My family and I were cruising away from Madison the other week, toward Toby’s Supper Club outside town, and a strip of pink neon told us we’d arrived somewhere special.
Walking in, we were surrounded by wood paneling. The scent of baked potatoes nearly bowled me over. It was like a combination of Grandma’s basement, a hunting cabin, and a church fish fry. Pure comfort.
A full day of tailgating and football-watching had just wrapped up, and we were hungry. Good thing! A round of whiskey and brandy old-fashioneds was on its way.
Before we were seated for dinner, we’d choose between four side dishes, potatoes served four ways, a relish tray offering five vegetables, and salads with seven dressing options. Then we’d feast on Toby’s specialty, fried lakefish. (Try Toby’s on a Friday during Lent, and “you can’t even move,” my sister, a Madison grad student, said.)
We were starting to realize what was special to these places. I’d tried the old Google dictionary trick, “define: supper club.” But the answer that popped up, “a restaurant or nightclub serving suppers and usually providing entertainment,” was unsatisfying.
Worse, the next few results advertised places in California. I’d been assured by our family’s dinner guest, native Wisconsinite Ethan Schwenker, that supper clubs were a Midwestern thing. “For ice fishing season, supper clubs are the place to go,” he said.
A Midwest Living story confirmed the geography, saying that supper clubs are prevalent in Wisconsin but can also be found in Minnesota, Michigan, Iowa, and Illinois. Even as an Illinois native, I hadn’t known about them.
My brother was still puzzled about what differentiated these “clubs” from restaurants. Aside from placing our order at the bar, then being seated only once the food was ready, Toby’s seemed to operate like most other paid dining establishments. No club membership was required.
But just like the word “diner” tells you that pancakes, omelets, and bottomless coffee will be on order, “supper club” tells you what style of restaurant to expect.
It’s the throwback style, the relish trays, the mandatory old-fashioneds, and the traditional prime-rib-and-fried-fish menus that make supper clubs unique, we realized. Dinners don’t get any more comforting, retro-fab, or Midwestern than that.