In the back of the parking lot of the Hobnob, a wonderful 62-year–old supper club in Racine, Wisconsin, a sign warns drivers not to plunge their cars into Lake Michigan. There's something about the preserved-in-amber 50s-retro swank at this charming old chestnut—the off-angle arrowhead neon sign, the jumbo martini glass sloshing on the facade, the smooth stylings of house pianist Lillian Gildenstern—that makes almost everything that happens inside magic. Even the food, which under less enchanting circumstances would be considered thoroughly conventional—white-bread middle-American surf, turf, and potatoes—is likable at the Hobnob.
But let's face it: for all the affection and nostalgia many have for Wisconsin supper clubs, few of them are known for terrific food. All too common are the sickly sweet brandy old-fashioneds, limp fried fish, canned three-bean salad, tubs of melted cheddar and beer pretending to be soup, hemorrhaging heat-lamp-lit hunks of prime rib.
So it was with equal parts trepidation and excitement that I approached Millie's Supper Club in Lincoln Park, a meticulously researched facsimile of a North Woods dinner joint from proprietor Brian Reynolds, owner of another simulated neighborhood restaurant, Lincoln Park's German beer hall Prost!
From the log-cabin exterior and the ivory-tickling singers inside to the carpeted dining room, the dad beers on tap, and the pies displayed in a case, this is a little slice of cheese wedged onto Lincoln Avenue. A giant moose head presides over the bar, a pair of snowshoes hang in the dining room awaiting the next blizzard, and there's enough tufted red leather to outfit a padded cell.
And there's no cheffy upscaling of Wisconsin supper-club food. The menu is textbook: prime rib, broasted chicken, fried fish, cheese curds, walleye, meat loaf, and more. The chef Reynolds brought in to execute this time-honored cuisine is the talented Gilbert Langlois, late of North Center's Chalkboard. In an appearance on The Nocturnal Journal, the WGN radio show hosted by Dave Hoekstra, author of The Supper Club Book: A Celebration of a Midwest Tradition, Reynolds said Langlois had little experience with Wisconsin supper clubs—and yet, regrettably, the chef has somehow managed to nail it.
Take the prime rib, offered in three increasingly indigestible weights: it's roasted slow, as reported on the menu, which somehow fails to render the fat or denature the proteins on this particular grade of beef. A medium-rare order results in a chewy disaster requiring the mandibular constitution of a pit bull to put away. Served with an undercooked baked potato wrapped in foil, it's among the most discouraging endorsements for supper-club culture I've yet to come across.
The broasted chicken isn't doing the genre any favors either. Broasting is the Beloit-born method of pressure-frying chicken, which is supposed to result in more moist, less greasy birds. I'm not sure what's happening here, but the poultry emerging from the kitchen is pale blond, with a damp batter that sloughs off at the touch. Paired with limp, dry fries, it's a sad showing in a city that's significantly improved its fried chicken game in recent years. Fried cheese curds, barely melted, exhibit the same ghostly complexion, though the fried fish seems to be held to higher oil temperatures, emerging acceptably crisp if underseasoned.
Much of the food at Millie's is pallid in color, if not spirit: overcooked cauliflower drenched in Gruyere, waxy-tasting mac and cheese sprinkled with unmelted shreds, creamed spinach wholly separated from its dairy medium. Maybe the most dispiriting example of the kitchen's deficiency is the walleye: twin grayish fillets smothered in unpigmented sour-cream sauce flecked with dill. Even something as intrinsically rich and savory as French onion soup tastes as if it's been diluted.
Millie's does have a pretty good iceberg wedge, though. Drenched in peppered blue-cheese dressing and littered with bacon and cherry tomatoes, it provides some of the zestiest bites on this dreary menu.
Tables are provided, per tradition, with a standard small relish tray: canned olives, carrot sticks, green olives, radishes, and gherkins. A more deluxe version is another rare success on Millie's menu: a lazy Susan featuring Merkts-style cheddar cheese spread, smoked trout dip, liverwurst, summer sausage, chicken liver paté, pickled cherry peppers, three-bean salad, and cottage cheese. If you limited yourself to that and a Hamm's on draft, you could leave assuming nothing was amiss.
Millie's completes the picture with a selection of old-fashioneds, including the traditional sweet-and-sour brandy versions and riffs on those classic recipes, as well as postprandial ice cream drinks like the pink squirrel and the grasshopper.
At Millie's, there's so much love for supper clubs and obsessive attention apparent in nearly every detail—except the food. Maybe the truth is that you just can't take the supper club out of Wisconsin. v