Today’s supper clubs range from rustically retro to modern pop-ups

Chicago Tribune |
Aug 8, 2017

One of the oldest traditions in dining is the supper club. Dating back to the 1920s, fantastical structures outfitted with blazing neon and just the right amount of kitsch and whimsy popped up on rural roadsides attracting weary motorists out for a Sunday drive. They were welcoming to strangers and family-friendly, their mainstay being simple menus with large portions that were a good value for hard-earned dollars.

Flash forward to 2017 when the supper club has in some cases been re-envisioned as an exclusive, secret destination dining experience complete with private sign-up lists and pre-purchased tickets. These underground restaurants — also known as home bistros, guerrilla diners and guestaurants — are presenting a modern day version of the supper club with just a side of nostalgia.

ne of the oldest traditions in dining is the supper club. Dating back to the 1920s, fantastical structures outfitted with blazing neon and just the right amount of kitsch and whimsy popped up on rural roadsides attracting weary motorists out for a Sunday drive. They were welcoming to strangers and family-friendly, their mainstay being simple menus with large portions that were a good value for hard-earned dollars.

Flash forward to 2017 when the supper club has in some cases been re-envisioned as an exclusive, secret destination dining experience complete with private sign-up lists and pre-purchased tickets. These underground restaurants — also known as home bistros, guerrilla diners and guestaurants — are presenting a modern day version of the supper club with just a side of nostalgia.

There is Thanksgiving dinner on offer every Monday, complete with dressing, gravy and cranberry sauce ($16.95); slow-cooked pot roast with mashed potatoes and gravy on Thursdays ($16.95); and Fridays are, per tradition, reserved for a true Wisconsin fish fry where lake perch is sold by the truckload ($22.95).

“When I think of supper clubs I think of neighborhoods. It’s about family,” said Lawler espousing a sentiment that extends even to L. Wood’s staffers like Frank, who has been bartending there since 1970, and Sima, whom everyone calls “mama” and who at 90 still seats guests, albeit from a chair, at the host stand.

Customers who came as kids, return as adults and enjoy “taking selfies with their picture on the wall from when they were six,” said Lawler. “To see them keep on coming through the years and getting to know them has been awesome.”

Brian Reynolds opened Millie’s Supper Club in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood in 2015, naming it after his grandmother, “a Midwestern woman who loved sharing a good meal with friends and family.” As a little boy, Reynolds recalls accompanying his grandparents to supper clubs for what he considers his first adult meal.

“I wanted to bring this experience of a Northwoods supper club to Chicago only just to slow people down a little bit and let them know that they can come in here and relax,” said Reynolds.

Outfitted with red vinyl booths, stuffed deer heads, neon and all the things that reminded Reynolds of his grandparents’ basement, Millie’s serves traditional favorites like Schlitz and Miller High Life but, in a modern twist, it also offers six different versions of the traditional Old Fashioned cocktail.

“When you leave a supper club in Wisconsin, you just want to give everyone a giant hug,” said Reynolds. “And we would love for our customers to have that feeling about us here in Chicago without having to drive all the way up.”

Christine Cikowski and Josh Kulp, chef/owners of Sunday Dinner Club, take the supper club institution a step further still. Despite the name, the duo hold dinners not just on Sundays but 10 to 15 times a month at undisclosed locations in Chicago’s Avondale neighborhood. The dinners are referral only.

“It’s not so much about having an exclusive list,” explained Kulp. “If people email us, we are happy to put them on the list, but you can’t just randomly get in to the dinners. You have to have that connection.”

Launched in a friend’s home with eight people some 12 years ago, today SDC’s mailing list boasts more than 8,000 subscribers ranging in age from 20 to 80. The one common ground with traditional supper clubs is the pace and familial feel.

“We like to let people slow down,” Cikowski said. The generally two-hour, five-course, BYOB experience is capped by a Q&A with the chefs.

“It feels like a family dinner with restaurant quality food and a lot of folks feel like they’re having a nostalgic, connected community experience,” Kulp said.

Greg Combs, chef/owner of Goose & Fox, wanted “to be mysterious and promote the exclusiveness” of his supper club. Combs’ private dinners, held seasonally in the top floor of his apartment in Lincoln Park, work on the ticket presale business model. Diners sign up on a waiting list then pay $100 a head in advance for an eight to 10-course meal.

“It works perfectly for us because then we know exactly how much we need so there is no waste and I don’t need to be open or do anything or hire anybody if I don’t have any events,” said Combs who sees it as a diplomatic way to find the audience he wants. “By having to search a little for us and with the pre-tickets, it weeds out all the difficult people.”

Combs also believes his case-by-case approach to supper club is more sustainable. “We’re not about making money. We’re more about promoting ethical treatment of animals, sustainable practices with the environment, farming and agriculture,” he says.

But whether you prefer the retro take on supper clubs or a more modern spin, Lawler said the heart of the supper club is “the comfort of the surroundings,” which extends from the decor and the food to the service.

Media Contact

Emily Clark pr@leye.com 773-907-7347

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