By Mary Bergin | Pictured above: Mars Resort, overlooking Lake Como; Photography by Hillary Schave
Throughout the state of Wisconsin, you can find a distinctive local dining culture that dates to the Prohibition era and has changed only a little in the intervening years: the supper club. The Lake Geneva area is home to a beloved handful of these classic establishments, which have been enticing multiple generations of diners over many decades with expertly made cocktails and perfectly seasoned dishes, plus a dash of retro charm on the side.
What exactly defines a supper club? In her 2015 documentary “Old Fashioned: The Story of the Wisconsin Supper Club,” Madison filmmaker Holly de Ruyter explains that this can be a difficult question to answer, but there are a few elements she considers essential. A supper club, she says, is an owner-operated restaurant with a bar area and a dining area, where the menu focuses on classics like steak and seafood. A complimentary relish tray and/or bread basket is usually offered at the start of a meal. The architecture and the décor of the supper club should speak to the (generally rural) location, and of course, a supper club must offer a fish fry on Friday nights, with bonus points for prime rib on Saturdays and broasted chicken on Sundays.
A supper club will always be independently owned, sometimes staying in the same family for several generations, with the chefs cooking from scratch using longtime family recipes. Some owners live on the property. They work the bar, kitchen or cash register and know their most loyal customers by name. Reservations? Usually not accepted, especially on Fridays, but customers don’t care because this is their singular stop for the night. They expect to linger. Supper clubs have a way of turning strangers into repeat visitors, then friends.
It is not unusual for the as-yet-uninitiated to question a supper club about its exclusivity. As in, “What is the membership fee?” Or, “If I’m not a member, can I still go in?” Supper club owners explain that, in fact, one thing that distinguishes a good supper club is the feeling that everybody belongs.
The night typically involves cocktails that you might not drink at another time or place, perhaps starting with a pre-dinner Old Fashioned (brandy, especially Korbel, is most Wisconsinites’ liquor of choice) and ending with a Grasshopper or other spiked ice cream drink for dessert. But don’t mistake these little rituals for cookie-cutter dining. Supper clubs usually offer a balancing act between cherished traditions and the individual touches that reflect the personalities and preferences of each owner and chef.
For example, the Duck Inn, nine miles northwest of Delavan, began as a speakeasy that patrons visited during Prohibition. Today the supper club, surrounded by Wisconsin farmland, offers a deep dive into all things duck. The décor includes duck paintings and taxidermy, and the menu specializes in — you guessed it — duck. Roast duck with wild rice, cashew-coated duck breast with an apricot drizzle and duck with an apple-brandy glaze served over spaetzle are some of the customer favorites.
Jeff Karbash, owner since 1994, says the Duck Inn goes through eight to 16 cases of fresh duck per week, sometimes serving more than 250 duck dinners weekly. People return for the great food and the friendly, efficient service. “Your success depends on the people you work with,” Karbash says. “You’re only as good as the staff you can hire. The people make or break it.”
Scott Pohl, co-owner since 2016 of Mars Resort near Lake Geneva, would likely agree. It is not unusual for staff to stick with Mars for decades. That includes Carole Dornbusch, who worked there 54 years, until she lost a battle with Covid at age 81. Another, Connie Norton, has waitressed 25 years: “Guests come in just to sit in her section — they love her,” Pohl explains.
At Mars, barbecue ribs are a menu specialty, slathered in house-made bar- becue sauce or served “Cisco style,” a dry rub with a proprietary seasoning blend. Pohl says that in 2021, they sold more than 15 tons of ribs (that’s 30,000 pounds).
Mars Resort’s location on the south shore of Lake Como “opens the door to a lot more opportunities to entertain guests while they wait for a table,” says Pohl, who partnered with the Arney Silvestri family to expand and update the 1923 restaurant “without losing the feel of an old-school supper club.”
The bar and dining area at Mars have long been a favorite spot for stunning sunset views of the lake, and the décor features iconic, large-scale photoprints of the Lake Geneva area in the 1950s. On Fridays and Saturdays throughout the year, the bar hosts a piano player, and during the summer months, bands play outside on the beach for those enjoying the restaurant’s outdoor seating.
In nearby rural Beloit, just 20 miles west of Fontana, you’ll find another classic, local supper club: The Butterfly Club. Surrounded by beautiful farmland, the Butterfly Club offers a full menu of supper club staples and features a midcentury-style lounge and bar where resident entertainer Mike Williamson has performed on the weekends since the 1980s. Williamson says a big part of his job is to make people feel at home and have fun. He will leave the lounge’s stage to mingle, using a cordless microphone to persuade the crowd to sing. The music, setting and mood are a cherished part of what makes this supper club authentic.
“You’ve got a lot of bars and restaurants around,but we are different,” says Mike Sala, co-owner of The Butterfly Club since 1999 with his brother Hektor, the primary chef. “We want people to feel comfortable here.” He calls it a dream-come-true business to operate, because his family — originally from the Mediterranean region — “grew up with the white tablecloths, music, good food and friendliness” of neighborhood restaurants.
This sense of connection between owners, chefs and diners helps distinguish supper clubs from other kinds of restaurants. Williamson says he met some of his best friends while working at The Butterfly Club. The restaurant “transcends the ages,” he explains.
Sala says that customers stay loyal because they crave the familiar and find it at the Butterfly Club, again and again. That might mean requesting a certain table in the dining room, enjoying the sweet cinnamon rolls in the complimentary bread basket or requesting a favorite song on a Friday. “I’m asked to sing ‘Sweet Caroline’ at least twice a night,” Williamson laughs.
A strong sense of familiarity is one of the keys to the decades-long success of Lake Geneva’s Anthony’s Steakhouse & Seafood as well. Greek immigrants Anthony and Goldie Condos opened Anthony’s in 1978, and remained active in its operation for decades. “My dad was still greeting customers at the door at age 87,” says current owner Greg Condos, the late couple’s son.
Since Anthony’s opened nearly 50 years ago, the menu has not changed much. The relish tray is one of the best in the area: customers enjoy a cheese spread, veggies and cherry peppers, along with crackers. Some of the popular menu items at Anthony’s include ribs, chops and steaks, but diners also get a hint of the owners’ Greek heritage in some of the offerings. The dressing on the house salad is a Greek vinaigrette with a special proprietary seasoning blend and feta cheese. One of the steak options is a Greek-style dry rub, a family recipe that includes garlic, oregano, white pepper and sea salt. For seafood entrees, a blend of lemon, oregano and garlic enhances the flavor.
“When you’re good, you’re good,” Condos says of the longevity and numerous awards that Anthony’s Steakhouse and Seafood has won. “Now the kids of longtime customers are coming — a second generation, then a third.”
While supper clubs are traditionally associated with Wisconsin, the supper club spirit drifts a little south of the border as well. Crandall’s Restaurant in Hebron, Illinois, eight miles south of Lake Geneva, is a family endeavor for owners Dan and Judi Beck, whose son Dean is manager and daughter Lacy “can multi-task many jobs at once.”
The specialty at Crandall’s is broasted chicken, a cooking method that’s a cross between a pressure cooker and deep-fat fryer. Pork chops are prepared the same way. The result is a tasty dinner that keeps people coming back again and again. Another Crandall’s menu item with a long list of fans is the basket of cinnamon rolls, which are served with every dinner entree. For dessert, diners make sure to save room for the fruit and cream pies, made in house.
The Big Foot Inn is another Illinois supper club, within easy view of the “Welcome to Wisconsin” sign in nearby Big Foot, Illinois. After its longtime owners retired in 2019, Dominick and Maribel Armon took over the Big Foot Inn, and they aim to stay true to the restaurant’s beloved menu as well as its history — it originally opened in 1946 serving traditional supper club fare.
The Big Foot Inn is one of the few supper clubs that offers a weekend brunch, including lox and herring on the menu. The Tuesday night special of chicken and dumplings remains a favorite — Dominick says that one customer drives 20 miles to get it. And their Friday fish fry is one of the most popular in the area.
But the Armons have also introduced a few new menu items since taking over. As chef, Dominick added Italian entrees because that cuisine is his specialty. His signature dish is Rigatoni Country, a rigatoni pasta with Italian sausage, pancetta and plum tomato sauce. Maribel, as pastry chef, anchors the dessert menu with carrot cake cheesecake, tiramisu and chocolate cake, and she offers gluten-free options, too.
Since taking over, the Armons completed a few updates to the space, but have been careful to retain the restaurant’s original look and feel. Longtime customers will still find a few video games in a bar alcove, as well as a piano player on Friday nights, a longstanding tradition. “We quickly established that the Big Foot Inn wasn’t going anywhere,” Dominick says.
Supper clubs are here to stay: it’s a message that warms the hearts of the area’s many supper club fans.
On the Side
Recent documentaries, books, websites and advertising campaigns have propelled interest in Wisconsin supper clubs.
- New on the market is “The Wisconsin Supper Clubs Story: An Illustrated History, with Relish” (Agate Midway) by Ron Faiola of Milwaukee, whose filmmaking work includes “Wisconsin Supper Club Movie.” Faiola has written three supper club books, and he maintains a list of 260-plus supper clubs at wisconsinsupperclubs.com.
- The group Wisconsin Supper Club Enthusiasts on Facebook has more than 60,000 members. Members find each other at supper clubs by placing on their table a little orange cone. Shawn and Ellen Niemann of Kewaunee County formed the group after watching filmmaker Holly De Ruyter’s “Old Fashioned: The Story of the Wisconsin Supper Club” on PBS. Check oldfashionedthemovie.com for details.
- Search “supper club” at travelwisconsin.com, Wisconsin’s official tourism website, for dozens of ideas about where to dine. Stephanie Klett, current director of VISIT Lake Geneva and former Wisconsin tourism secretary, also used billboards, television ad spots and themed sports venue concession stands to spread the word about supper club dining.