The Al-Gen Dinner Club, Rhinelander

The Al-Gen Dinner Club, Rhinelander, Wisconsin

Rating: 5 out of 5 Old Fashioneds, a perfect northwoods supper club

Relish Tray: not exactly, but crackers and cheese spread
Ice Cream Drinks: available
Price Range: entrees range from about $13 to about $30
Ambiance: old school, north woods, log cabin

Sometimes, when Owen and I pick an area of Wisconsin to explore, we have an idea of the supper club that we would like to try that night. This time, we were drawn to the Rhinelander area because of an album by one of our favorite bands, The Blue Mooners. While there is a song on the album specifically about Rhinelander, the song Hodag Country is my favorite (maybe tied with Minocqua Mama). Owen and I popped the CD in our car and started to drive north, hoping to see a hodag of our own.

After a day with no sightings of the fabled beast, we stumbled upon a pretty good consolation prize – Swearingen’s Al-Gen Dinner Club. The Al-Gen was first opened in 1932, and it feels like it. It’s been updated, sure, but it still retains the perfect, northwoods, log cabin feel. On the menu, the tagline is “Yesterday’s atmosphere serving today’s favorites”, and while “today’s favorites” are not the most modern dishes I’ve seen on a menu, they are certainly delicious.

When we sat down at the bar, it was still pretty early. The bar area has a full wrap around bar, and our old fashioneds were tart and very bitters-forward. Surprisingly, the pickled mushrooms had a spicy kick – Owen was over the moon. While we were at the bar, another patron ordered a martini and it came in a classic martini glass adorned with a Green Bay Packers “G”, very classy and very Wisconsin.

The dining room is cozy, and holds maybe twenty -five tables. The northwoods, log cabin feel continues in the dining room, with plenty of deer heads and vintage Rhinelander brewery decor. There’s not one window in the place, so it feels like it could be any time of day (or night), and maybe any year.

I was truly delighted when the server brought us a tray crackers and a regal scoop of cheese spread in a sundae dish. Only in Wisconsin does cheese spread get the royal treatment it deserves.

With our entrees, we had a side salad and a choice of soup. The salad had some kale mixed in with the greens, very modern for a classic supper club salad. The choice of soup was chicken-something or tomato-something. I thought I misheard the server when she said tomato juice, and ordered it, expecting a tomato bisque perhaps. Of course, Owen heard perfectly, but happily ordered the tomato juice as well. I’ve seen it as an option on supper club menus before, but it was my first time having a juice course, and I didn’t mind it at all.

As if the cheese, salad and juice were not enough to start our meal, we also got a bread basket with two homemade breads, a warm herby french bread and a raisin walnut bread, both incredible.

For our main courses, Owen tried the “beef and reef”, a filet with a side of shrimp. We had heard they were already out of prime rib, but the filet was a pretty good substitute. Despite amount of color on the shrimp, they were not overcooked at all.

I tried another combination plate, this one ribs and chicken. I had been craving BBQ ribs for a while, and these really hit the spot. The sauce was tangy and sweet, and I only wished there was more of it. By the time I turned to the chicken I was too full to go on, but the leftovers made a tasty breakfast.

The Al-Gen does serve ice cream drinks, but Owen and I had already stopped for a cone while strolling around Rhinelander – we will have to try them next time.

The Al-Gen is everything we want in a supper club. I want to travel to a destination, family-owned restaurant in the northwoods. I want my bartender to be hard of hearing and wearing a novelty tie. I want to be surprised when I accidentally order tomato juice. I want a cocktail served in a Packers martini glass. I want to need a doggy-bag because of the enormous amount of food I’ve been served. I want to be in a beautiful, well-preserved log cabin from the 1930s. And I want to visit the Al-Gen again and again.

Elias Inn Supper Club, Watertown

Elias Inn Supper Club, Watertown, Wisconsin

Rating: 5 out of 5 Old Fashioneds

Relish Tray: glorious, lazy susan relish tray
Ice Cream Drinks: available
Price Range: entrees range from about $14 to $34
Ambiance: cozy German beer hall

Jean and I were in the mood for fish fry one recent Friday night. So I pulled down our copy of “Wisconsin Supper Clubs: An Old Fashioned Experience” by the preeminent expert in the field, Ron Faiola. We’ve got our own map of supper clubs of course, but sometimes I need a little visual information to help along the decision of where to dine. That’s when I flipped a page and saw a sight that nearly took my breath away: A fish fry with all the fixins, served atop a wooden lazy susan. The good people at the Elias Inn located in Watertown were behind this marvel. We were sold.

When we first arrived we were surprised to see that the Elias Inn was established in 1987. A spring chicken in Supper Club years. Stepping inside we were greeted with all the warmth and charm of a supper club that had been operating for half a century. 

After putting in a request for a table with the host, we sauntered up to the bar and ordered our usual old fashioneds, mine with pickled mushrooms and Jean’s with fruit. We sat and talked and I pretended not to be watching the brewers game on the bar TV. After finishing our second round of old fashioneds, we were led into the dining room. 

Fridays are synonymous with fish fry in Wisconsin. But the Elias Inn takes that commitment to a whole other level. Elias Inn eschews all other menu items on Friday nights to churn out their family style fish frys. Our server came out and asked us if we’d ever been here for fish fry before, and we told her it was our first time at Elias Inn. She explained how everything worked, that the Fish fry was the only thing being served tonight. She encouraged us to come back and try the full menu on another night – more on that to come.

She brought out the lazy susan first, which contained all the sides you’d expect at a fish fry and some you wouldn’t: rye and pumpernickel bread, German and American style potato salad, and baked beans and a heaping bowl of tartar sauce. The coleslaw added an unexpected but not unwelcome touch of asian fusion to our meal: it was the kind made with rice vinegar and ramen noodles. In the center of the tray was a heaping bowl of tartar sauce. Nothing spoils an otherwise solid fish fry than running out of tartar sauce before your last piece of fish, but I knew I did not have to worry about that tonight.

We tore into our sides as soon as they came out, but it was not more than five minutes before the rest of our meal was brought out. The meal came with both fried and broiled cod. We ordered fries for our choice of potato. And of course the most essential accoutrement to any Wisconsin fish fry… fried chicken! Of the two types of fish, I would say the broiled was superior to the fried. The batter on the fried fish was not quite light and crisp enough for me – but nothing an extra dollop of tartar sauce couldn’t fix. Believe it or not, the chicken was the star of the show. For all that the fish batter lacked, the breading on the chicken totally redeemed the fry cook. It was crispy, perfect golden brown and seasoned to perfection.

As we were finishing up our meal, we decided to take our server’s advice seriously, and we made plans to come back to Elias Inn next Saturday. Which brings us to part two of this review:

Our second visit to Elias Inn started in much the same way that our first did: old fashioneds at the bar and a brief wait for our table. Reservations are highly recommended if you come in on Saturday night, a fact that we were unaware of until we arrived, despite our visit the previous week. We were lucky that because of a cancellation they were able to squeeze us in.

My favorite thing about Elias Inn is their commitment to keeping the lazy susan alive. This time, the lazy susan was adorned with delightful relish tray options. There were four different cracker spreads, including cheese, vegetable spread, spinach dip and fresh braunschweiger. It also featured cheese and summer sausage, pickles, crudités, two pasta salads, and best of all: pickled herring. Pickled herring is one of my favorite snacks, but unfortunately it is not as popular these days. That’s why I was tickled pink to see it served as a complimentary item at Elias Inn.

We received a basket of bread with two types of warm rolls, three types of crackers and crostini, and each had a cup of creamy chicken soup. The soup was piping hot and very creamy. We also tried some of the cheese spread on our crackers. It was sweet and vinegary, with a subtle cheese flavor.

The salad was served on those glass plates that look like lettuce leaves, always a plus. Besides the standard salad features it also had green peas, shredded cheddar cheese and what appeared to be home-made croutons.

For entrees, Jean ordered prime rib with a side of broiled shrimp. I ordered liver and onions with bacon. I’m not exactly sure why I opted for that over prime rib, but it might have had something to with the pickled herring getting me in the mood for under-appreciated meats. Our server must have thought she didn’t hear me right when I ordered it, because she asked me to repeat my order twice. Once I had made it clear that I actually wanted to order liver, I got quite the eyebrow raise. When she brought our entrees out, she confessed that she hated liver as a kid because people would try to pass it off as steak. I can understand how someone might be turned off to liver, but I still think it is delicious. One thing I love about eating liver and onions is that I dump an entire bottle of steak sauce on it and not feel guilty like I would if it was a well seasoned prime cut of steak. The steak sauce combined with a pile of sautéed onions and whole strips of bacon, and you’ve got good eating – at least in my opinion.

Jean’s prime rib was excellent, as were the shrimp. The prime rib was served with a delicious horseradish cream sauce, though Jean said that as good as it was, it kind of overpowered the prime rib. We also ordered baked potatoes. We appreciated that the baked potatoes were small in size, given the overall amount of food we were served.

Somehow, we had room for an ice cream drink. We ordered a pink squirrel, which is flavored with creme de noyaux, which tastes like almond. It was delicious, it tastes exactly like blue moon ice cream. We’re so glad we came back for the full menu at Elias Inn. We highly recommend it. 

Blanck’s Lake Aire Supper Club, Fond du Lac

Blanck’s Lake Aire Supper Club, Fond du Lac, Wisconsin

Rating: 4 out of 5 Old Fashioneds

Relish Tray: No, but a generous salad bar
Ice Cream Drinks: available
Price Range: most entrees range from about $12 to about $30
Ambiance: casual, lakeside

One of my very best friends grew up in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, though he’s lived in New York City for many years now. He’s a city person – there aren’t a lot of things he misses about the city of Fond du Lac – but when he found out about this blog, he told Owen and me to try out Blanck’s Lake Aire Supper Club.

After a day enjoying some of Fond du Lac’s delights – the lighthouse, the Kristmas Kringle Shoppe, a nearly-empty Forest Mall, and a miraculous sighting of Elvis himself – we strolled on down to Blanck’s Lake Aire Supper Club. Owen and I like to get to supper clubs nice and early, because a leisurely drink at the bar is part of the experience, after all. When we pulled in, promptly at 4:30pm, a large party was also arriving. We took this as a good indicator of a local, established spot.

Blanck’s interior is simple. Some things have been updated, and some things have not, and that works for me. You really can’t go wrong when you have a view of Lake Winnebago. If I had my druthers, all supper clubs would feel like stepping back in time a couple decades, but Blanck’s nostalgic-meets-pinterest decor compliments the lake view.

One thing we both enjoyed about our pre-dinner drinks: Blanck’s is pickled mushroom country. Many of the other patrons at the bar ordered their old fashioneds with pickled mushrooms, and one even went so far as to get pickled mushrooms with extra onions on the side.

While we sat at the bar, we were handed a menu to peruse. Blanck’s uses the order-at-the-bar system. You let a server know you’re ready to order by “giving the ‘High’ sign” – menus upright. We placed our order with a server, and she led us to our table.

I’m not sure that the things that Owen and I like about supper clubs are universal draws, because we were both delighted by the paper placemats full of local ads. Sure, the lake view is great, but when’s the last time you ate your meal off of an advertisement for a local HVAC company?

Blanck’s is doing a lot of things right, but they are particularly succeeding in the salad bar department. Salad bar is not really even the right term. Soup and Salad bar is closer, but there’s also a section full of prepared salads, a bread section, and a nice end cap with crackers and spreads. Owen was in heaven.

There are so many goodies at the soup and salad bar that I can’t imagine anyone being able to get all their treats in one trip.

We both tried the cheesy beer, potato and bacon soup (you can’t go wrong with that combo). It tasted like butter with a side of beer, in the best way possible. When we were working on our selections, the server stopped by our table to ask “how is the salad bar going?”. I appreciate being checked in on, even during the self-service portion of the meal, where any problems would have only been self-inflicted.

Blanck’s has a big menu, and lots of items that intrigued us. We started with some onion petals. Owen loves onion rings, but we both might be converted to the onion petal format, if only for ease of dipping.

For our entrees, I ordered the chicken cordon bleu and Owen the prime rib, princess cut. Honestly, my previous experience with chicken cordon bleu was frozen and delivered by the Schwan’s man. I sort of forgot that chicken cordon bleu has Swiss cheese, and I don’t really love Swiss cheese, – I could have ordered better. I’m sure it was an excellent version of chicken cordon bleu because the chicken was moist and delicious, and the wild rice was a pleasant surprise. I just might have been happier with a different meal.

Owen had the prime rib with “cheesys”, the real showstopper of the evening. Cheesys are hash browns with cheese throughout, something adjacent to the tray of cheesy potatoes you might see in a church basement social. The prime rib was “princess cut” but you couldn’t tell by looking at it. We couldn’t imagine a piece any bigger, especially considering the ample spread we had already consumed.

We intended to try one of Blanck’s ice cream drinks, but we were both too stuffed after dinner to follow through with it.

On our way out, we noticed a supper club first for us – Blanck’s Lake Aire also sells CBD products. Whatever it takes to bring in more customers!

Norton’s of Green Lake, Green Lake

Norton’s of Green Lake, Green Lake, Wisconsin

Rating: 4 out of 5 Old Fashioneds

Relish Tray: no
Ice Cream Drinks: available
Ambiance: an old school, lakeside supper club that’s been updated by Crate & Barrel

Owen and I found our way to Norton’s of Green Lake after a spontaneous trip to Ripon, Wisconsin. After touring the birthplace of the Republican Party, we moseyed on over to Norton’s. We like to get to supper clubs nice and early, so we have plenty of time for a leisurely cocktail before dinner.

The large bar area is inviting and warm, with a bit of a cape cod vibe – a very friendly and amiable place. From across the oblong bar, people were cheers-ing each other, almost how you might acknowledge another boat as you pass on the lake. We overheard a young man tell the bartender about how coming to Norton’s was a favorite memory of his childhood on Green Lake. Our old fashioneds were great, with plenty of bitters, but the true star was the pickled mushroom. I’m not sure where Norton’s gets their pickled mushrooms from, or if they make their own, but I can’t recommend them highly enough. The bartender heard us gushing about the mushrooms, and put extras mushrooms in our second round. Very classy.

Norton’s certainly feels like an old supper club, but it’s been recently redecorated. If it was up to Owen and I, all old supper clubs would be preserved and restored, but if you have to redecorate a supper club, this is how to do it. There are lots of touches of the old school supper club -he walls in the bar area had a plethora of Norton’s memorabilia, the oblong bar, the wood panelling, the retro neon sign out front. But something about Norton’s also feels like your rich friend’s lake house. The bones are there, but we missed the nostalgia.

Norton’s is very nice, like a-$360-bottle-of-wine nice. The dining room is right on lake level, and the pier was busy with groups boating up to enjoy the outdoor tiki bar and fire pit. From our table, we could look across the lake and see a red barn across the lake – a picture perfect Wisconsin view.

Even from the bread basket, we could tell the food at Norton’s would be excellent. Our bread basket came out steaming hot, with both a dinner roll and a cloverleaf roll. We both ordered side salads with our meals, with dressing that tasted homemade.

For our entrees, I ordered the prime rib special, and Owen tried the goat cheese gnocchi. I would expect any supper club that’s been around for 50+ years to know a thing or two about prime rib, but Norton’s really did a nice job. The prime rib had a perfect crust. Owen’s gnocchi had goat cheese, roasted red pepper, chicken and scallions, and the bites I stole from his plate made me wish I had ordered it too. Even the sides were stellar – my mashed potatoes and gravy were just divine.

When we finally waddled out of Norton’s, we noticed at least half of the cars in the parking lot had Illinois plates. Somehow, that just made sense. We had a lovely time at Norton’s, but it also felt a bit fancier and flashier than the retro atmosphere we crave at supper clubs.

The Edgewater, Jefferson

The Edgewater, Jefferson, Wisconsin

Rating: 5 out of 5 Old Fashioneds *we might be a little biased because the Edgewater is the first supper club that we truly loved, and a big part of our personal supper club history.*

Relish Tray: yes, sadly with no dipping sauce
Side Salad: dinners include a choice of soup or salad
Ambiance: dark, riverside, perfectly and wonderfully quirky

It’s safe to say that Jean and I owe a lot to the Edgewater supper club in Jefferson, WI. A few years ago, we stopped at the Edgewater and had such a wonderful experience it sparked our interest to visit more supper clubs throughout the state. Without the Edgewater, we would probably not have this blog, or spent so many afternoons traveling all over this state (read more about that here). Given that the Edgewater played such an important role in inspiring our little hobby, it seemed like an issue that we hadn’t actually reviewed it yet. So we hopped in the car and visited the Edgewater for a second time. 

From the outside, the Edgewater supper club looks like many of the roadside taverns one finds in rural Wisconsin, resembling a mid-size, single story home but with a square, illuminated Pabst Blue Ribbon sign out front. Venture inside however, and you’ll be transported somewhere – or sometime – else. The front door leads you to the bar area, which is cozy and dark, with low ceilings. I was hit with an icy blast of air-conditioning as I pulled up to a bar stool and ordered two brandy old-fashioned sours with pickled mushrooms for Jean and me. Most of the time when we order our old fashioneds with pickled mushrooms, they are still muddled with a cherry. At the Edgewater, our bartender actually muddled it with a pickled mushroom and orange slice too, a touch we appreciated. After we ordered our drinks the bartender asked if we were looking to get a table, which we were, of course. He brought us a menu to look over and was kind enough to put in our names with the host so we could enjoy our drinks until our table was ready.

We sat and talked, and ordered another round of old fashioneds. While at the bar we overheard several people raving about the vegetable of the day: carrots roasted in duck fat. This peaked my interest. Within a half hour or so the host came by the bar to let us know our table was ready. We were led to the main dining area which is filled with knick knacks of every sort.

If you ever dine at the Edgewater, when you first sit down at your table, you may feel a little out of sorts, like the room is starting to turn sideways. No, it’s not the old-fashioneds, the dining room floor is actually slanted. We learned during our first visit there that the dining room had been converted from a porch, which had a floor that was pitched like a roof to allow rainwater to run off the edge. The dining room also offers a view of the Rock River.

We began our meal with a modest relish tray and a bread basket with fresh baked bread. The relish tray featured carrot and celery sticks, along with thick cut pickle slices and halved radishes. The bread is baked with red pepper flakes, which lent it a surprising kick.

Our salads came next. We both had them with french dressing, mine with an addition of blue cheese on the side. The salad was topped with grated carrot and cabbage, shredded cheese, chives, and toasted pepitas (very posh)

I ordered a Saturday evening supper club classic: prime rib. It came with a generous pool of au jus and a side of the duck fat carrots. Surprisingly, the angle of our dining table proved quite useful in the enjoyment of my steak. In any other restaurant, the au jus would have spread out in a thin, even layer on the bottom of my platter, making the task of dipping bites of of prime rib into it as I cut up my steak quite cumbersome. The angle of the table meant all the au jus pooled to one side of the plate. The prime rib was outstanding; cooked to a perfect medium rare, with a peppery crust and well-rendered bits of fat. I also ordered a side of blue cheese and creamy horseradish. The horse radish was excellent, according to the menu it was locally grown. The blue cheese was served in its own gravy boat in what appeared to be a small lake’s worth of melted butter.

Jean ordered the fried shrimp with a “loaded” baked potato. The shrimp had a crispy breading and came with a generous side of cocktail sauce. The baked potato was truly “loaded” with bacon, grilled onions, and sauteed mushrooms.

Our second visit to the Edgewater was every bit as good as our first. The food is truly excellent, with locally sourced ingredients. The atmosphere is perfect for us: riverside, retro and just a bit quirkier-than-most, from the tilted floor to the woodland knick-knacks and even the beehives out back. It may be awhile before we make it back for our third visit, but only because we’ve got a long list of supper clubs to visit. We highly recommend you stop-in next time you’re in Jefferson county, or anywhere near.

Jake’s Supper Club, Menomonie

Jake’s Supper Club, Menomonie

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Old Fashioneds (just need a relish tray for that 5)

Relish Tray: No
Salad: Choice of soup or salad with meal
Ambiance: Lakeside, extensive outdoor bar, dark northwoods interior – pretty much spot on.

Jake’s Supper Club on Tainter Lake boasts a large outdoor deck overlooking the channel between the upper and lower section of the lake, complete with a tiki bar and docks for boat-in diners. Jake’s also has one of the best Friday night fish fries in the greater Menomonie area, and an atmosphere that strikes the perfect balance between a cool, dark northwoods lodge and sunny views of the beautiful surroundings through its large windows in almost every square inch of the dining room. They might have had the “best food I’ve ever eaten at a supper club” (though Jean is quick to point out that I’ve said that at most of the supper clubs we’ve eaten at) and they definitely have the most interesting brandy old fashioned sour I’ve ever tasted. Given that there is no shortage of things to brag about at Jake’s, you’ve got to respect the humility of a restaurant whose tagline is just a reminder that they are “Closed on Tuesdays”.

Before walking into the restaurant, Jean and I surveyed the outdoor area. It was still very early in the summer, but you could tell the patio would be a popular spot to spend a Friday or Saturday night once the summer got into full swing. We sat down at the bar and ordered two brandy old fashioned sours, Jean’s with the traditional fruit garnish and mine with a pickled mushroom. When you order an old fashioned “sour” at Jake’s, they take the sour part seriously. At most supper clubs, “sweet” vs “sour” old fashioneds are a distinction without much of a difference – “sweet” calls for 7up as a mixer, where “sour” calls for another citrus-flavored soda: Squirt. While both are primarily just corn syrup and carbonated water, Squirt’s claim to fame is that it contains “less than 1% grapefruit juice.” At Jake’s, they use sour mix, which really delivers on the tart flavor.

After delivering our drinks, the bartender placed a little blue chip in front of each of us. Since we both love frequenting “locals only” establishments, we didn’t want to draw attention to the fact that we had no idea what the chips meant. Much to our delight, we later realized that we were in for a treat – two for one drinks. Not a bad start to the evening.

Dinner began with a bread basket that exemplified the golden ratio of butter to bread in Wisconsin. Our basket featured two freshly baked rolls and six packets of butter. Rest assured, dear reader, that none of it went to waste. This meticulous attention to detail with respect to quantity continued into the salad course. Atop a bed of mixed greens, each salad contained two cherry tomatoes, two cucumber slices, and three segments of red onion. I ordered my salad with blue cheese dressing, Jean’s with her standard french dressing.

For the main course, I selected Jake’s Monday night special: beef stroganoff. The stroganoff featured beef tenderloin tips and grilled onions served over egg noodles with a rich lemony cream sauce. A dollop of sour cream and a sprinkling of fresh parsley and lemon zest elevated the dish and ensured I would never truly enjoy it’s Hamburger Helper counterpart again. Jean selected broiled shrimp with a side of wild rice risotto. The shrimp was served with fresh lemon and a kale garnish, a reminder of kale’s former sideline status before it became a “superfood.” Jean loved the shrimp, but the lemony risotto was truly the star of the entree.

Jean and I will have to get back to Jake’s when tiki bar season is in full swing and extend our next visit to include after dinner drinks and live music at the outdoor stage. Even without all that, we had a great time. I’d highly recommend Jake’s Supper Club. Just don’t forget: they’re closed on Tuesdays.

Connell’s Supper Club, Chippewa Falls

Connell’s Supper Club, Chippewa Falls

Rating: a solid 4 out of 5 Old Fashioneds

Relish Tray: Yes, complete with pickled herring
Salad: “Crisp Green Vegetable Salad”
Ice Cream Drinks: available
Ambiance: traditional, typical supper club

We arrived at Connell’s at just the right time to roll up to a supper club – 4:30pm sharp on a Tuesday “night”. The bar area was dark and friendly, with a few other customers, many of whom seemed to be locals. Behind the orange linoleum bar, the bartender greeted the regulars with a comfortable “look who’s coming in now”, or a “about time you showed up.”

The Old Fashioneds went down easy, and at $4 each – we didn’t mind having more than one. We both had them served brandy sour, with a mushroom. Apparently, in Chippewa Falls, it’s not so common to order your Old Fashioned with a mushroom, but the bartender was very friendly and happy to oblige.

Since we arrived early, there were only a handful of other tables when we sat down to eat, though the bar area had filled up quite a bit. To start, we tried “Connell’s Handmade White Curds. The batter was crispy and about as light as fried cheese can be, and the curds pleasantly cheesy, salty and delicious.

Dinners at Connell’s are served with a relish tray, choice of potato, a “cracker basket”, dinner rolls, and a “crisp green vegetable salad” or soup. Relish trays these days are few and far between, and this one had an extra special treat – pickled herring. When the server left the tray at our table, Owen did a little dance of delight. There are few things in this world Owen loves as much as pickled herring, in fact I buy him a jar each year for Christmas to go in his stocking (which has a picture of pickled herring on it). Along with the herring, the tray was pretty classic – radish, carrots, green onions – and just right.

The dinner rolls arrived to our table warm, and in three varieties, accompanied by more crackers than Owen and I could hope to eat in a week. There’s something nice about being served three types of (presumably) homemade bread, as well as a plethora of generic crackers. This homage to the pre-meal carbohydrate really illustrates one of the cornerstones of supper clubs – it’s all about plenty.

Though it seems like a small detail, one of my favorite things about Connell’s was the salad plate. In my humble opinion, the glass cabbage leaf style plate adds significant satisfaction to the classic side salad.

For our entrees, I ordered the pork chop and Owen ordered the liver and onions, because of course he did. The pork chop was served with applesauce, and perhaps a bit past medium. Owen enjoyed his liver, bacon and onions like only he can. After a quick Google search, we both selected the “lyonnaise” potatoes, which ended up being pretty similar to a hash brown. We are still not sure if we were served hash browns, or if we just had a different expectation of lyonnaise potatoes. Either way, they were huge plates of potatoes, so I was happy. Even happier when the waitress brought some delicious herbed sour cream.

In the end, our bill was less than $40. Sure, I’ve had better food at a supper club, but Connell’s certainly hit a lot of marks for us. At one point, the bartender said to us, “We just love it when young people come to supper clubs”. While we’re not that young, we sure do love supper clubs – and we would love to come back to Connell’s. 

Sullivan’s, Trempealeau

Sullivan’s Supper Club, Trempealeau, Wisconsin

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Old Fashioneds

Relish Tray: no relish tray, but ample relish tray-type goodies at the salad bar
Salad: very generous salad bar, including soup, bread, and pudding
Ice Cream Drinks: available
Ambiance: Incredible view, unremarkable interior

Sullivan’s Supper Club is located in Trempealeau, Wisconsin. Just a stone’s throw from the Mississippi River, Sullivan’s location is truly one of the most scenic of all the supper clubs we’ve visited. Trempealeau is part of what is known as the “driftless region,” an area which was spared glacial erosion during the last ice age, thereby preserving the diverse topography of the prehistoric midwestern landscape. We arrived a few minutes before the restaurant opened, and the parking lot was already full of cars, many with Minnesota license plates. This was unsurprising once we learned that Winona, Minnesota is just a short ride away.

Jean and I usually make it a point not to make reservations at supper clubs, as we enjoy sitting at the bar for an hour or so and having a couple old-fashioneds while waiting for a table. In retrospect, Sullivan’s should have warranted an exception from this policy. The main dining room features beautiful views of the river (hence the slogan “a view to ‘dine’ for”) but as the parking lot indicated, all these tables were already taken by folks who knew to make reservations in advance.

We waited for about an hour at the bar and ordered the usual, two brandy old-fashioned sours with pickled mushrooms. They were delicious. The interior is dimly lit, with most of the lighting coming from the neon lights and the large windows opposite the bar in the dining room. The decor is reminiscent of an Irish pub, a nod to the Irish heritage of it’s founder, Ed Sullivan (no, not that Ed Sullivan.) It was a warm early spring day, so we took our second round of old-fashioneds out to the deck and looked out at the river view.

When we came back in we were seated at a small table next to the bar. Jean and I both ordered the “Brad’s Sampler” combination platter, which featured tenderloin tips, fried or broiled shrimp, and ribs. Our dinners came with soup and salad bar as well as choice of potato (we chose baked.) Sullivan’s doesn’t offer a relish tray, but it does boast an impressive salad bar which comes about as close to making up for that shortcoming as possible in my book. In addition to all the usual salad bar fixings, there was soup, which was a rich and savory beef and barley, and several bread options were available. We tried the Irish brown bread, a hearty and flavorful Sullivan’s specialty. There were also several other items on the salad bar, coleslaw, marinated vegetables, three bean salad, and several pasta and potato salads as well.

By the time our sampler platters arrived, we were pretty much full. You have to understand that salad bar was massive, and we couldn’t possibly try all of it in one trip. Fortunately for you, dear reader, our second round of old-fashioneds gave us the courage to go for a second round at the salad bar, allowing us to provide a more thorough review.

Nevertheless, we soldiered on through our meals. The tenderloin tips came with sautéed mushrooms, and since they were just tips rather than a finer cut, I felt no shame in dumping half a bottle of A1 on it. I ordered my shrimp fried, and Jean’s were broiled. Both versions were tasty. I’m not always a huge fan of ribs at supper clubs as compared to their BBQ smokehouse counterparts. Like most supper clubs, Sullivan’s likely boils ribs and then finishes them off in the broiler, which is fine as long as they don’t get too dried out. Sullivan’s ribs were tender and fell right off the bone. The BBQ sauce they were served with was tangy and some of the meat drippings ran into the sauce giving it a rich flavor.

We made it about halfway through our entrees before giving up and asking for a box. Unfortunately, this meant that despite the tempting ice cream drink offerings, we simply had no room for dessert. Sullivan’s is wonderful place, which honestly had some of the best food we’ve had at a supper club. We would highly recommend it, not least of all for its beautiful location.

The Duck Inn, Delavan

The Duck Inn, Delavan, Wisconsin

Rating: 5 out of 5 Old Fashioneds – a perfect Wisconsin Supper Club

Relish Tray: yes, costs $1.25
Ice Cream Drinks: abundant and indulgant
Ambiance: Ducks for days

The Duck Inn, in Delavan, Wisconsin is everything you could ever want out of a Wisconsin Supper Club. The name comes from the prohibition era, when patrons could secretly “duck in” for a drink. A sign over the entrance says “Welcome to The Duck Inn, Waddle Out”, which is just the start of the duck decor. There are ducks everywhere – duck curtains cover duck wallpaper, on walls that have duck artwork and duck figurines, all lit by duck covered lampshades. An embroidered pillow says “Shut the duck up” and behind the bar there’s a magnificent diorama featuring taxidermy ducks above a real fish tank. Together, it’s the perfect balance of quirky, woodsy and all-around charming.

We visited on a Friday night, and it was busy with fish fry seekers. I can’t think of a better place to wait for a table, sitting at the bar in front of the duck diorama, sipping excellent old fashioneds and taking in the duck decor.

When it was time to eat, we were led to the main dining room, right in front of a large fireplace. The dining room is warm and inviting, 100% wood paneled, and shaped a bit like an upside-down canoe. The Duck Inn has a relish tray available for $1.25 – a price we were happy to pay, especially after we tried the tangy, homemade buttermilk ranch dipping sauce. I’m sure it would rub some supper-club-frequenters the wrong way to have to pay for something that is often complimentary, but Owen and I both love a crinkle carrot so much, we don’t mind the extra fee. A little research taught us that the owners decided to charge $1.25 for a relish tray, rather than raise the prices on their menu, which we appreciated.

While the duck entrees were particularly tempting to Owen, we both went with the all-you-can-eat fish fry. Since the fish fry is a special, it does not come with the normal sides (choice of soup, juice, tossed salad or spinach salad, choice of potato or rice, bread, crackers and cheese), but instead fries or potato pancakes, coleslaw, applesauce and rye bread. I caught a glance of a bread basket at another table, and it looked starchy and respectable. We opted to start with a spinach salad, and quite enjoyed the sweet and smoky dressing.

When Owen’s plate of smelt arrived, he delightedly said “I’m going to eat so many of these little fish! How many times have you eaten 20 animals in one sitting?” His “fish fries” (his term) had a thick batter and went well with the ample tartar sauce. My cod was flaky and moist, but I only had eyes for the potato pancakes. One thing to know about me – I love a good potato. Mashed, fried, stick em in a pancake – I can’t get enough. These potato pancakes were divine, the interior had shredded potato mixed with a chive-y mashed potato, all lightly fried. Per tradition, it was served with applesauce, but not just Mott’s. The chunky applesauce and sour cream complimented the dreamy potato pancakes perfectly. If everything else about the evening had been a disaster, this potato pancake might have made up for it (for me at least).

In the time we were there, it was hard to miss the ice cream drinks. Most tables seemed to finish their meal with a towering mountain of an ice cream drink. We overheard our server tell another table they could order a half-sized grasshopper, and decided to do the same. Even “half” size, the two of us struggled to finish it. From afar, it appeared to be served in a green glass, but on closer inspection, it was just covered in green syrup.

All in all, Owen and I spent about three hours at the Duck Inn, not to mention the hour or so drive each way. The slow, relaxed pace of the evening really added to our experience. This is one reason why Owen and I like supper clubs so much – it’s not just about going out to dinner, but a destination. And we certainly did waddle out.


The Tornado Club Steak House, Madison

The Tornado Room, Madison, Wisconsin

Rating: 4 out of 5 Old Fasioneds

Relish Tray: arrived at the table before we had our coats off
Salad Situation:
all dinners served with salad
Ice Cream Drinks:
not sure
Ambiance:
retro, dark, wood paneled, but also Madison

Owen and I went to the Tornado Room to celebrate a special occasion – Owen’s birthday. It was a snowy Wednesday night in Madison, but the Tornado room was packed. The Tornado Room is just off the capital square and very “Madison” – the capital building is glowing just few steps away, with trendy glass buildings springing up on every corner. Owen and I had a couple disagreements that night, about what exactly it was about the Tornado Room that made it feel not quite right, not quite supper club-y enough for us. I think our problem with the Tornado Room gets to the very heart of “what is a supper club”. On the surface, the Tornado Room has everything – a beautifully retro lounge, excellent food, huge portions, dark wood panelling. But can it overcome being just steps from the capital square? Is part of the charm of a supper club that it’s rural – and that it’s a destination? Not just another meal out, but an entire evening?

Because it was a special night, we had made reservations. In retrospect, I wonder if that was the right choice for us. The Tornado Room has a really lovely, retro lounge, but we didn’t get to enjoy it while we sipped our usual pre-dinner cocktail. We were sat at our table right away, and a relish tray – or in this case relish cup – was at our table before we had our coats off. The Old Fashioneds were excellent, very tart and not at all sweet.

The dining room we were in had wood panelling and wooden booths. It was appropriately dark – dark enough that a woman at another table was using her cell phone light to read her menu. The walls had some vaguely western themed artwork and artifacts.

The bread basket was a borderline absurd amount of bread. This is not a place for the gluten-intolerant. We got both a gargantuan homemade breadstick and our own loaf of a herby bread, both obviously homemade.

Owen gets a real kick out of trying unusual foods, especially unusual meats, so we had to try the frogs legs. It was my first experience with frogs legs, so I wasn’t sure what to expect – but I did not expect them to be sweet. The frogs legs were crispy in a very salty breading, and the honey brandy sauce was surprisingly sweet and so very sticky. We could have used a moist towelette after eating them.

Entrees come with a choice of salad or soup, and we both went with the salad. You can choose between four options: Caesar, field greens with a vinaigrette, iceberg lettuce with French Roquefort, or spinach with a warm bacon dressing. The server offered fresh ground pepper on the salad, Olive-Garden style (“say when”), a very nice touch. I had the spinach salad, and Owen the wedge, both were incredible. The bacon dressing was smokey and tart but not oily at all. The wedge salad was well dressed with lots of bonus veggies and a healthy amount of onion. At this point, we were both full and content, and we hadn’t even been served our entrees yet.

For our entrees, I had the shrimp with a side of hash browns. The shrimp may have been the best shrimp I’ve ever had, super moist and delicious. Half of the shrimp were broiled and half were fried. The batter on the fried shrimp was somehow thick and airy and crisp, all at the same time. The cocktail sauce was also wonderful, thick and chunky, perhaps with onions but I couldn’t say for sure. The shrimp was served with approximately six potatoes worth of hash browns – I was in heaven.

Owen, always a fan of the uncommon meats, tried the rabbit. The rabbit came with a mustard au jus with kale and bacon. Owen loves mustard, so slather a mustard sauce on anything and he will love it – this did not disappoint. For his side, Owen went with the yorkshire pudding – which was enormous. Neither of us have had many yorkshire puddings, but in our inexpert opinion, it would benefit from some sort of sauce. The yorkshire pudding was especially daunting considering we had already had an absurd amount of bread.

Our leftovers were packed in a professional doggie bag – each labeled with what we ordered and the date. We even each got our own shopping bag to carry out – very classy.

Our rating of the Tornado Room is complicated. The food was truly excellent – some of the best food I’ve ever had at a supper club. But we just couldn’t give it a 5 out of 5. The Tornado Room is missing some of the “x-factor” that makes a supper club unique. It might be too trendy, too posh. I wonder if we would have felt the same with a couple of pre-dinner drinks.