(NOTE: This article was originally published as a guest editorial in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, by my uncle, David Klockau. I thought RG’s regular readers might enjoy it! -TK)
The classic Midwestern supper club, once a regular sighting on the old pre-Interstate highways in the heartland, are getting harder to find in this day and age. However, I disagree that the supper club as we know it has “ended.” They are still out there, and still worth seeking out.
In fact, friends of mine organized an informal supper club club. While I live in Iowa City, our group makes regular trips to the Ced-Rel Supper Club on Highway 30 just a short drive west of Cedar Rapids and the Lighthouse on the opposite side of Cedar Rapids in Marion. Both restaurants are always busy. The Ced-Rel serves a fantastic hot and cold multi-level relish tray, and in addition to excellent steaks, they have bacon-wrapped, cheese stuffed jumbo shrimp in a tempura style-batter. And Lighthouse has an outstanding prime rib cut.
Another fine example of the classic supper club is Moracco Supper Club, tucked away in a quiet neighborhood in Dubuque, Iowa. My wife and I stumbled upon on it years ago by chance and it is still going strong. The steaks arrive still sizzling on a platter preceded by an amazing relish tray and cracker spreads, along with homemade rolls. And you can always count on enough left overs for steak and eggs in the morning. I was surprised he missed Timmerman’s just across the river from Dubuque, an outstanding, upscale supper club overlooking the Mississippi valley.
Sadly, one of the best, The Bryn Mawr on Highway 92, 30 minutes southeast of Iowa City, recently closed due to the passing of the owner. The rest of the family was not up to keeping it going, though they did very good business. They are looking for a buyer, and I’m betting it will re-open. I’ll be waiting in the parking lot. This is another constant theme in the surviving supper clubs; they are local family owned and operated.
As Michael remembered the Northwest Iowa supper clubs of his youth, mine were on the Iowa-Illinois border. We were lucky we had Marando’s in Milan, Ill., and The Plantation in Moline, Ill., nearby, but the best by far was the Ranch Supper Club near Cordova, Ill. They raised, butchered, grilled and served the steaks you ordered. And you picked out your steak in a refrigerated showcase in the lobby. If you wanted to go pick out your own cow, they might have accommodated you. Your steak came with a little plastic spear tab indicating rare, medium or well done. And they served pickled baby ears of corn on the chilled relish tray. You could also buy a jar to take home.
If you behaved, your mom might give you one of those little pink plastic elephants or orange monkeys off her cocktail glass. The one thing about most supper clubs is they required at least a 30 mile drive to get there because they were built on highways outside of major population areas, which gave them the feel of an upscale roadhouse — the opposite of “your neighborhood Applebee’s.”
Back then and now, a supper club is destination dining. But what is the difference? Consider this: At Applebee’s you get someone in a typical high turnover, low-wage job cooking your meal from a standard corporate recipe using pre-measured, pre-packaged ingredients so your meal looks exactly like the meal in those glitzy national TV ads — well, almost. At a supper club, your meal is prepared by someone who has likely worked there more than 25 years and takes great pride in their work. The food is fresher, the service is excellent and genuine, and your meal is cooked with seasoned cookware and grills that are over 50 years old. And the recipes are tried and true, and have been handed down from previous generations.
So yes, supper clubs have declined in number, but they have not ended. In southeast Iowa, The Palms in Fort Madison is still going strong. In fact, a Bennigan’s opened down the street but closed in less than a year. Don’t take my word for it, plan ahead and get out for a week night treat or get a group together and visit our remaining local family owned and operated supper clubs in eastern Iowa.
And just maybe your children will be telling this same story you just read.