Editor’s note: It’s simple, really

What I did discover — after diving into Ron Faiola’s latest book about supper clubs and through case studies of one old, one new and two soon-to-open restaurants — was that the answer was a lot simpler than I thought.
interior of the Del Bar
Courtesy of Andrea Behling
The Del-Bar

I was on a mission with April’s cover story. My plan was to define the supper club and explain exactly what this eminent part of Wisconsin dining culture looks like today.

My mission had a fatal flaw: I assumed the supper club tradition had a hard and fast history that would offer a path to explain it and show its evolution in a succinct way. I decided to accept defeat forthrightly with the first sentence of the story in the April issue. What I did discover — after diving into Ron Faiola’s latest book about supper clubs and through case studies of one old, one new and two soon-to-open restaurants — was that the answer was a lot simpler than I thought.

My first supper club experience was as a young girl at The Hoffman House in Rockford, Illinois. Grandpa Cliff always chose that place for his birthday dinner. Probably none of us realized at the time how special those dinners were, having everyone around the table. We filled the dining room with loud voices and laughter. As an adult, I learned about The Hoffman House’s Madison origins, and now the childhood experience feels both comforting and a little prescient.

I went to The Del-Bar for the first time a few months ago. My mom and I sat under a framed picture of Blackhawk Island on the Wisconsin River, which our family has been boating on since before I was born. Those sandstone rocks framed a lot of precious childhood memories for me. That little bit of familiarity allowed me to sink into my tufted leather chair on rollers and feel at home inside The Del-Bar. It was a delicious dinner — wedge salad, scallops, pan-fried walleye, asparagus, Brussels sprouts and baked potato — but what I remember most was the conversation. My mom and I chatted about life, work and her approaching retirement. It was one of those nights that would have never made the highlight reel of life if we hadn’t slowed down to share a meal together and connect.

Those kinds of memories kept popping up for me as I worked on this story. I struggled for a while to put together the pieces of what I’d learned about supper clubs past and present. Every interview seemed to provide a bit more clarity, but also more nuance, as everyone’s experiences came wrapped up in their own memories, moments and details. Each menu is similar, but never exactly the same. Fresh thinking has led to smart updates that will keep the tradition alive while preserving its integral elements in unique ways. How could I possibly define the supper club experience and how it’s changed when it’s different for every person and at every restaurant?

But then I came across a passage in Faiola’s book that felt like the answer hidden in plain sight. It was The Turk’s Inn restaurateur George Gogian’s philosophy of dining, printed in one of the menus of his supper club in Hayward, Wisconsin, circa the 1960s:

The art of cooking is an art to be proud of; it is the soul of festivity at all times and to all ages. We Americans are prone to forget  … that eating should be an unhurried pleasure, not a task to get over with quickly. Therefore, at least once a day, preferably in the cool and quiet of the evening, one should throw all care to the winds, relax completely, and dine leisurely and well.

In just a few sentences, written at least 60 years ago, Gogian explained the essence of the supper club. To me, this feels more universal than anything else I’ve seen in defining this dining tradition and helps explain its enduring and evolving legacy.

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