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Exploring the history of Wisconsin supper clubs

Book cover of "Wisconsin Supper Club" by Ron Faiola
Ron Faiola
Book cover of "Wisconsin Supper Club" by Ron Faiola.

Friday nights in Wisconsin mean one thing, well, three things: fish frys, old fashioneds, and of course — supper clubs. In rural and not-so-rural parts of the state, supper clubs are a place for communities to gather and enjoy Wisconsin-style comfort food.

Ron Faiola is the author of "The Wisconsin Supper Clubs Story," and he shares how traditions around supper clubs started in many places after prohibition. He says cabarets, road houses, and dance halls morphed into supper clubs.

"Once alcohol was legal, these places just continued to do what they were doing, but now they were legally doing it. So they became supper clubs. The term really took on the meaning at that time," Faiola says.

Around 1945-1965, supper clubs in Milwaukee, like The Holiday House and Fazio's, began bringing in big names. Faiola says guests who visited the clubs included Dean Martin, Al Jarreau, and Tony Bennett.

"In the 50s and 60s, there was more entertainment and dancing, which has pretty much disappeared now. There'd be maybe another room where people would eat, but they'd also watch a show or a live band or comedian and then do some dancing. It was a destination for the night," Faiola says.

Many of these restaurants are gone now, either demolished to build news ones or gone out of business. Yet, Faiola says people who go to a Wisconsin supper club now, will know one when they see it. It's usually family-owned and the family often lives on the premises. Food is made from scratch, and it's a gathering place for the community.

One common quirky trait Faiola points to is the relish tray. He says the tray is usually a freebie that patrons get when they're sitting down while waiting for their food. Although they aren't as popular anymore, they still hold a sentiment for Wisconsin supper club goers.

"Relish trays have been kind of elevated to this kind of like rockstar level where people say, ‘Well, if it doesn’t have a relish tray it’s not a supper club," Faiola says.

While the number of supper clubs have declined in Wisconsin, Faiola says that he still sees supper clubs existing into the future.

"The remote locations of supper clubs around the state ... a lot of those have survived. But in Milwaukee, not so much," Faiola says.

Faiola says desire for them has increased now more than ever since the pandemic started.

"People wanted to get back, you know, after so long of staying home, and now they're going back and visiting these supper clubs. It's something that people have realized are a special place that they want to go back and like the restaurants of yesteryear. It's a real unique and friendly place to be," Faiola says.

Joy is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Kobe Brown was WUWM's fifth Eric Von fellow.
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