Factor in an expansion of projects that call attention to supper clubs, and what we have is a food movement or renaissance that shows no sign of fading.
Ron Faiola of Milwaukee, whose “Wisconsin Supper Clubs: an Old Fashioned Experience” film and book elevated supper-club exposure, comes out with a new book in June 2016. It’s called “Wisconsin Supper Clubs: Another Round.”
Filmmaker Holly De Ruyter, an Oneida native, is earning accolades for her “Old Fashioned: The Story of the Wisconsin Supper Club” documentary. It plays to sell-out crowds at film fests in Wisconsin and is a headliner next month at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago.
Holly’s work will be a part of the center’s “Stranger Than Fiction” film series, with screenings at 7:45 p.m. Jan. 23 and 6 p.m. Jan. 28.
What else? As of this month, we have supper club food inside of a sports arena, a first-time move described as “a big day for Wisconsin tourism” by Stephanie Klett, state tourism secretary.
The state’s neon-lit Travel Wisconsin Supper Club concession stand is open in the Kohl Center, Madison, during University of Wisconsin basketball games and other events there. This is part of a $200,000 marketing campaign and the first in a series of supper club promotions that the state tourism department will unveil during the next year.
The daily special on the compact menu depends upon the event’s day of week. For example: Half-pound prime rib sandwiches with caramelized onions and waffle fries sold for $14.75 on the first day of business, a Saturday basketball game between the UW and Marquette University.
During Sunday events, a plate of fried chicken with garlic mashed potatoes, a veggie and mini-popovers sells for the same price. Lighter fare includes chicken noodle soup, a Caesar or house salad – each $6. Deep-fried cheese curds are $7.
“When people travel, they want to have an outstanding culinary experience,” Stephanie says. Whether the Kohl Center experiment expands to other sports venues will depend on how it does with sports fans in Madison.
The concession isn’t a generic space for selling food: Count a deer rack, mounted fish and framed photos as behind-the-counter décor. On the outside is can’t-miss neon signage.
Menu development is in the hands of Milwaukee native Jason Steidle, the local executive chef for Levy Restaurants, whose nationwide work also involves professional sports venues and events, such as the Kentucky Derby and World Series.
“We want to be true to the comfort foods that everybody is used to,” Jason says, regarding his supper club menu, but selections “also have to be pretty portable” and hold up well when prepared for a quick-service crowd who likely will stand as they eat.
Choosing “a fish fry (cod, $9.75) was a slam dunk” for Friday events, Jason says, but serving smoked salmon ($14.75, only on Thursday) is admittedly “for the more adventurous” sports arena diner.
“You want to pick things that can feed the masses,” he explains, but sports fare everywhere is heading way beyond dawgs and brats. What succeeds depends on the customer’s appetite: A ramen bar didn’t last at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee, for example, but does well at the United Center in Chicago.
Jason knows some Kohl Center fans will consider his new fare pricey but notes that some portion sizes – true to supper club form – are big enough to share.
Look for the Travel Wisconsin Supper Club concession stand near Gate C and section 112 at the Kohl Center.
In Milwaukee, an ambitious new restaurant called Supper opened recently in the former Shorecrest Hotel. The space was long known as Snug’s (owned by the late Mafia boss Frank Balistrieri) and more recently as the Savoy Room piano bar. Art deco design, which automatically sets a nostalgic mood, earns the 1924 building a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.
Supper is a mix of Wisconsin tradition and culinary innovation for owner Gina Gruenewald, who also operates Wolf Peach in Milwaukee. Her first restaurant job was in a supper club.
On the Supper menu are Oysters Rockefeller and Calf Liver Mousse, Steak Diane and Wild Boar Ragu. Optional garnishes for an Old Fashioned or other cocktail include olives stuffed with blue cheese and house-made pickles.
Executive chef Eric Hansen’s resume includes work at Hinterland, Erin Hills Golf Course, University Club and Distil.
Starters include a choice of nibbles on a Lazy Susan: braunschweiger made inhouse, smoked trout mousse topped with caviar, black truffle deviled eggs and more.
It’s the same way behind the bar, thanks to the creative mixology of Erich Wilz, business partner and beverage director. Besides a Grasshopper or Pink Squirrel, customers can linger over dessert drinks such as Space Travel (which begins with blue moon ice cream) and the Kentucky Mudpuppy (a blend of caramel pretzel crunch ice cream, bourbon and Mudpuppy Porter from Central Waters Brewing Co. in Amherst).
Prices are not budget, but neither are they prohibitive. At the high end are an 18-ounce Veal Oscar for $44 and a 16-ounce Steak Delmonico (ribeye) for $42. Under $20 are the Ricotta Ravioli, Potato Gnocchi and Crispy Cauliflower + Potato entrees.
I saw no prices when Erich contacted me during summer, to put Supper work on my radar and ask my opinion about proposed menus.
My first impression was that this was an extreme interpretation of supper-club dining and that much of the menus were labor-intensive. I presumed that meant pricey, then asked if he thought people who appreciate supper-club heritage would see the value.
His response, in part: “I suppose we’re hoping that there’s some crossover of a generation that appreciates the heritage and now has an income and some of the newer generations of foodies that maybe haven’t experienced some of these things.
“While the price point may be high on some items, I think you can make what you want out of it. For instance, you can have a fish fry and a tap beer or multi course with steaks and fine wine.”
The sleek Supper, 1962 N. Prospect Ave., Milwaukee, opens at 3 p.m. daily. supper.restaurant, 414-509-6074
Mary Bergin’s new “Wisconsin Supper Club Cookbook” (Globe Pequot Press, $25) just went into its second printing, three months after its release.