CHICAGO – Supper clubs are a distinct genre of dining out. Usually family-run and usually located near vacation spots in the Midwest, these restaurants are famed for good, homey food, hearty portions and surroundings that transport diners back to the mid-20th century.
That’s a good thing. Supper clubs are so retro they seem balanced on the knife’s edge of hip these days. And that’s why you should conjure one up at home.
“Turn the air conditioning up really high. … Pull the shades on the windows,” said Michael Stern, co-author of “Road Food” and other books chronicling America’s dining traditions. “You want it cool and tomblike.”
Let the food be the star of the party: Meat (or fish) and potatoes, with plenty of cocktails to wash them down.
“So often, so many people are telling us what we ought to be eating, and saying it not in a spirit of fun but in the spirit of ‘You’re bad.’ Food is one area we don’t want to be told what to do,” said Stern, a resident of Bethel, Conn. “That’s part of the pleasure of a supper club meal. It’s a way of thumbing your nose at the nutrition police.”
And being bad can be delicious.
“At least at some of the newer places, like Red Stag Supperclub in Minneapolis, people come in for the nostalgia and are surprised by the quality of the food,” said Dave Hoekstra, author of “The Supper Club Book: A Celebration of a Midwest Tradition” (Chicago Review Press, $29.95).
Here’s what you need to transform your home into a supper club, at least for one night.
A relish tray is traditional, with an assortment of raw and pickled vegetables.
“The vegetables are something healthy to nibble on while thinking how big a piece of prime rib you’ll have,” said Ron Faiola, a Milwaukee-based video producer, director and author of “Wisconsin Supper Clubs: An Old-Fashioned Experience” (Midway, $35).
Some supper clubs also serve a cheese spread and crackers. So popular has it proven to be with customers of the Moracco Supper Club in Dubuque, Iowa, that the cheese dish is offered in place of the relish tray.
“You can serve it with crackers, broccoli, carrots, any chips,” said co-owner Jeanne Heiar, who notes some customers save a bit of the spread to put on their baked potatoes instead of paying extra for shredded cheese. “That’s the world nowadays,” she says, chuckling.
Have a well-stocked bar; supper club customers arrive thirsty for classic cocktails.
“In Wisconsin, where the old-fashioned is the unofficial state drink, the overwhelming preference is to serve it with brandy instead of whiskey,” Faiola writes in his book. Here’s his version: Combine 1 maraschino cherry and ½ slice orange with 1 teaspoon sugar and 2 to 3 dashes bitters in a 10- or 12-ounce tumbler; muddle, or mash, together. Add ice, then 1 ½ to 2 ounces brandy. Top off with 7UP. Garnish with an orange slice and maraschino cherry.
“Prime rib is about as supper club as it gets,” said Bill Kozlak Jr., proprietor of Jax Cafe in Minneapolis.
Maybe. Many supper clubs do offer prime rib, often on Saturday nights, but they also offer fish fries on Fridays.
Fish is a huge draw at Midwest supper clubs, many of which are located near lakes or rivers. Jax Cafe patrons can net their fish dinner in the supper club’s own trout stream.
If meat is what you want and prime rib is too pricey, consider a steak. Kim Bartmann, who is giving an updated twist to the genre at Red Stag Supperclub, goes with a rib-eye with grilled mushrooms, grilled onions and crumbled blue cheese.
Remember, as Hoekstra points out, many supper club faves began in the home and can be transported back quite easily.
Have your choice of potato.
“There’s french fries, potato pancakes, baked potatoes,” Faiola said. “I’m a big fan of the potato pancake.”
Baked is Stern’s choice, served with sour cream, butter, bacon or Bac-Os, and chives.
Salad? Iceberg wedges rule, often crowned with creamy dressing. Interestingly, the Jax’s Kozlak will share any recipe with a customer, except for the family’s secret creamy garlic Parmesan dressing.
Every supper club has a roster of desserts to cap the meal. Many customers choose instead to order a creamy, sweet after-dinner drink.
“In Wisconsin, they’re made with ice cream,” said Jane Wimmer of the Del-Bar, a landmark supper club in Lake Delton, Wis.
One of the more popular requests is a brandy Alexander. Here’s how Wimmer makes it: Blend 3 scoops vanilla ice cream with 1¼ ounces brandy and ¾ ounce creme de cacao. Pour into a giant snifter, top with grated nutmeg and a squirt of whipped cream.
Moracco cheese spread
Hoekstra said he loves this cheese spread so much he posted the recipe from Iowa’s Moracco Supper Club on his book’s website thesupperclubbook.com.
Blend 1 container (14 ounces) sharp cheddar cheese spread, 8 ounces sour cream and 4 ounces cream cheese in a stand mixer or food processor until smooth and fluffy. Chill until ready to serve.
Trout baked on orange wild rice
Prep: 20 minutes
Cook: 1 hour, 10 minutes
Note: A recipe from the Jax Cafe in Minneapolis.
2 cups wild rice, rinsed, drained
1½ teaspoons salt
6 cups cold water
¾ stick (6 tablespoons) unsalted
1 large bunch green onions,
chopped, ¼ cup of the green
6 trout, 10 to 12 ounces each,
cleaned, boned, the heads and
Freshly ground pepper
½ lemon, cut into 6 wedges
1 cup fresh orange juice
2 teaspoons grated orange zest
6 thin orange slices
6 parsley sprigs
Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Combine the wild rice, salt and water in a saucepan. Heat to a boil; turn heat to low. Simmer until just tender, 35-45 minutes. Drain if all the water has not been absorbed; toss with 3 tablespoons butter, softened, and the green onions. Spread the wild rice evenly in a large shallow buttered baking dish. (You may need two baking pans to hold all the trout.)
Cut the remaining 3 tablespoons butter into 6 slices. Season the cavities of the trout with salt and pepper; stuff each cavity with 1 lemon wedge and 1 slice butter. Arrange the trout over the rice; pour the orange juice over them. Cover with buttered wax paper and foil; bake until the trout just flakes, 30 minutes. Sprinkle the wild rice with the reserved green onions and orange zest. Garnish each trout with a twist of the sliced orange and a parsley sprig.
Per serving: 757 calories, 31 g fat, 11 g saturated fat, 192 mg cholesterol, 51 g carbohydrates, 67 g protein, 740 mg sodium, 5 g fiber