Seems like at least a few editors at a couple of Chicago’s publishing houses are feeling both nostalgic and hungry. Just like time travel seems to be the theme of the moment for fiction, supper clubs are on the menu when it comes to nonfiction.
On Friday, we reviewed Dave Hoekstra’s The Supper Club Book. We’re bookending the weekend today with a review of Ron Faiola’s Wisconsin Supper Clubs, another ode to the dining establishments of yesteryear.
Wisconsin Supper Clubs is the follow-up book to Faiola’s highly praised documentary on the same subject. Faiola, an award-winning filmmaker, in 2011 produced a film under the same name as this book, showcasing fourteen supper clubs. That documentary was something of a hit for PBS stations, particularly in Wisconsin and Illinois. Here in the book version of Faiola’s study of supper clubs, more than fifty of Wisconsin’s rural eateries are highlighted.
Loaded with photographs, Wisconsin Supper Clubs is an easy read. Short profiles, averaging about three pages apiece, highlight the various owners of supper clubs, the menu items they feature, their picturesque locations, and the occasional celebrity sightings. Full-color photographs focus on the people, the food, and the settings. Although some of the images are mere snapshots, a number of the images beautifully capture interesting details of various supper clubs, such as vintage menus and cocktail fixings. Most of the photographs are of the food served in each restaurant, tantalizing pictures of steaks, fish, desserts, and cocktails. Many of the images, however, come without any caption information, so readers are sometimes left to guess what is pictured.
Faiola does a fine job of bringing to life a truly Midwestern tradition in Wisconsin Supper Clubs. Interviews with owners and patrons reveal a custom of fine dining and friendly service that keep diners coming back for more, despite the proliferation of chain restaurants that offer cheap, known-quantity food in massive portions. Scenic locations and the opportunity to linger over a good meal while surrounded by friendly people counter the eat-and-get-out mentality that marks many of today’s restaurants, making supper clubs a draw for locals and out-of-town visitors alike. Faiola lovingly captures that draw, highlighting the unique culinary experiences and regional characteristics of the supper clubs featured in the book.
Although each profile treads over familiar territory, making the book feel a bit redundant in its coverage when reading from front to back, Faiola also highlights unique aspects of the clubs. Whether it’s noting a chef who recently prepared his one-millionth steak or highlighting the supper club that brought the first refrigerated salad bar to the world, tiny details keep readers interested. Commonalities are mentioned throughout (brandy old fashioneds feature prominently, as one would expect), but Faiola also digs deeper to find the unusual. In particular, he notes three or four supper clubs that may be haunted, a few that have served as hideaways for Chicago mobsters, and some that started out as speakeasies or brothels.
Aside from an obvious typographical error that mars one of the sidebars in the book, there is little to dislike about Wisconsin Supper Clubs, which serves as an enjoyable guide to these old-fashioned yet somehow still relevant restaurants. Diners who frequent some of these establishments will enjoy reading about their favorite and familiar haunts. Readers who wish to travel vicariously can feast on the eye-catching images that fill the book. And those who are craving a brandy old fashioned by the time they reach the last page will be happy to find at the back of the book the recipe for this Wisconsin mainstay. Colorful, detailed, and accessible, Wisconsin Supper Clubs has a little something for just about everyone.
April 2013, Agate Publishing/Midway
$35, hardcover, 224 pages
—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen
Watch a trailer for Ron Faiola’s “Wisconsin Supper Clubs” documentary.