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From Midwestern Evening Escape to Underground Urban Feast: The History of the Supper Club

Culture

Hannah Frishberg | July 17, 2018
The American supper club has had many evolutions, from its humble beginnings in Wisconsin to a national trend and now a flourishing foodie movement.

While humans have surely been dining together since the dawn of time, the invention of the supper club is largely credited to one Lawrence Frank. In 1938, the Milwaukee native brought a new Wisconsin tradition to the West Coast, launching what is widely regarded as the seedling of national supper club culture in Beverly Hills. It wasn’t the first in the country — the now-shuttered Turk’s Inn supper club in Hayward, Wisconsin, was established four years before Frank took the concept to California — but it was hugely influential. While the entity is now a national steakhouse chain with locations in Las Vegas, Dallas, Chicago, and Beverly Hills, Frank’s eatery served prime rib, potatoes, Yorkshire pudding, cooked vegetables, and little else, according to research culled from the Wisconsin Historical Society. Frank — who also invented the doggie bag — had started a national trend that would spread like wildfire in the decades to come.

banqueting hall; Shutterstock ID 576295816; Purchase Order: -

A Fun Feast for the Whole Family

The supper club was a natural progression from the Prohibition roadhouse in regional American night-out culture. Though its predecessors were primarily speakeasies, the supper club was born into an America once again open to alcohol, allowing the spaces’ culture to be family friendly while still sporting a bar. “After Prohibition was repealed in 1933, liquor licenses were first granted to establishments outside city limits that served food, thus giving birth to the supper club,” proclaims the Wisconsin Department of Tourism’s official website. “A supper club in the olden days meant linen table service, liquors, entertainment, and dancing — a destination for a night out.”

Perhaps due to the American preference for the word “dinner” over the more formal “supper,” there is a common misperception that supper clubs are exclusive, fine-dining, social club–like gatherings of the affluent, but this is not largely the case. Upper Midwesterners, particularly Wisconsinites, know that the supper club’s roots are more similar to a local diner, combined with the region’s characteristic friendliness and small-town charm. A Midwestern supper club is a welcoming space, a family-owned watering hole that serves a sit-down meal alongside enough live musical entertainment to last a full evening. According to the Wisconsin Historical Society, “Many were operated in conjunction with resorts, or were operated in proximity to vacation areas and along popular highways.” In a rather ironic twist for the landlocked state, nautical-themed supper clubs were particularly popular.

A nautical-themed supper club; image via Shutterstock

Kitsch, Knickknacks, and Complimentary Relish

While bucking any easy definition, traditional supper clubs have always been characterized by comfort and routine, leading to a variety of attributes that define these institutions. The most common elements of a classic supper club in the annals of nostalgic internet recollections are cocktails like Old Fashioneds and ice cream drinks for dessert; foods like prime rib, broasted chicken, and pan-fried frog legs; complimentary relish trays; committed (if kitschy) themes; and a plethora of decorations, from knickknacks to exotic embellishments. The clubs often look like roadside attractions from the outside but feel like grandma’s living room once you’re inside (and home conversions were not uncommon); they serve homey American cuisine and have live music — a one-stop shop for a night out in a friendly environment.

Ultimately, the definition of a supper club is less description than an innate familiarity: “We native Wisconsinites are just born with a deep understanding of the meaning of supper club,” proclaims a 1999 editorial in the Wisconsin State Journal.

Hialeah Dinner and Supper Club, Atlantic City, NJ. Image courtesy of the Tichnor Brothers Collection, Boston Public Library.

Through the latter half of the 20th century, supper clubs could be found across the United States. The trend has since died off, with the Midwest largely considered the only remaining hub of the culture as it was originally conceived. Some of these remaining clubs survive from the 1930s and 1940s; others are recent developments crafted in the same vein, if with slightly updated decorations. The “holy trinity of supper club decorations,” Ron Faiola, the author of Wisconsin Supper Clubs: An Old-Fashioned Experiencetold food writer David Hammond at a chance bar encounter, is “twinkling Christmas lights, taxidermy, and dark wood.”

Thoroughly Modern Supper Club Reimaginings

Today, in New York City and other metropolises, the concept of the supper club has taken off as an underground gathering almost entirely independent of the club’s traditional meaning, beyond being a space to eat and be merry. The modern movement encompasses ideas as large as Diner en Blanc, a now-international supper club begun in 1988 which is today attended by tens of thousands of participants all dressed in white, and as small as Ghetto Gourmet, a far more discreet experience put on by two brothers in an Oakland basement in the mid-2000s considered to be mighty in influence.

Diner en Blanc, image via Shutterstock

For Hagan Blount, the co-founder of “traveling pop-up dining experience” PlaceInvaders, his supper club began in 2014 when he decided to expand his weekly housewarmings beyond the capacity of his apartment. “The idea is either trying out new food or trying conversation,” he said, distilling the underground dining movement’s motives. “I think that’s the impetus for every supper club that’s ever been.” His several-course dining experiences can now be found all across the country, in venues as varied as farmhouses, mansions, and chic pieds-à-terre. 

The Victory Club’s founder Stephanie Nass also expanded her art-focused dinners into a supper club when she outgrew her apartment; her club now holds events in museums and private art collections, from Miami to London. “I would credit social media with the growing exposure for the supper club,” she says.

For many organizers, the modern supper club movement harkens back to the original Midwestern incarnation by creating spaces where friends and strangers alike feel able to relax and spend an evening together, but also to open up and talk on a deeper and more vulnerable level. For Jenny Dorsey, creator of “experimental dinner series” Wednesdays, her goal in starting the club was to “bring people together to be open and talk about things that they usually wouldn’t speak to even their friends about.”

image courtesy of Wednesdays

In this way, though they may boast unique performances, ambitious themes, and wildly unusual dishes, today’s supper clubs have not shifted so far from their historical roots: The focus is still on joy, on conversation, and on coming together in a special space for an evening of entertainment and delicious food.


To read about the comeback of the supper club, click here.

To learn why every chef loves a supper club, go here.

To find the right supper club for every personality, try here.

To sip some cocktails made just for supper clubs, head here.


To discover more distinctive culture, try Heritage | Fernet-Branca .

Hannah Frishberg is a fourth-generation Brooklynite, writer, photographer, and the current Editor-in-Chief of Brokelyn. She’s working on a book about the many of lives of the Gowanus Batcave. Her spirit animal is the F train.

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