The Supper Club: Dwindling, But Not Gone-Yet!

(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.

Dave’s freeloading nephew (that’s me!) provided transportation to the Ced-Rel on our last visit.

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.

The relish tray at the Ced-Rel. You don’t necessarily need an entree after this!

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.

The former Paddle Wheel Lounge on the riverfront in Bettendorf, IA. Closed in April 2017. They had a fantastic filet mignon.

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.

19 Replies to “The Supper Club: Dwindling, But Not Gone-Yet!”

  1. Chris Tonn

    Indeed, Wisconsin has made this style of restaurant an art form. Sadly, the one I grew up with burned to the ground a few years ago.

    My dad grew up in north-eastern Wisconsin, due north of Green Bay near the border with Michigan. As a kid, we’d have at least one vacation yearly dedicated to driving to see the family, and each trip was punctuated with a trip to Shaffer Supper Club, which (oddly for the genre) specialized in fried chicken.

    It was unlike any other restaurant I’ve encountered. Upon entry, the bar area (which dwarfed the size of a standard Applebees) was your main destination, because Wisconsin. The entire party – kids, grandparents, etc., lingered in the bar, and placed their meal orders there. Dad, again because Wisconsin, always had a Brandy Manhattan, while I downed a few Cokes while playing the stand-up arcade version of Pole Position over by the mens’ room.

    Once the meal was nearly ready, we were ushered into the classy dining room, where relish trays and long, thin breadsticks awaited – and a few minutes later, the chicken arrived.

    My grandmother, who’d worked part-time for the Shaffer’s in the ’70s, swore she was “this close” to replicating the “secret” spice blend.

    Last time I went, sometime in the mid ’90s, I still had the high score on Pole Position.

    Sadly, September of 2014 brought a fire that engulfed the old restaurant. I never got the wife or kids there.

    Reply
  2. John C.

    I greatly enjoyed this post. I know of no restaurants of this style in south east Georgia. I would definitely be a regular at one. It does seem more dignified than even a Morton’s or Ruth Chris style chain, with their mediocre cocktails and Applebees level staff.

    I was wondering about the “club” aspect. Is there something to join? I assume reservations are at least pro forma.

    Reply
    • Tom KlockauTom Klockau

      The ‘club’ part usually meant some sort of live entertainment, like a band, piano player, comedian, etc.

      Reply
    • SIV

      You might find a fish camp restaurant in SE GA. They’re kind of the Southern equivalent of a supper club. They’re not all called “fish camps”. They’re rural “destination”restaurants although development might have caught up with an old one in a good location.

      Reply
      • SIV

        The internet shows one in Jacksonville, kinda upscale. Some are more “family friendly”in pricing, some are buffets or all-you-can-eat served “family style” at the table. An authentic one will be old, family-owned and decorated with trophies of game and fish actually taken by the owners. They usually serve more than fish although some are essentially catfish houses.

        Reply
  3. Rick T.

    Echo the comments made above about Wisconsin. When we lived Chiraq, we’d sometimes adventure beyond the Cheddar Curtain for some of those.

    I attended a gardening event in Cedar Rapids many years ago before the internet and civilian GPS. My friend and I got wind of a place in the country where you could grill your own steaks. Unfortunately, I don’t recall the name.

    Anyway, we started back at dusk and made a wrong turn somewhere. This Hoosier soon learned that the back roads of that part of Iowa at least aren’t laid out in a neat grid like Indiana which makes it easy to find your way…to somewhere. All’s well that ends well and we made it back to the hotel after about an hour extra of sightseeing corn stalks.

    Reply
  4. ComfortablyNumb

    Forgive my ignorance, but what differentiates a supper club from a very good, non-chain restaurant? I can think of a few that fit your criteria (fresh food, good service, long-tenured chefs), but we just call them restaurants.

    Reply
  5. -Nate-Nate

    Sounds good ! .

    I remember traveling through Wisconsin and marveling at all the wonderful cheeses in random remote gas stations…

    -Nate

    Reply
  6. Jeremy

    It sure was unexpected to pull up Riverside Green and see photos from around here. Finally got the guys to try the Lighthouse this winter. (Selfish move, it is close to my house.) The “old guy” among us is 52: “The last time I ate here I was in junior high and came with my grandparents.” Haven’t been to Ced Rel. The view above is looking east. The view to the west is the same. 🙂

    Reply
    • Tom KlockauTom Klockau

      Most of my posts will be at least relatively close to Cedar Rapids, I’m in the Quad Cities. I get up to Iowa City at least once a month in the summer, there is always a good car cruise in Coralville at the mall during May-September.

      Reply
      • Jeremy

        I have picked up on your Quad City-ness. We lived in Davenport 1998-2000. These days it takes a Continental shift (see what I did there??) to get down to IC.

        Reply
  7. acesfull

    Very interesting. I’ve spent my entire life in Michigan and never heard of such a place, although Wikipedia says we have them. I know family restaurants and the confusing-to-outsiders Coney Island, but supper clubs are new to me. If I could find one, I’d check it out.

    Reply
  8. SavageATL

    I am from Atlanta and grew up and still live very close to the site of the very first Applebee’s on Memorial Drive and the very first Waffle House in Avondale Estates. We do not have restaurants like this in Atlanta anymore; there’s only one that I can think of that comes close, the Colonnade or perhaps Fork in the Road at Northlake. You get excellent drinks, large portions of hearty old fashioned home cooked food served in large rooms decorated like your grandparents’ den. We don’t get the entertainment though. I really wish we had this sort of restaurant in Atlanta but everything is either fast food, horrible microwave chain restaurants, twee restaurants serving things you’ve never heard of, or ethnic restaurants which are great but serve things you’ve never heard of.

    Reply

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