“In Praise Of The Supper Club: A Midwestern Cabin Country Treasure.”
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?
Wow, what a great story. When we were in Lake Geneva, I discovered that wonderful brew called Spotted Cow, but never heard of these great supper clubs. A definite destination when boating again in that great state!
Thanks Rabbit for the GREAT story!
Gotta LOVE those bar maidens!
Wow those girls look like the” St. Pauly beer “girls
Great story! Making my way though the Midwest now. Unfortunately, no boat and no time to stop for a supper club dinner.
Here at Smith Mountain Lake, VA, we have a total of 18 different restaurants, anything from burger joints to 5 star. Because of that, our antique boat club has decided this year to venture out for breakfast, lunch, and dinner stops by water from June to August.
It’s been a great way to get our gang together to enjoy the weather and the journey plus it gives us Woodyboaters exposure to the public. By changing the days each week we are also able to get more of our members out on the water.
Wow !…We live on a 7,000 acre lake and it only has one place to eat…Called “the Oyster Shack” which serves a pretty fair hamburger and some local beers….and we don’t swim in it much after dark….Alligators….
As a kid I grew up on Lake Wawasee in northern Indiana riding in Grandpa’s 1937 CC Custom Runabout. We had an excellent supper club called Waco’s. The article brought back very fond memories. Unfortunately Waco’s was turned into a fast food place in the 60’s and then torn down in the 70’s.
The supper club! With someone playing the Hammond organ in the background. Great story Rabbit, thank you…
In 1950, my parents bought a supper club on Brown’s Lake in Southeastern, Wisconsin. I was 9. Although not a large lake there were 3 prominent resorts and 2 supper clubs. Our’s was the Colonial Club on Brown’s Lake. In 1954, my Dad passed away and to keep my brother and me out of her hair, my mother had a gas dock installed. Only one on the lake at the time. We spent our days and weekends gassing up the Chris-Crafts, Centurys, and other boats on the lake and business was always on the uptick around cocktail time. I would sit on the back lawn after dark enthralled by the sight and sound of an inboard idling out from our dark with only the white stern and red (or green) bow light moving out from the docks. Laughter in the dark over the exhaust and one could just feel the sense of “well being” the boat occupants had having taken their fill of food and drink. We were a godsend. And thus, I was infected at the age of 11 with “Old Wood Boat Disease”. The Colonial Club burned to the ground in 1971 – long after we’d gone – but I’m still screwing around with wood boats at 74. It just never goes away.
Wow, Jack, I could feel that! Nicely written. I smell a Woody Boater dinner place in our future.
Super clubs abound in Wisconsin and not just in rural areas. In eastern Wisconsin the Friday night perch fry is the BEST! Get the “Clyde” perch platter in Ephriam in Door County – just perch – no sides!
And these are not membership “clubs” – anyone can go and be a part of the fun. Bandy is consumed by the boat load in Wisconsin !
I take super clubs for granted and just assumed it was typical all over USA, but apparently not.
Well this story certainly makes me want to go to one but unfortunately I don’t think they have any on the left coast. It’s a long way to trailer my boat for a meal!
Ah, the Indianhead! It still stands out as the standard by which all other supper clubs will be judged.
Thanks for the focus on our unique lifestyle. Very interesting what other parts of our Woodyboaterville community do not experience or take for granted. I’ve lived in Super Club land all my life. My brother moved to California some 30 years ago. He does not have bratwurst or super clubs. Brandy Old Fashioned is a question mark to the bartenders in other parts of the country. So, here’s how it works: You arrive and take a seat at the bar. Order your Brandy Old Fashioned Sweet and study the menu. The very friendly waitress takes your dinner order right there at the bar. When your order is near-ready, you are shown your table complete with the relish tray. Now, the relish tray consists of several items,,,fresh radishes, onions, various other veggies. Then, in short order, your dinner arrives. Family owned and operated super clubs always give the highest quality service and food. They have to. It’s their livelihood.
Toby’s Supper Club in Madison, WI, has great food, and the some of the BEST walleye — EVER! (Served just as John Baas describes above.) If you’re in the area for a few days…perhaps attending the Madison Area Antique and Classic Boat Show, August 5-6, be sure to swing by. (And maybe give us a call and we’ll meet you there!) 🙂