Taking the pulse of Wisconsin supper clubs
KENOSHA — My future brother-in-law Nick is Kenosha's proudest son. When I mentioned stopping by Mars Cheese Castle, I spied his subtle "oh, my naive friend" shake of the head. He steered me a few miles east instead, toward the tourist-free Tenuta's Deli, and indeed, we found enough Spotted Cow beer and Usinger's sausage to stock the bunker into the year 2100.

What we came for, however, was a more deeply rooted Wisconsin quintessence. In the 20-minute drive from Interstate Highway 94 to Lake Michigan's shore, he pointed out three restaurants that were once supper clubs — Krok's, Candlelite, Casino Town House — but all of which have morphed into something different. Those three have joined countless supper clubs that have shuttered — a restaurant genre on the endangered list — with little evidence except faded newspaper clippings and the memories of Wisconsinites old enough to remember.

The difficulty is how to define a supper club. I have yet to find a satisfactory answer. The most pithy response falls along the line of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's in defining pornography: "I know it when I see it." The phrase "supper club" isn't indigenous to the Badger State, but few other people embrace it with such civic reverence. There must be a way to explain it.

Truism No. 1: Supper clubs are associated with road trips and vacations, with many restaurants overlooking a lake or forest clearing, situated on the outskirts of town, or located in some out-of-the-way place that connotes distance from home. Loyalties to a supper club span generations.

Our headfirst dive into supper club culture begins with a panoramic view of Lake Michigan, placid and gray on this day. In the foreground is HobNob, a peach and pink building of straight angles that would have been avant-garde in 1950s Southern California. Painted on the wall is a two-story martini glass, and at night, the neon "Food & Cocktails" sign blazes so bright it's probably visible from commercial planes.

There is never one rigid definition of ambience that applies to all supper clubs. It's more an amalgam of subtle touches that paint a larger whole. The lodge is an ever-popular motif, aesthetically as Wisconsin as it gets. Many others look like your grandparents' living room — all trinkets and wallpaper and vinyl tablecloths. Supper clubs run the gamut from humble to ostentatious, perhaps none quite as eye-catching as the Egyptian-themed Pyramid of the Nile Supper Club in Beaver Dam, Wis., noted for its garish 40-foot tall pyramid surrounded by cornfields. It closed in 2009 after 48 years in business.

HobNob favors a look that evokes a four-star hotel ballroom of the 1960s. "Mad Men's" Don Draper could have sat on the white leatherlike bar chairs if he ever went soft and ordered a brandy old-fashioned. The east-facing glass window stretches long and horizontal, offering a widescreen lake view that fills to the ends of one's peripheral vision.

Again, subtle touches paint a larger whole. Nick points out the energetic carpet pattern, a swirl of paisley designs reinforcing the fine-dining notion. The menu, he adds, is always printed in serif fonts: an elegant italicized script or some variation of Times New Roman.

Candles sit on white tablecloths. Booths are purple with gold floral patterns, colors that conjure royalty. The gold trim continues, jumping from seats to the black faux-marble walls. Something about the place says "special occasion."

Truism No. 2: A $30 entree at a supper club is not a $30 entree in downtown Milwaukee or Chicago.

We've never experienced garlic bread sliced table-side. Now this is some classy joint. A snow-white Gorgonzola sauce oozes over one end of the crisp loaf, playing into every preconceived narrative of Wisconsin and Wisconsin-ness.

Nick orders the Wiener schnitzel, the surface area of Prince Fielder's first baseman's glove. My prime rib is a primordial pink slab with white fat hunks and a rosemary-flecked roasted exterior. Here, as in many places, a sprig of decorative parsley is still the garnish of choice.

Surely the prime rib exceeded the USDA's recommended daily intake for meat.

"Children's portion," Nick jokes.

And yet! A double-cut portion exists, a serving size so incomprehensible that the only justification would be eating this while television cameras filmed you.

At a supper club, "you never finish your meal," said Spiaggia chef Tony Mantuano, a Kenosha native. "There's always going to be a value peg involved at supper clubs. I remember once forgetting the doggie bag and getting really, really upset."

What separates the supper club genre from other restaurants is here, they prefer the word "and" over "or." It seems like the antithesis of Wisconsin hospitality to decide between soup or salad, so more often than not, you get both, on top of the bread basket of saltines and sesame breadsticks and dinner rolls, the baked potato, the kidney bean salad, the pickles, the cheese spread, so on, so forth. By the time the main event arrives, you've already been fed into submission by the undercard.

It's no coincidence the term "doggie bag" is attributed to a Wisconsinite, Lawrence Frank, the man who in 1938 launched the Lawry's prime rib chain in Beverly Hills and who is considered the forefather of supper clubs.

Carol Deptolla, restaurant critic at the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, had this theory: "In immigrant cultures in the U.S., I think a big part of 'making it' is that there's a sense of plenty. Wherever you emigrated from, food might have been an issue. Who knows if there's a straight line between that and supper clubs, but the way you welcome people is with a lot of food and generous portions. Supper clubs give off a welcoming feeling."