Dining and entertainment converge, with a nod to nostalgic menu items.
AT FIRST, Adam Siegel, a James Beard Award-winning chef who shapes menus at fine-dining spots like Bacchus and Lake Park Bistro, couldn’t quite grasp why at Joey Gerard’s Supper Club—with two Milwaukee-area locations that opened last fall—there needed to be foil-wrapped butter and individually wrapped crackers on each table. “I’m not from Wisconsin and that’s the one thing I didn’t get initially,” he says.
There were also plans to have a relish tray at each table, another aspect that baffled Siegel. Also—and this was the most difficult for the 39-year-old chef to imagine—a Lazy Susan piled high with a Merkt’s cheddar-cheese ball, deviled eggs, butter pickles, and pickled herring. And why were the olives on the relish tray from a can and not the more upscale Niçoise brand?
But Joe Bartolotta, owner of the aforementioned restaurants within the Bartolotta Group, remained insistent that diners would fall head over heels in love wih a supper-club restaurant so long as it had all the little accoutrements evoked by nostalgic memory. Indeed, Siegel recalled those black olives in a can. “As a kid I remember polishing off a can. They were my favorite.” Convinced this had to be part of the relish tray, he added these along with bread and butter pickles and carrot and celery sticks.
Spawned by the Glen Miller era, supper clubs opened with reckless abandon throughout the upper Midwest in the mid-1900s, promising diners not only a hearty multi-course dinner but also live entertainment beginning with a drink at the bar before being seated. It was a night to dress to the nines and linger over a martini as a preamble to the meal, which often included steak or lobster. Yet—even with all this flair—the focus was on decent price points and attracting repeat clientele.
In his recently published book, Wisconsin Supper Clubs: An Old-Fashioned Experience, author Ron Faiola features 50 Wisconsin supper clubs. Faiola, who also directed and produced a documentary about supper clubs, isn’t surprised the retro trend has been resurrected.
“Now that the economy has gotten better, people are going out and they’ve had their fill of chains,” says Faiola. “Many of the supper-club restaurants are family-owned throughout the generations. They started out as dance halls and speakeasies, and eventually morphed—after World War II—into a fancier place than a tavern.”
In opening Joey Gerard’s, Siegel explains he started by “picking owner Joe Bartolotta’s brain about items that were there when he was a kid. There was some nostalgia there.” Next, the Chicago native embarked on a road trip to experience just what a supper club is all about. He also consulted menus for supper clubs that had shuttered. “We looked at all styles, from the mom and pop supper clubs to the Beverly Hills style,” says Siegel.
On the menu at Joey Gerard’s—where the vintage-themed décor features dark-wood tones and walls adorned with black-and-white, Hollywood-style photos of supper clubs—are nightly specials that are equally nostalgic: the Friday fish fry, Saturday prime rib, and retro favorites Steak Diane and Beef Wellington.
But the food preparation embraces contemporary techniques and flavors. Much of the meat is cooked at 800 degrees in a high-end Josper by Wood Stone charcoal broiler oven, one of only two in the Midwest and only 30 nationwide. “We’re making great steaks,” says Siegel. “They get a really nice char on them and they cook really fast.” A light marinade of thyme, black pepper, garlic, and olive oil is also used on each steak.