The Midwest Supper Club Revival
If you were to ask me to name my all-time favorite restaurants, however, Alinea would not make the cut. Instead, high up on the list would be old-school Midwest supper clubs.
The supper club tradition is based on a bygone attitude that going out to dinner is a special experience and should last an entire evening. Supper clubs are mostly family-run businesses. You start out by lingering in the lounge over cocktails before being taken to the dining room where a complimentary relish tray awaits. On the menu you’ll find shrimp cocktails, prime steaks, lobster tails and prime rib. Your dessert would be a grasshopper or brandy Alexander.
Many Midwest supper clubs got their start in the 20s as roadhouses where gangsters stopped while moving moonshine. Many of these roadhouses housed brothels and gambling rooms. After Prohibition was repealed in 1933, the first liquor licenses were granted to establishments outside city limits that served food, and the supper club was born.
Supper clubs flourished in the 50s and 60s until stricter drunk-driving laws and the proliferation of chain restaurants along the interstate highways led to their demise. Thankfully a few of these establishments have managed to survive.
I’ve been attending music festivals since 2002 – the kind of festivals where you can camp on the festival grounds, listen to music and fall asleep in a tent. Because outdoor music and rain far too often seem to collide, six years ago I bought a used school bus and converted it into an RV with bunks and a kitchen.
Driving a 35-foot school bus was not difficult, but backing into parking spaces unassisted turned out to be quite a challenge. Finding interesting places to stop to eat along the way with easy parking often proved difficult. Several of my favorite festivals took place in eastern Iowa and western Wisconsin and on my journeys northward I was delighted to discover old-school supper clubs with big parking lots.
Crossing into Wisconsin, on the outskirts of Beloit, I discovered the Butterfly Club. Originally built in 1924, the Butterfly Club sits amid several acres of tranquil meadowland off U.S. 51. A little over three hours from Springfield, I could leave work at 4 and arrive in time for dinner before closing. The Butterfly Club has a huge parking lot where I was easily able to park my bus. The lounge has an immense wraparound bar, mirrored ceilings and live music. The first time I visited the Butterfly Club, I walked into the lounge and heard “Somewhere My Love” being performed on an instrument that sounded like a theremin. (The theremin was used by the Beach Boys on “Good Vibrations.”) It turned out to be a musical saw with a violin bow. Hands down the coolest lounge act I’ve ever experienced!
After I had time to enjoy my drink a server led me to my table. She asked if I cared for a refill. I told her I would love one but I was driving a school bus and I’d better not…. unless the owners would allow me to spend the night in the parking lot. She returned with my drink and said I was welcome to camp in the parking lot as long as I was out by the morning. After enjoying my Friday night Fish Fry Special I walked to my bus and had a wonderful night’s slumber.
On the outskirts of Cedar Rapids I discovered the Ced-Rel Supper Club. Dating back to 1917, it had its origins as a gas station along the Lincoln Highway, the first transcontinental highway in the United States, connecting New York to San Francisco. In the 20s it was a speakeasy. The original door with a one-way lookout window still exists.
The Ced-Rel’s dining room is dark. I had to use my cellphone to illuminate the menu. With my drink order the waitress brought the relish tray with chopped liver and “our secret recipe dip.” For my entree I ordered a steak. “All our steaks come from Iowa’s finest corn-fed beef and are hand cut in-house daily,” she explained. “You want corn-fed. Grass-fed is more stringy and the flavor won’t be there.”
After I finished my meal she asked if I’d like another drink. I used the line that had worked so well for me at the Butterfly Club: “I’d love one but I’m driving a school bus and I’d better not…. unless the owners would allow me to spend the night in the parking lot.” She returned and told me I’d be welcome to park overnight and suggested I move to the lounge and enjoy my drink with the company of the regulars.
In the lounge I was introduced to Lu, the 76-year-old bartender. “I’ve been here for 54 years. I’ll probably be here till I die,” she told me. “I love to be around people. It’s a lot of laughs.” Two of the “regulars” started arguing about the presidential election. Lu slammed her hand down hard on the bar. “This is my bar,” she admonished. “We don’t talk about politics! We don’t talk about religion! We talk about sex!”
Springfield’s American Harvest restaurant will be hosting a Sunday Night Supper Club Revival on July 8. Hawaiian dishes were popular in the 50s. Chef Aurora Coffey shared her recipe for Luau Pork. For the event, the dish will be given a modern upgrade: Fresh charred pineapple will be used instead of canned, and milk-braised pork shoulder will stand in for the pork chops. For details call 217-546-8300.
(recipe courtesy of American Harvest)
• 4 boneless pork chops
• Salt and pepper
• 1 tablespoon butter
• ½ cup diced onion
• ¼ cup diced red bell pepper
• ½ cup diced green bell pepper
• 1 garlic clove smashed
• 2 tablespoons olive oil
• 1 can crushed pineapple
• ½ cup chicken stock
• Corn starch slurry: 1 tablespoon cornstarch dissolved in ¼ cup water
• Season chops with salt and pepper
• Melt butter in pan; add onions, peppers, and garlic
• Saute for 2 minutes, then drizzle in olive oil
• Place chops in pan and brown on both sides; set aside
• Drain pineapple; reserve juice
• Add pineapple to skillet and caramelize
• Add juice and chicken stock and bring to a boil
• Add cornstarch slurry
• Bring back to a boil.
• Pour sauce over pork chops
• Serve with a Tom Collins
The Butterfly Club is located at 5246 E County Rd X, Beloit, Wisconsin, 608-363-8577. The Ced-Rel Supper Club is located at 11909 16th Avenue SW, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, 319-446-7300.