The Revival of the Classic Wisconsin Supper Club
When Joe Papach and Shaina Robbins Papach decided it was time to claim a sense of home, after bouncing around the country as peripatetic chefs, they knew exactly where to go. Joe had done a serious cook's tour, moving from New York's Gramercy Tavern and San Francisco's Quince to a six-year tenure at The French Laundry in the Napa Valley. Shaina, after a stint at Chez Panisse, opted to combine her interest in cooking and teaching, working with Alice Waters on The Edible Schoolyard Project.
Yet in 2018, raising one child and hoping for more, they didn't look east or west but squarely in-between. "We're both Midwesterners," said Shaina, "and we wanted to be closer to family and open our own restaurant, The Harvey House, in a place where there was still room to grow."
The move to Shaina's hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, wasn't just a physical one. It proved a culinary gamechanger for the couple. Intent on devising a menu that paid homage to the Upper Midwest, they looked to the classic Wisconsin supper club as their heartland template.
The supper club can seem like an amorphous thing, though there are some concrete signifiers. Having largely evolved in Wisconsin, its spiritual home, it took early root during Prohibition but flowered mid-century, when diners were looking for one big blow-out of a convivial, fancy destination dinner.
Usually located outside of town, overlooking a lake or forest, the supper club typically features a snaking bar right up front, to get the party started, and an overstuffed menu promising one long, button-popping dinner—from cheese curds to overflowing surf and turf plates, washed down with fruity muddled cocktails. If the meal doesn't start with a relish tray the size of a tractor tire, you're not at a bonafide supper club.
Joe and Shaina's timing proved challenging. Hoping to open their Harvey House in 2019, they had to wait out the pandemic and shift the big debut to this summer. But the delay had its benefits. The pandemic has forced many of us to re-discover our own regional culinary traditions, as borders were closed, and the extra year of gestation helped Joe and Shaina refine their updated take on a Wisconsin supper club.
That started with work on the location itself, a historic train depot sitting in the middle of Madison that underwent a three-year renovation. There is a bar and dining room on each level of the two-story Baggage House, with some tables sprawling out onto the glassed-in train platform, overlooking an actual parked train. Murals of Wisconsin barns and pastures stand in for a supper club's traditional bucolic view and take you on a simulated Midwestern road trip.
The Harvey House updates signature supper club dishes, drawing on Wisconsin's bulging larder (think Door County cherries to artisanal cheeses) that proved the truest test. "You want to get it right, " says Joe, "because these are the dishes your mom and grandmother probably made. But I applied what I learned over the years, taking technique from scratch, finding what makes these dishes special, and modernizing them."
The classic walleye? "I trim the top fillet and use the belly and tail to make a mousse, then layer the filet and mousse and set a crispy cap of rye on top." The shrimp cocktail comes served with pickled celery hearts, and even pigs in a blanket, usually culinary comic relief, gets elevated: the smoked kielbasa is rolled inside a house-made brioche with classic Wisconsin cheddar cheese and whole grain mustard jus.
The supper club is just one example of renewed interest in older culinary traditions, if only because quarantines forced many to rediscover the homegrown foods that were most accessible and comforting. Just 30 miles north of Madison, the classic supper club Ishnala, founded in 1953, is so swamped now that you can expect a two-hour wait for a weekend dinner. The expansive wood-beamed restaurant, perched over photogenic Mirror Lake, feels like a jerry-rigged tree house that just kept spouting new Escher-worthy terraces and wings. There are three bars all serving the house cocktail, a classic Old Fashioned, and the menu offers every iteration of surf and turf. Fittingly mounted on a wall near the entrance and overlooking the crowd is a row of animal heads—Texan wild boar, Oklahoma buffalo, South Dakota coyote—posed like the Mt. Rushmore of wooly America.
The same note of theatricality is on display at a much newer supper club, popping up in the most unexpected place. Debuting in 2018 on the Las Vegas Strip, the Bellagio's Mayfair Supper Club won't win the approval of supper club purists but it is earnest about approximating the vibe of a more urbane Prohibition-era supper club. Granted the only wildlife on view are the party animals prowling the strip, and the nearest thing to a natural landscape are the Bellagio fountains. But the menu itself offers another way to update the supper club's standards, which are essentially a who's who of classic meaty American signature dishes. The luxe entrées here included a wagyu hand roll with caviar. And because this is Vegas the inevitable Cirque-worth aerialists often spin above diners digging into the wagyu prime rib.
And in Brooklyn, an equally unexpected setting, the Middle East meets the Middle West in another quirky take on the supper club. There is, predictably, a backstory involved. When the Turk's Inn supper club, opened in 1934, ended its long run and finally closed in Hayward Wisconsin, Varun Kataria and Tyler Erickson, fans of the restaurant, decided to will it back to life. "We attended the estate auction," says Kataria, "and in the first weekend found ourselves leaving with almost all the core contents, the bar, the neon sign, and a truckload of tchotchke. From there we set out to recreate our imagined experience of an ideal night at the Turk's Inn for a modern audience, in Bushwick, opening in 2019."
Though the pandemic meant a pause the reopened club came roaring back this spring, packed with a fresh, younger crowd of supper club fans feeding off an eclectic menu. Staying true to the original owner's Turkish and Armenian background, the reincarnated Turk's Inn menu features a relish tray that's more of a mezze platter but it never loses sight of its Midwestern roots. "Our cheese cloud," says Kataria, "is a very Wisconsin cheese dip but utilizes feta, a soft goat cheese, and kashkaval, a stringy sheep's cheese. We mix the melted cheeses into cream and shoot the contents out of a whip cream container resulting in a dish that's light as air and full of flavor." That's enough flamboyant drama to make the Bellagio jealous.
If the feta cloud at Turk's Inn and the acrobats at the Mayfair Supper Club seem like a big leap from homey Ishnala, that's deceptive. In many ways, the soul of the supper club has more to do with how we eat than what we eat. It turns dinner into an occasion, a party, a big night out that just keeps going, from the relish tray to the splurge-worthy entrées to the lavish desserts, so that the night gets stretched out as far as it will go.
And that sense of celebration was clearly on show when The Harvey House finally opened, on July 20, after all those false starts and three years of anticipation. The wait was worth it. Fairy lights were strung from the beamed ceiling, above a dense, table-hopping crowd lined up at the bar and digging into photogenic plates of food: a honey lacquered duck paired with Door County cherries, cara cara oranges and fennel; a chicken cordon bleu framed by canoe-harvested wild rice; a dreamy cloud of strawberry pavlova. Head chef Joe Papach was working the kitchen. But Shaina, now the mother of three, was helping host up front, looking justifiably proud, like someone who had finally managed both a literal and a culinary homecoming.