adapt to the new environment. It may not be easy, but at least we will still be able to enjoy Wisconsin supper clubs.
Supper clubs have been around for more than a century. What exactly do you think it is about the tradition that keeps people coming back for more?
It’s simple: people are loyal to a tradition they enjoy, especially when it involves food. Even though there is no membership involved—at least for Wisconsin’s supper clubs—that tradition has the same aspect as a club membership, where a group of people gather together to share a meal and camaraderie. There are even supper club clubs—fellow enthusiasts that go out and visit a different supper club on a regular basis. I’ve met a few on the road, and they are always having a great time.
What’s next for you?
There is a chapter on supper club entertainers in The Wisconsin Supper Clubs Story that briefly shines a light on the relationship between the Hildegarde, the “First Lady of Supper Clubs,” and her manager, songwriter, and long-time partner Anna Sosenko. I’d like to flesh out their story more completely and turn that into a book.
I spend quite a bit of time updating my website, WisconsinSupperClubs.com, which has a list of over 250 clubs. Of course, there’s always another 50 supper clubs from that list that I could profile for a new book. People are always asking me when the next one will be released. The first two have become kind of a passport as people travel to the clubs and have their book signed by the owners.