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Entries in Old Fashioned: The Story of the Wisconsin Supper Club [2015] (1)

Thursday
Jan282016

Old Fashioned: The Story of the Wisconsin Supper Club (2015)

Dinner Under the Dome

What do you call a family-owned eatery with numbered patron cards on the tables; t-shirt-wearing waiters whose considerable beers-'n-brats guts drape over their jeans; and a menu that includes steak, fried fish, ice cream, and drinks? Most folks would call that a "restaurant". In Wisconsin, it's a "supper club".

To be fair, supper clubs have a few distinct characteristics. Some are neon-accented architectural marvels designed to get travelers off the highway and in front of a home-style dinner. They also serve relish-tray appetizers, feature some form of live entertainment, and boast a clientele so old, white, and moneyed that they can afford to eat at their favorite spot multiple times a week. To hear supper club patrons speak, "chain restaurants" have flushed the American dining experience down the toilet, pulling good food, social graces, and community down with them.

That's crazy, of course, but it's the kind of crazy Holly De Ruyter peddles in her documentary, Old Fashioned: The Story of the Wisconsin Supper Club. On the surface, this hour-long look at the history of supper clubs is a benign trip down memory lane. Look closer, and you'll see lead paint chipping off De Ruyter's merry mosaic of Americana. The film plays like any mid-Saturday Travel Channel program; its photo-montages, talking-heads, and jazzy soundtrack don't push the form of such shows. One might expect as much from a movie with "Old Fashioned" in the title, but the bland presentation is a gateway to an insidious undercurrent: the dangerous dark side of nostalgia.

The interview subjects are mostly supper club owners and patrons, with some Wisconsin historians and a government official thrown in for legitimacy. They all speak proudly of their rural hangouts, insisting that Wisconsin (the supper club capital of the universe) offers dining experiences unlike any other. The servers are friendly; the owners are always there; the food is farm-to-table fresh; there's no rush to eat; everyone knows the regulars, and the regulars will loudly greet each other from across the restaurant. Wisconsinites also know the "secret knock" of ordering a real Old Fashioned, one made with brandy instead of whiskey. The whiskey thing is a big problem when traveling outside the state, because it's really hard, apparently, to tell bartenders in L.A., Chicago, and New York what you want in your drink.

Pardon my cattiness, but the attitudes put forth in Old Fashioned are more country club than supper club. One could modify the Conservative cliché about rural folk clinging to their guns and God to include "grub", as evidenced by the constant references to the nightmarish food wasteland surrounding Wisconsin--an evil network of like-branded boxes run by conveyor-belt robots and patronized by sheep.

If you've literally never left Wisconsin, I can understand Old Fashioned's attraction. Those of us who live elsewhere might bristle at the creepy Stepford quality of De Ruyter's subjects. For them, restaurants seem to exist on a three-point spectrum: high-falutin' expensive French places on one end; McDonald's/Olive Garden at the other; and the vaunted supper club standing tall in the middle.

De Ruyter doesn't interview anyone who's had a bad experience at a supper club, much less anyone who was anything less than enthralled. Neither does she talk with managers/owners of the chains her subjects so vehemently detest (are they really dead-eyed middle-managers who don't care about the people they serve?). Old Fashioned is so insular I wouldn't be surprised to learn that most of De Ruyter's supper club patrons have never been to one of the places they decry, or at least not in a long time. Their generic ramblings about "the way things used to be" and adamant defenses of the supper club as the last bastion of something-or-other sound less like informed opinions and more like well-honed talking points.

In my experience, which is important as a viewer of a film that purports to tell a truth, if not the truth, I found very little to connect with. I've had great service and decent food at a Chick-Fil-A. I've felt positively ignored at a high-end place in London. I regularly visit a family-owned "flapjacks-to-nite-caps" restaurant in the Chicago suburbs, whose patrons are diverse in age and ethnicity, and whose manager rolls up his sleeves to deliver food and jokes whenever his staff needs him. I've never been asked to leave for lingering too long, mostly because I'm usually ready to go home after I eat.

Meanwhile, in Wisconsin, supper clubs are dying. It's unclear that there are enough family-owned traditions left to sustain these alleged boutique eateries, especially as more accursed "chain restaurants" pop up, with claims of "traditional", "neighborhood", and "family" dining experiences. No one likes to see people lose their jobs, or watch places with personality shutter their windows. But times change. Tastes change. Businesses, by definition, must change. Hell, even traditions change. I'm sure that at the dawn of the supper club, there was a vocal group of morally outraged, elderly Wisconsinites who couldn't understand why anyone would pay to have a stranger make their dinner ("If you want a home-cooked meal, stay home!").

Having said all that, yes, I would visit a supper club. I wouldn't go out of my way to find one, since it's not clear that the experience differs greatly from any number of options that are available within a ten-minute drive from my house. Before watching Old Fashioned, I envisioned a "supper club" as a classy throwback to an earlier time, a place where people dressed up to go out, eat top-notch food, and enjoy a live band (who would also be dressed to the nines). Unfortunately, the modern incarnation, as steeped as it is in tradition and nostalgia, shares more than you'd expect with its perceived corporate rivals, beyond a highly effective branding campaign.