Supper clubs tucked along the lakeshores and byways of rural Wisconsin hold a special place in the state’s local food tradition.
For many residents, the family-owned clubs dotting Fond du Lac County conjure images of relish trays piled high with crisp vegetables, a steaming baked potato nestled next to a savory cut of prime rib along with a grasshopper served in a frosty glass, a fitting way to top off a great meal.
Rae Nell Halbur of Fond du Lac remembers her first trip to a “fancy, sit-down restaurant” at the age of 10.
“My parents had taken me to The Colony and I was so excited,” she recalled. “I don’t remember what we ate, but I can picture myself sitting there thinking how it didn’t get any better than this.”
Jess Ellison of Fond du Lac has fond memories of playing piano with the Jack Breitzman Trio at the former 101 Club on North Main Street at the entrance to Lakeside Park. At the time, the club was owned by Enos and George Jaber.
“On Friday and Saturday nights in the late ’50s, you could dance on the small dance floor right up there by the bandstand,” Ellison said. “It was a dress-up club back then.”
In the 1960s when Bill Humleker’s school chums visited during the summer, his father bet them each $5 that they couldn’t finish the steak dinner served at a restaurant — Schwarz’s — that he knew of in The Holyland.
“Of course, my buddies — being from Chicago and Minneapolis — took him up on his bet, sure that any healthy teen-aged boy could finish any steak,” Humleker said. “Dad bought dinner, of course, and he would never take my friends’ money if they lost — and several did.
“I’ve lived in the South for over 30 years now, and thinking of Schwarz’s and the classic Midwestern fare makes me nostalgic for home,” Humleker said.
Paul Strebe counts Blanck’s Supper Club, tucked away in the hamlet of Johnsburg in The Holyland, among his favorite restaurants.
“After being greeted by a friendly bartender and looking over a menu while sipping on an Old Fashioned, there’s so many great entrees that its hard to choose,” said Strebe, who often selects the supper club’s signature two-piece special. “My wife is originally from North Carolina and had no idea what a supper club was. After one visit to Blanck’s she is now hooked on these fabulous eateries of the upper Midwest.”
Former Fond du Lac resident John Kuoney still pines for the lake perch dinner served at Wendt’s on the Lake.
“On the rare occasion that I do return to Fond du Lac, I make it a point to take in a Friday night fish fry. Sunset Supper Club also offers a fine selection of local fare in addition to a delicious perch dinner. Their toast basket and relish trays can’t be found out west,” Kuoney said.
Petrie’s Bavarian Inn of Fond du Lac was the height of fine dining in the days of Brooks Feldmann’s youth.
“My parents would let me order shrimp. That was fine cuisine to me, although their ham and chicken is what brought the crowds in,” Feldmann said.
A stop at Jim and Linda’s after an afternoon of boating on Lake Winnebago was a family tradition for Katie Kuen Locke.
“Everything about their four-course meal was awesome — from the appetizer to dessert,” Kuen Locke said. “The place was always packed and you would wait an hour or so even with reservations.”
The friendly atmosphere and the succulent prime rib brought Vernon and Charlotte Hagen back time and time again to the Last Chapter supper club in Waupun.
“The food was great and over the years the staff became our friends,” Hagen said. “It was that kind of place.”
Although it underwent many name changes over the years before it burned to the ground in 2009, Betsy Eulgen still remembers many enjoyable weekends spent at The Lagoon Supper Club along the west shore of Lake Winnebago.
“We had a lot of good times on Friday nights listening to Runde’s play,” Eulgen said.
The flaming torch set atop Hesser’s Supper Club along Highway 45 served as a welcome beacon to many diners who enjoyed the Oshkosh eatery with the unique signage.
“I remember the bountiful buffet that they served four times a year back in the ’70s called “The Four Seasons Buffet” that was just awesome,” said Luann Schneider Wrzesinske. “They also served fish with potato pancakes on Friday night, something that wasn’t offered at many places at the time.”
Many milestones in people’s lives have been marked over the years with a trip to the local supper club, including proms and anniversaries. Sunset Supper Club holds a special place in Chelsea McKay’s heart.
“We have celebrated anniversaries, announced pregnancies, birthdays and other memorable occasions there,” the Fond du Lac woman said. “We look forward to celebrating many more there in the future, too.”