The Impulsive Traveler: Details, Madison, Wis.
We took off through the rolling green farms, expecting to arrive at the Austin of the Midwest. We certainly found a progressive city, with lots of stray demonstrators still shouting “Walker must go!” — days after the results of the election that failed to recall Gov. Scott Walker — on the steps beneath the city’s magnificent capitol dome.
But we also discovered something very different, which we jokingly came to call Mad Men Madison. We practically expected Don Draper, seductively smoking a Lucky Strike, to belly up to one of the many dark wood supper clubs that have popped up in recent years around Madison and its outskirts, reclaiming the glory of America in the 1950s, when the country was hopeful and growing and there were always endless gimlets, sidecars and Gibsons, served with a pearl onion, to drink.
The supper clubs of the past were the underground speakeasies of the Prohibition years, filled with flappers and men in suits, and later the dinner-and-dancing venues of the Big Band era. Today, Wisconsin’s supper clubs generally serve only supper — largely hearty fare such as prime rib, fish fry and lobster — and are family-owned, with the family often living above the restaurant so that a member is always on hand to cook the food.
Filmmaker Ron Faiola, who made a 2011 documentary called “Wisconsin Supper Clubs: An Old-Fashioned Experience,” said that the clubs are generally frequented by regulars, and if they don’t show up, “the owners might call” to see whether everything’s okay.
“It’s just a more personalized service and more friendly, versus a person at Applebee’s who just earns a wage and goes home,” Faiola said. “It’s traditional, it’s comfort, the places are usually located with a scenic view of the lake.”
That kind of nostalgia all sounds very hipsterish. But in Madison, it somehow exists without all the irony and snark.
My husband and I decided to hit the aptly named Old Fashioned, which lured us in with a retro poster of its namesake: an old-fashioned, pierced with an orange and topped with a cherry. Plus it’s supposed to have “the best cheese curds in Wisconsin,” according to a reviewer on Yelp.