I took the long way to the Twin Cities this month, first heading to Dubuque and then hugging the Mississippi River while meandering north.
Around lunchtime, I was in Balltown, Iowa. Population is 73, or 37, depending upon the source.
The town’s tourist lure is Breitbach’s Country Dining (319-552-2220), which is the state’s oldest restaurant. It opened in 1852 and proprietor Mike Breitbach is the sixth generation of the family to run it.
He works the room like a politician, shaking hands, asking people where they’re from, how they like the food and how they heard about his place.
It is 15 miles northwest of Dubuque, on the scenic Great River Road (this leg of it is called C9Y). Brooke Shields has found her way there. So has outlaw Jesse James.
Mike’s wife, Cindy, makes the pies, as flaky and fresh as you’ll find anywhere. Family recipes for pickled beets, corn relish and marinated carrot salad make a good impression on the salad bar.
This is not gourmet dining but it’s hearty food. It also is down-home cooking in a friendly place … but I sure wouldn’t call it a supper club.
That term, “supper club,” can be hard to explain, but a Wisconsin native knows one when he or she sees it.
Ed Lump, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association, describes the supper club as a restaurant with white tablecloths, waitstaff and a bar. It typically serves a three-course meal: soup, salad and entrée.
I’d add a relish tray to that — something to munch on while sipping a brandy old-fashioned and reading the menu.
Are supper clubs typically family owned? You bet, says Lump. Do you have to wait an hour for a table on a Friday night? That’s been my experience, but I usually don’t mind.
“It’s a place with a ‘Cheers’ atmosphere, where everybody knows your name,” Lump says. “It’s a response to the private club – the country club or yacht club. This is where everybody can go to eat, as opposed to just one class of people.”
Lump, whose association represents about 7,000 restaurants in Wisconsin, believes supper clubs are an unusual part of the state’s culinary identity – probably surfacing around the time Prohibition ended.
Perhaps they’re also more a part of our history than our future. Has anybody opened a new restaurant and called it a supper club lately?
I’ll respectfully disagree that they are unique to Wisconsin. Those two words are a part of the landscape in other Midwestern states, too.
Example: Swisher, a town of 800 that is south of Cedar Rapids, contains the Ranch Supper Club, run by Sandra Gandara. She says her club, and others in Iowa, opened in the 1920s.
“They’re not in metro areas and they cater to people who would spend the evening over drinks and dinner, then dancing or other entertainment,” she writes.
The Ranch is one of only five supper clubs that are a part of the Iowa Hospitality Association – that’s a small number compared to what we still see in Wisconsin.
OK, now it’s your turn. Tell us about the best place to stop for a meal after a Green Bay Packer game, or another nice meal out. Hint: You get extra credit if it’s a supper club.
No need to write a long essay. Just a line or two is fine.
One person who sends us their thoughts will receive four tickets to the Green Bay Packer Hall of Fame (see www.packerhalloffame.com or 888-442-7225).
Another person will get a gift pack of honey products from Honey Acres (see www.honeyacres.com or 800-558-7745), which is celebrating 150 years of business. It is near Ashippen, which is midway between Madison and Milwaukee. The family-run company’s 40 acres includes the Honey of a Museum, a museum about beekeeping and honey making.
A third person will receive a surprise package from the Greater Minneapolis Convention and Visitors Bureau (www.minneapolis.org or 888-676-6757). Contents include a T-shirt, canvas briefcase, mouse pad and more.