Fellow long time fellow Woody Boater Bruce ” Rabbit ” Bildsten reports on Wisconsin’s Supper Clubs. Dang! What fun.
Our beloved vintage boats are not just about going, but also where we go. It’s not just the journey, but also the destination. And if you find yourself in the Upper Midwest – Wisconsin, in particular – count yourself fortunate indeed if there is a real deal supper club beckoning you to its docks. Now, if you live on the left or right coasts you may well ask yourself “What the hell is a Supper Club?” Allow me to define the genre; even if the true definition is a bit debatable depending on what Midwestern state you’re in.
First, I’ll state that the supper club came into being about the same time our boats did: The 1930’s and 40’s: Primarily in small towns and especially in what we call “cabin country.” A true supper club serves dinner only – sometimes Thursdays through Saturdays only – and it’s a somewhat special affair, meant to be savored. A supper club is almost always family-owned and (please!) never part of a chain. A supper club serves the classics: Steaks, chops, and walleye (the revered fish of Midwest lake country). It almost always serves shrimp cocktail and you’re likely to be offered a relish tray before your salad. There’s always a bar and it’s fixture of the place, meant for lingering and socializing over classic cocktails and those timeless regional brews (like Wisconsin’s Lienenkugel’s.) In Wisconsin, the iconic supper club cocktail is the brandy old-fashioned sweet, although a Martini, Manhattan or Rob Roy is always appropriate. And after dinner – at least for the ladies (and here that term is perfectly acceptable)- it’s back to the bar for a little alcohol-infused ice cream with a grasshopper or pink squirrel. There’s often a piano player pounding out the standards and almost always white tablecloths, not that a supper club is about putting on airs.
The décor? You could call it throwback but actually it probably never changed: From knotty pine and rough-hewn logs to sparkly Naugahyde-line booths that look like the upholstery in an early 60’s Century, there’s no hard and fast rule on the decor. It’s the kind of place where everyone REALLY does know your name and the well-seasoned waitresses call you “Hun.” Get the picture?
But, here’s the best part: You get to boat here. And while the docks are likely to be filled with pontoons and Clorox bottles, the experience is only amplified when you and yours arrive in your Chris, Gar or Thoroughbred. (Confession: I kind of like pontoons, and will take ours if we have a crowd.) Fortunately the supper club gods have truly blessed my family and I. Although we live in Minneapolis, we duck just across the border into God’s Country to our cabin in Balsam Lake, Wisconsin, where we still have three restaurants to boat to, despite our lake’s relatively modest 2,200-acre size.
The best (by a nautical mile) is the Indianhead Supper Club. Built in 1939 by the same proud Norwegian who built our cabin, it’s lined in logs and knotty pine, with a big stone fireplace and a truly classic Wisconsin bar. On the walls are vintage velvet paintings of, well, Indians. Denise, who plays hostess and greets nearly everyone by name, and Mike, who keeps the regulars company at the bar, owns it. The cook, Roark, actually spent time in New York and New Orleans and always adds a little Cajun and Creole to the supper club standards, just to keep things interesting. There’s certainly no culinary penalty for all the ambiance.
Every weekend the Indianhead is packed with our lake neighbors and you always see a familiar face or two. And, in fact, the only place it strays from perfection is an access squabble that prevents the Indianhead from having its own docks, requiring a two-block stroll from the docks at the public beach. That’s not always a bad thing, especially if you opted for the garlic and butter- enhanced hash browns on top of your rib eye and cedar-planked walleye.
But after dinner, there’s nothing like that ride home on the still waters, especially when the days stretch late into the night, making twilight seemingly last forever. Back to the cabin to build a fire, take another dip in the lake, gaze at the stars and turn in early. There’s a quote I recently read that sums it all up: “If you’re lucky enough to live near water, you’re lucky enough.” That’s the boating life. That’s the lake life. That’s the supper club life.
If you want to learn more about Wisconsin supper clubs there’s a wonderful book called “Wisconsin Supper Clubs” by Ron Faiola. Of course, The Indianhead is featured. By popular demand and because Wisconsin is still so rich in supper clubs, Ron just published a second book this summer: “Wisconsin Supper Clubs: Another Round.” Ron also did a supper club documentary, which became a regional PBS series. You can find them all here:
Now it’s your turn? What culinary adventure does your woody take you to?