The Wisconsin kind of clubbin’

Nothing quite says Wisconsin cuisine like a supper club.
exterior of Tornado Room
Courtesy of Tornado Room Steak House

Nothing quite says Wisconsin cuisine like a supper club.

Kavanaugh’s Esquire Club
This north side institution can claim bragging rights as Madison’s oldest restaurant, run by the same family at the same location since 1947. Originally a humble neighborhood tavern, its claim to fame was cheap drinks and a Friday night fish fry. A vintage jukebox in the bar remains as a testament to its honky-tonk past. The bill of fare incorporates many requisite supper club favorites — Black Angus steaks, seafood and nightly specials. Worth discovering is Sunday’s all-you-can-eat chicken dinner, complete with mashed potatoes, dressing and coleslaw.

Smoky’s Club
A plus for any restaurant is history, and this place has plenty. Founded by Leonard “Smoky” Schmock and his wife, Janet, in 1953, it became famous for steaks that sizzled, served on red-hot metal platters. Besides steaks, classics like wedge salad and hash browns are exemplary, but save room for “dessert.” At one time, the nightcap of choice was a creamy cocktail like a grasshopper, brandy Alexander or pink squirrel. Today, you rarely encounter these drinks outside supper clubs in the Upper Midwest. At Smoky’s, the old standards — as well as more unusual ice cream creations — are sure to induce sweet dreams.

Toby’s Supper Club
Current owner Roxanne Peterson has worked here since she was 11. Except for the prices, the menu has changed little since her dad remodeled the digs back in the 1970s. What entices customers time after time is one of the best fish fries in town. A choice of baby pike, lake perch, cod or catfish includes a cold relish plate, coleslaw and a choice of potato. Toby’s doesn’t take reservations on Friday and Saturdays, so expect to wait an hour or more in the crowded bar on a Friday night.

Tornado Room Steak House
Calling it a steakhouse is a bit misleading. The decor, from the knotty wood paneling and terrazzo floors to the round banquets in the lounge, has remained untouched since it was Crandall’s, once downtown Madison’s premier supper club. The steaks are excellent to be sure, but you can’t go wrong with any of the entrees, including pan-fried walleye and rosy rack of lamb. Highly recommended is the Coquille Saint Jacques: plump sea scallops in a sublime creamy sauce, nested in a border of duchess potatoes. Everything comes with what was once a dining-out essential — freshly baked bread and a relish tray.

old-fashioned cocktail sitting on a ledge overlooking the lake

Old-Fashioned (Courtesy of Ishnala)

Ishnala
This doyenne near the Dells has a Madison connection. It was originally a rustic retreat before Madison’s Hoffman brothers — owners of our city’s fabled Hoffman House — purchased it and made it their second restaurant in 1953. Perched on a sylvan cliff and overlooking serene Mirror Lake, it serves up the quintessential “up north” supper club experience. Little competes with the sunset here, especially if savored while sipping a signature Old-Fashioned, but the food rarely disappoints. An uncommon addition to the anticipated offerings is roast duck with sage stuffing and cognac orange sauce. However, the prime rib combined with jumbo shrimp can’t be beat. While it is currently closed for the season, Ishnala reopens on April 27.

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