HobNob gains attention for excellence in hospitality

The James Beard Foundation typically pays attention to the nation’s edgiest and newest chefs and restaurant concepts. An easy majority of the annual Beard semifinalists and awards go to fine dining efforts in the biggest metro areas of the country.

An exception this year is The HobNob, between Racine and Kenosha, one of 20 semifinalists for the foundation’s Outstanding Hospitality Award this year.

What is this classic and longstanding supper club like? From my Wisconsin Supper Club Cookbook:

“All kinds of big and small details turn the HobNob into an extraordinary supper club. The location is a once-rural shoreline of Lake Michigan, at the halfway point between Racine and Kenosha. How close is the water? Close enough for parking lot signs to playfully warn, “Stop Lake Michigan Ahead.” It’s a can’t-miss business because of neon signage and a gigantic martini painted on the front of the building.

“Inside is a lush and over-the-top mix of Naugahyde white booths and bar seats, heavy and fringed drapes, silken wall fabrics, purple ceilings and intimate dining areas that are dramatic in appearance. The style resembles art deco. Under glass is a 1950s menu, back when a shorty beer was thirty cents, a slice of cheesecake thirty-five cents and a shrimp cocktail $1. Almost all of the house specialties – prime rib, roasted duckling, barbecued ribs, thick lamb chops and one-pound pork chops – remain on the menu. The $3.50 steamed finnan haddie, smoked haddock named after a town in Scotland, has vanished.

” ‘They’re driving far to come to us and coming for a particular entree,” Mike Aletto says, “so we don’t have to change a lot.’ He and wife Anne Glowacki have owned the supper club since 1990 and now live in Florida but return to the HobNob at least monthly. They bought it from Bill Higgins Jr., son of the original owners, Bill and Belle Higgins, who opened it as Higgins’ HobNob in 1954. From 1937–1941, Higgins’ HobNob was in downtown Racine, five miles north of its present site.

“ ‘We’re a place to come to enjoy a whole evening – this is your night out,” Mike says. ‘ “Miss Lillian,” a cabaret-style piano player, has entertained in the Lakeview Terrace lounge on Saturday night since the mid 1990s. A trio of musicians adds soft jazz on Friday. Diners used to pay 50 cents for access to rooftop dancing and cocktails during summer, until a change in fire safety codes ended the practice.

Bartender Kami Ohlson uses 10 scoops of vanilla ice cream to make one Grasshopper dessert cocktail at The HobNob.

“Now Lakeview Terrace is where people linger, and dessert means ice cream drinks. “As soon as one is paraded through the dining room, everybody orders them, says Kara Wunderle, special events coordinator. The supper club has no television sets, which means business historically is quiet during Green Bay Packer game time, but the HobNob has not served lunch for many years.

“Although the Moroccan Room can seat up to six, it’s informally nicknamed the “footsie room” because it’s more likely to be reserved by a couple for a special meal that occasionally involves a marriage proposal. After that happens, Kara says chances are good they’ll request the same seating, sometimes every year. “There are a lot of memories in this room,” she acknowledges.

“An eclectic assortment of luminaries – architect Frank Lloyd Wright, filmmaker Walt Disney, singer Patti Page, radio broadcaster Paul Harvey, football players LeRoy Butler and Charles Woodson – have dined at the HobNob. TV host Steve Allen was the first person to sign the guest book.

” ‘Now younger generations are taking a taste of supper club style. “Thirty-year-olds are loving different food experiences such as this,” Kara says. “They love being in a place different than the chain” restaurants. She mentions a couple who hired Rat Pack impersonators for their wedding reception, and groups who organize supper club tours as a vacation. It’s all good, as long as they expect a leisurely pace because “for people who want to be in and out in 45 minutes, we have a hard time doing it.’ ”