15 supper clubs offer traditional favorites

Supper clubs enjoy perpetual popularity
15 supper clubs offer traditional favorites
Tornado Steakhouse

Following Prohibition, drinking and dining out enjoyed a new status. Many Americans sought simply prepared foods like grilled steaks and boiled and fried seafood. Good quality and big portions as well as mixed drinks were a must. Having a band–maybe even dancing–was an added attraction. A new style of restaurant dubbed the supper club soon evolved. In some parts, its allure has gone the way of big fins on automobiles, but not so in the upper Midwest, where it seems to possess perpetual popularity. It can be hard to define what qualifies a restaurant (or even a tavern, for that matter) to claim itself a supper club. Often it is atmosphere–maybe padded stools in the bar where cocktails are favored over beer, or plush carpet in the dimly lit dining room. There really aren’t any surefire criteria for making the distinction other than what’s on the menu. It must include all the traditional favorites: steaks and prime rib, Friday fish fry, preferably fried cheese curds, perhaps a salad bar. In Wisconsin, everyone has his or her favorite spot–some right here in Madison and others only an hour or less drive from town.

615 Club

Like so many beloved supper clubs the 615 Club has its roots in Prohibition, and
its past is tantalizingly unsavory. Today’s 615 Club, however, is located in a converted house and provides an elegant and refined dining experience that still begins with a complimentary relish tray. Out of the ordinary are outstanding au gratin potatoes and a stellar wine list. $$
615 Broad St., Beloit, 364-4615

Buckhorn Supper Club

On the shore of Lake Koshkonong, both locals and weekenders harmoniously rub elbows at the Buckhorn. In addition to the obligatory Friday fish fry, in warm weather it regularly throws much-anticipated lobster boils on its spacious lakeside patio. The day-to-day fare not only covers all the bases but also flaunts homemade desserts. $$
11802 N. Charley Bluff Rd., Milton, 868-2653

Butterfly Club

As a testament to its local adoration, when Beloit native and Michelin-starred chef Michael White opened his retro-themed restaurant in New York, he named it the Butterfly. You’ll have to go to Beloit, though, if you want to hear Mike Williamson belt out Sinatra hits on the weekend, or bask in the original Butterfly’s bucolic setting. This place, in business since 1924, is proof that friendly service and reliable food have no expiration date. $$
246 E. County Rd. X, Beloit, 362-8577

Cimaroli’s Supper Club

For forty-five years the Cimaroli family has run this welcoming roadside restaurant. A bit unusual in these parts is its specialty, flat iron steak, served in three sizes and smothered with mushrooms. The haddock fish fry on Friday is still all you can eat. Few pass up the $2.50 old fashioneds, $2 rail drinks or $3 call cocktails. $$
W11793 Wisconsin Hwy. 27, Portage, 742-2238

Del-Bar

Meticulously prepared food, polished service and a sophisticated atmosphere make the Del-Bar a first-class dining experience. A second generation of the Wimmer family continues to wow with the likes of shrimp de Jonghe, prime steaks and pan-fried walleye. For many ardent fans, the spinach salad with warm bacon dressing is the Dells’ most noteworthy attraction. $$
800 Wisconsin Dells Pkwy., Wisconsin Dells, 253-1861

The Duck Inn

Located at the junction of two country roads in the middle of nowhere, the Duck Inn is another example of a tavern going upscale. Not surprisingly, its specialty is duck (prepared five ways) as well as roast pheasant; both were once staples on supper club menus but not so much nowadays. In truth, the name goes back to the place’s origins as a speakeasy, where those in the know could duck in for an illicit drink. $$
N6214 Wisconsin Hwy. 89, Delavan, 883-6988

Feil’s Supper Club

With no previous restaurant ownership experience, Herb and Harriet Feil bought the Club 73 Tavern in 1969 and never looked back. Today, their son runs one of the most venerated dining destinations in the area. The German decor and Bavarian dishes such as sauerbraten and schnitzel prepared several ways are a nod to the family’s heritage. Not surprisingly, the fish fry comes with potato pancakes. Don’t be misled: From the salad bar and fried appetizers to the steaks and lobster tail, at heart Feil’s is prototypical Wisconsin supper club. $$
N8743 Wisconsin Hwy. 73, Randolph, (920) 326-5544

Field’s at the Wilderness

This luxurious resort restaurant owned by the three Field brothers and designed by Frank Lloyd Wright protege James Dresser is a far cry from the humble cafe their parents opened in the Dells many years ago. Every table in its handful of dramatically lit dining rooms boasts a view. The specialty is dry-aged, prime steaks, elegantly served with appealing accoutrements. $$$
511 E. Adams St., Wisconsin Dells, 253-1400

Fitz’s on the Lake

Close to home, Fitz’s still manages to capture that Wisconsin vacation-at-the lake vibe–a trip on the nearby Merrimac Ferry will only enhance that feeling. With beers on the deck, sports on the big screen in the bar and familiar food in the dining room, Fitz’s caters to every true Sconnie’s essential needs. A beer-battered, all-you-can-eat fish fry twice a week and other nightly specials are worth the short drive. $
W11602 County Rd. V, Lodi, 592-3302

Ishnala

The doyenne of the Dells, few restaurants anywhere can boast a more idyllic setting or finer vistas. After sixty-two years, Ishnala remains a summer ritual for many, both natives and tourists alike. A not-to-be-missed pleasure is sipping cocktails on the deck while watching the sun set over serene Mirror Lake. From one season to the next, the meat-centric specialties may be tweaked, but reassuringly, dinner always begins with the house yellow cheese spread. Ishnala should be on everyone’s bucket list. $$$
S2011 Ishnala Rd., Lake Delton, 253-1771

Kavanaugh’s Esquire Club

Like so many places that have survived food fads and fickle taste, this is a family-run operation. Jack and Jane Kavanaugh opened the Esquire bar in 1947 and their son, grandson and granddaughter have followed in their footsteps. The north-side landmark can lay claim to Madison’s longest continuously running Friday fish fry, still one of the most liked in town. Unlike many of its genre, the Esquire is open for lunch as well as dinner. $$
1025 N. Sherman Ave., Madison, 249-0193

Owl’s Nest

Local lore has it that this was a regular stop for Al Capone and his gang on their way from Chicago to their hideout in Couderay. Its name later became synonymous with the cheese spread that originated here and is now commercially manufactured by the folks who make Laughing Cow cheese. Nowadays, most come for the Friday night fish fry served family-style (or even to-go) and Saturday-night prime rib. Equally sought out are the handmade thin onion rings and twelve-ounce ice cream drinks. $$
617 E. North St., Poynette, 635-2298

Smoky’s Club

It was more than half a century ago when Janet and Leonard “Smoky” Schmock opened their little steakhouse that would become one of the city’s most endearing haunts. Very little changes here except for the addition of even more decorations–jumble hung from the ceiling. As always, the steaks still sizzle, the grasshoppers are sumptuousness and Smoky’s never seems to lose its appeal. $$$
3005 University Ave., Madison, 233-2120

Tornado Steakhouse

Henry Doane wisely left alone the dated and rustic decor he inherited from the previous tenant, Crandall’s, a legendary Madison supper club. However, he took food and service to a new level. To be sure, the juicy steaks, crispy hash browns and big wedge salads are as good as any in the city, but for something really special, try the coquille’s Saint Jacques or sauteed walleye with white wine and shallots. Tornado is proof that change can be for the better. $$$ BOM
116 S. Hamilton St., Madison, 256-3570

The Wonder Bar

Many stories surround this roadhouse Chicago mobster Eddie Touhy opened in 1929. Its past definitely underwrites its current charm. Tradition and urbanity merge at this classic supper club with some of the best steaks and martinis around. Logs frequently blaze cheerily in the dining room’s big stone fireplace. A portrait known as the Mystery Woman hangs above its mantel; like the Wonder Bar, it’s a bit beautiful, unexpected and inexplicable.
222 E. Olin Ave., Madison, 256-9430 (Best of Madison 2015 winner)