By Mary Bergin | Pictured: Tornado Club Steak House, photographed by Hillary Schave
Madison will be a 2023 destination for “Samantha Brown’s Places to Love,” a syndicated PBS travel show. I assisted Samantha and her team as they traveled to Madison earlier this year, introducing her to supper club dining as a beloved part of Wisconsin identity.
As we sat at the bar of the Tornado Club Steak House, she learned how to properly order an Old Fashioned. Deconstruction of the state’s unofficial cocktail was the first order of business. What kind of brandy? Sweet (7-Up) or sour (Squirt) soda? Fruit or olive garnish?
We pored over the old-school, yet savvy-hip Tornado menu, sampling sautéed frog legs, a 20-ounce, bone-in tenderloin and more. We watched tables fill quickly on an otherwise ordinary Sunday night, and the experience felt like ritzy dining within homey confines.
Maybe the most difficult to explain to her was: What makes a supper club different from other restaurants? Cue the relish tray (or, in this case, raw veggies cleverly assembled like a little bouquet centerpiece) and chit-chat about ice cream drinks.
Forget cookie-cutter approaches and décor. In the supper club world is family-friendly and fine dining, hearty fare and artistic flair.
“A lot of restaurants can deliver on the food,” notes Henry Doane, owner of Tornado, “but another thing I think is important is authenticity — a feeling and sense that this place has been here a while. A place with a patina and history in the community. My favorite places are the very old ones that look very much like they did when they first opened.”
Tornado’s predecessor was Crandall’s, a longtime, popular supper club. During the renovation, Doane says, “I peeled back the layers of wallpaper and carpeting to reveal the original look and feel of the old restaurant. It wasn’t hard to create that old supper club authenticity.” He adds, “The menu is a tribute to Crandall’s and all the old supper clubs I loved.”
Coquille St. Jacque — scallops poached in a white wine cream sauce and served over mashed potatoes — is a rich nod to the past. Fall-off-the-bone spareribs, a newer entrée option, was added as a to-go option during the pandemic. Doane says come winter, the spareribs will be replaced with a filet au poivre with cognac mushroom cream sauce as a to-go choice. tornadosteakhouse.com
Read on about five other area supper clubs — each with its own unique personality.
Longtime fans of Smoky’s Club, the quintessential Madison supper club that closed in spring 2022, should feel at home when Driftless Social, a contemporary reincarnation, opens this fall in downtown Mount Horeb.
Owners Matt and Tim Schmock are brothers whose grandparents established Smoky’s nearly 70 years ago. Grandma’s recipes for cottage cheese and pickled beets are coming with them to Mount Horeb. So is the overhang from Smoky’s bar, and an eclectic smattering of Smoky’s décor (kitsch and taxidermy, including a blowfish).
Matt describes Driftless Social as a hybrid supper club with novel twists that begin with the relish tray. Although steaks and seafood are the menu’s foundation, chef Jeffrey Whitford has room to experiment. He is the owners’ longtime friend and migrates from a Madison-area restaurant.
Like Smoky’s, the bar menu at Driftless Social is big on martinis — expect at least four dozen choices. Expect Old Fashioned variations too, led by Tim’s “Cre-old” version with creole bitters and ginger ale. His recipe won a Korbel brandy contest in 2016. driftlesssocial.com
KAVANAUGH’S ESQUIRE CLUB
Sisters Jackie and Bridget Kavanaugh are the third generation to keep plates spinning at Madison’s oldest restaurant to stay open in its original location. The northside spot opened in 1947.
Purists may say supper clubs should only be open for an evening meal, but customer loyalty dictates otherwise at the Esquire Club (which it’s more commonly called). They serve lunch, too. Groups of card players, retired police officers and firefighters converge and linger.
“A supper club means many different things to others,” Jackie acknowledges. To her, “it’s feeling like you want to sit back, enjoy your cocktail, your meal,” and knowing your preferences are heard.
Longtime daily specials include corned beef and cabbage on Thursdays and chicken dinners on Sundays. For the latter: order a single serving or all-you-can-eat. At the bar, look for the beer-cheese spread, customary since the 1960s. kavanaughsesquire.club
THE HARVEY HOUSE
Drawing national media attention since its 2021 opening is a mix of nostalgic and nuevo dining owned by Shaina Robbins Papach and Joe Papach, a couple with epicurean credentials from Chez Panisse and The French Laundry, among others.
“The sense of hospitality and generosity that is a part of supper clubs was surprisingly seductive to both of us,” says Robbins Papach. She and Joe are Midwest natives who infuse sophistication into tradition. One example: caviar as an optional add-on to the à la carte relish tray.
Add thoughtfully complex culinary approaches: think slow-cooked salmon, hand-cut cannelloni, cider- brined pork chops. French onion soup begins with a nub of Gruyère custard to which a triple onion broth and teeny croutons are added at the table. (Menus change with the seasons.)
The Harvey House was No. 8 in Esquire magazine’s 2021 list of America’s best new restaurants. theharveyhouse.com
TOBY’S SUPPER CLUB
No reservations and a lengthy wait to dine here is business as usual, which is part of the fun. Order a cocktail at the circular bar, where a server takes food orders and guides you to a table when it’s ready. When you arrive at your table, it will be decked out with a relish tray, bread basket, pickles and salad or soup.
Many of owner Roxanne Peterson’s grandchildren work here, plus her sister (and other non-relatives). Staff make from-scratch salad dressings by the gallon. A food grinder shreds boiled potatoes for the popular hash browns, which are fried in cast-iron skillets around 70 years old (and not used to cook anything else).
From Monday through Thursday, diners are in for an extra treat: cinnamon rolls with cream cheese frosting. tobyssupperclub.com
In Roxbury (pop. 1,912), 20 miles northwest of Madison, is Dorf Haus, a supper club that reflects the owners’ and community’s German heritage. Note the murals, paintings, stained-glass windows and antiques that transport diners to another era and country.
Rebecca Maier-Frey and Monte Maier stay true to what their parents established, serving German specialties — schnitzels, rouladen, sausages, traditional sides — in addition to standard supper-club fare.
From-scratch cooking is the norm, starting with creamy liver paté and baskets of fritters. Unique during Lenten season: roasted turtle, mashed potatoes and veggies on Fridays. dorfhaussupperclub.com