The Forest Inn: Surviving Supper Club

I’ve always enjoyed out of the way restaurants. Non chain, often family owned, and in existence for decades. The 1940s through the 1970s were probably the golden era of the supper club. Chains and the increasing monotony of towns and cities across the country over the last thirty years have done their work. But the restaurant, roadhouse or supper club, usually located on the now-secondary, once-primary highway routes, are still out there.

My dad’s parents were really into supper clubs in the late ’50s and ’60s. On a Friday or Saturday night, they thought nothing about hopping into the car with several friends and driving into Iowa City to The Highlander, or The Lark, in Tiffin, Iowa, for a night of steaks, chops, tossed salads, cocktails and gigantic baked potatoes. Of course, they went in style, dressed to the nines. Such was the time.

My uncle with the complimentary ‘relish tray’ at the Ced-Rel, a meal in itself!

Outside of perhaps Wisconsin, supper clubs have been in decline, but they are by no means extinct. As a devoted fan of the type, I’ve set out, often with my folks or my aunt and uncle in tow, or my brother Andy and his wife JJ, to seek out and enjoy those remaining locales. We always have a fine time. If you missed it, my uncle Dave did his own post on the elusive supper club here on RG a couple of years ago.

Enjoying a gin and tonic at the Ced-Rel, December 2014.

So, what is a supper club? Traditionally, they are found primarily in the Upper Midwest, especially Wisconsin and Minnesota, though they can be seen in Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Indiana and Ohio, and no doubt in other adjacent states, albeit in increasingly sparse numbers. Usually the ‘club’ part meant they had a stage, where there could be anything from live music to a comedian, though live bands were likely the most common.

My favorite one, and the closest one to home base, is The Cellar, in picturesque downtown Geneseo, IL. Their filet and barbecue shrimp are first rate! Another favorite is the Ced-Rel just outside of Cedar Rapids, in operation since Prohibition, when they got raided from time to time. And The Morocco in Dubuque is another recommended spot. Their prime rib is like a small roast.

Some good places have disappeared over the last ten years:

The Paddle Wheel Lounge, Bettendorf, Iowa. Closed April 2017, razed for the upcoming brand-new I-74 bridge.

Bud’s Skyline Inn, Moline, Illinois (though a revived Skyline is opening soon, unfortunately the major flooding in Davenport has sidetracked things as of this writing).

At The Lark Supper Club, circa 2003, waiting for prime rib!

So, over the past ten to fifteen years, I’ve been to several in the immediate and not-so-immediate area. And some have closed. And some I’d never heard of came to light. Which brings me to my subject for today: the Forest Inn, just a few miles outside of Morrison, Illinois, in Whiteside County.

My boss learned of my quest for finding cool old restaurants and supper clubs (she and her husband are fellow patrons of The Cellar) and told me about Forest Inn a couple years ago. She said it was excellent, and since I drive through Morrison when I go up to the lake, I figured I would get there eventually.

And so it was that last Friday, I finally made it. I was on the way up north for the LCOC Lake Shore Region meet at the Lake Lawn Resort in Delavan, Wisconsin, and decided to stop for dinner. It was Friday night, seven PM, prime time, but I figured I’d at least see if I could get a table. And I did.

My waitress, Amy, was awesome. Friends of mine, Joe and Stacy, had been there recently and echoed my boss in how good everything was. Everything on the menu looked good; they even had rainbow trout. I was like an escapee from Jenny Craig: I wanted everything. So I asked Amy what she would recommend. And since my standard order at places like this are either a steak, prime rib or some combination of surf and turf, she said I should get the beef tournedos. They were on special that night, and a very, very popular menu item.

I was not disappointed. Dinner consisted of two beef medallions, tender to a fault, bacon-wrapped, with mushrooms, in a rum-based sauce. With a giant plate of hash browns. I love hash browns. The standard potato would more likely have been a loaded baked potato with this dinner, but I wanted hash browns, dammit. So I got them. And they were great.

All dinners come with the salad bar, and this was, like many supper clubs, an extensive one. In addition to the usual salad, dressings, toppings, and coleslaw/potato salad, they also had deviled eggs, which I love. My gin and tonic was not too weak and not too strong, and garnished with a lime wedge, as it should be.

Klockau says check it out, if you ever find yourself in NW Illinois. And if you’ve been to any supper clubs lately, tell me about it! I’m always on the lookout for the next great old-line restaurant. Have Town Car, will travel.

12 Replies to “The Forest Inn: Surviving Supper Club”

  1. John C.

    Lets see, a Town Car to a supper club or an Uber Eats that brings you sushi. How on earth can the latter be the rational choice of the elite?

  2. CJinSD

    A couple of my friends used to live in a neighborhood called Golden Hill within walking distance of the Turf Supper Club. We went there for drinks quite often, but I only ate dinner there one time. Their gimmick is grill-your-own steaks, something that is much better achieved over a fire that isn’t choked down to an ambulance-chaser level of tepid. If you’re in the neighborhood, and want to see hipster dufuses living their dream, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend stopping in for a cosmo. If you’re looking for a great steak, I wish you the best of luck in your quest.

  3. Mike

    There’s a good little steakhouse in Colonial Heights, VA – Wagstaff’s. Very old school, pick your own steak sort of place. No entertainment as I recall, but a great place to get a traditional American meal without fuss or Ruth’s Chris- type prices.

    If anyone has a line on any places in central Ohio, let me know…we get out there annually to visit the wife’s family. Would like to try something different.

  4. rambo furum

    Gin and tonic seems too light for winter in my book. Is there a firm coat and tie dress code anywhere at all anymore?

  5. dejal

    Nobody owes these places (or any kind of business) their existence. “Non chain, often family owned, and in existence for decades.” And the descendants think “Too much effort for the reward”. Usually happens in the 3rd generation. And they are probably correct.

    A lot of long time restaurants also don’t advertise effectively. They figure they didn’t have to in the past, why waste money on something they never needed before?

  6. Rj

    I thought the word “surviving” in the title was an adverb when I first saw it, and not an adjective. I was expecting an adventure story.
    Oh well. I still enjoyed it

  7. scotten

    I live in the Chicago suburbs and always wanted to go to a supper club. I guess I need to try harder! Thanks for the story, Tom.

  8. WildcatMatt

    I’ve eaten at the Skyline!

    When my wife and I were dating, we would do Thanksgiving with my grandparents in Iowa and to get reasonable airfare for her to come in from Boston at the holiday I had to be creative. One year I found a flight in to the Quad Cities airport that was a perfect fit — left work a little early and drove down from Rockford to pick her up, then we ate a the Skyline and drove the rest of the way to west central Iowa.

    My parents had a summer house at Lake Summerset not far from Pecatonica. Dad and I would go up on weekends to fix the place up. Usually that meant going up to Brodhead for dinner. We were fans of Flynn’s Steakhouse which wasn’t the the sprawling roadside place I think of when I read “supper club” but it was very much the mom-n-pop bar-n-grill in a small midwest town.

    I remember three things about Flynn’s. One is the potato casserole they had — Cracker Barrel’s hash brown casserole comes close but isn’t the same. Two was the time I ordered the 16oz filet they had on special which turned out to be a miniature roast. And three was the ghost stories: the building was once a hotel and the restaurant owner claimed firsthand experience with the paranormal in the building.


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