Ah, To Be Kids Again
Julie Mautner / June 2013
In Milwaukee, the Bartolotta boys, Joe and Paul, seduce with a love letter to the Wisconsin-style supper clubs of their youth.
As kids growing up in the Milwaukee suburb of Wauwatosa, Joe and Paul Bartolotta loved family outings to supper clubs—the icy relish trays, the crackers in cellophane, and the warm dinner rolls. And what kid didn’t love that ball of orange cheese you could smear on everything? Of course, Joe and Paul loved the huge baked Idahoes slathered with sour cream and butter but also the “fancy” appetizers such as shrimp cocktail. Most of all, the Bartolotta brothers loved the mains: the prime rib, the char-broiled steaks, and fried perch. And then there were the desserts: cheesecakes, hot fudge sundaes, pies à la mode. Joe and Paul loved all of it—the naugahyde banquettes, the taxidermy, that Hamm’s Beer sign with the bear and flowing waterfall. Sometimes, there was a pool table in the bar, or a pinball machine, or a few bowling lanes out back. Heaven!
And now that Joe and Paul have opened—not one, but two—suburban Milwaukee restaurants paying homage to this cherished icon, one wonders, “What took them so long?”
The new restaurant is named Joey Gerard’s, and they call it a “modern Wisconsin-style supper club.”
Driven by a passion for food instilled by their large Italian family, the Bartolotta brothers launched their flagship, Ristorante Bartolotta, in 1993. By the time they opened their first Joey Gerard’s in late August 2012, the Bartolotta Restaurant Group had grown to include eight fine dining and two casual eateries, three catering facilities, and three franchised airport restaurants. Joe (not a chef) oversees day-to-day operations; Paul (a chef) has his own high-end seafood restaurant at the Wynn hotel in Las Vegas but remains heavily involved in the company back home. Their sister Maria runs one of three popular catering venues. The company has almost 1,000 employees.
Ask anyone from Wisconsin about “supper clubs” and first you’ll get reminiscences about the best one ever. People agree that the setting is usually rural and preferably on a lake; the decor is casual, and wood paneling is big. The large menu features standard fare, such as prime rib, steaks, fried and broiled fish, roasted duck, pork chops, and the like…but heavy on the steaks. There’s always a relish tray…and a breadbasket…and a menu that hasn’t changed in years. Customers are meant to start and end the evening with cocktails at the bar, where there may or may not be live music. Because the club was in middle of nowhere, you were meant to stay all evening. Which was always a treat, because supper clubs are family-run and extremely friendly.
You wouldn’t look at Joey Gerard’s and think “Wisconsin supper club” right off. The decor is more refined, inspired not by lakeside log cabins but rather by legendary Hollywood icons like the original Brown Derby and Ciro’s. Both of Joey Gerard’s locations—one in the southern suburb of Greendale, the other in the northern suburb of Mequon—already had high vaulted ceilings, a big plus. Handling interior design work himself, Joe Bartolotta chose tropical green-leaf carpets, textured wallpaper, plantation blinds, and period light fixtures. Black leather booths and vintage black-and-white photos subtly play up the Hollywood theme.
The only nod, really, to woodsy supper club decor is a large moose head that had hung in a northern Wisconsin restaurant for 40 years; Joe bought it at the Wisconsin State Fair. And still, “Joey Gerard’s is so nostalgic for me in so many ways,” he says. “We’re serving the simple food I grew up with. I had an Italian father and a German mother, and we had a great mix of food. Joey Gerard’s has so many of my own personal favorites from our family dinner table.” “This is our family,” Paul chimes in. “This is what we ate. This is what my parents’ friends ate.”
The Greendale restaurant, with 325 seats, opened in late August 2012 in a building that dates to 1938. Once called Taste of Home, the restaurant later became Heinemann’s and then the Harmony Inn. It sits on a prominent corner in an old-timey shopping district, five blocks from one of the city’s major malls.
In addition to a large bar area and four dining rooms, Joey Gerard’s Greendale has a 2,000-square-foot-kitchen, three huge walk-ins, separate rooms for dry storage and liquor, staff locker rooms with showers, and more. “I can’t imagine what it would have cost us to fit out this restaurant from scratch,” says the Bartolottas’ operations director, John Wise, of the leased space.
The Greendale restaurant serves 2,000 people a week and 600 or so on Saturdays, when breakfast and lunch are also offered.
The second Joey Gerard’s, with 200 seats, opened five weeks later, in the affluent suburb of Mequon in a riverfront building. Whereas most of the work in the Greendale location was done in the front of house, the kitchen in Mequon was completely gutted and replaced.
“It was very challenging opening two restaurants within five weeks of each other on completely opposite sides of town,” Wise reports. “Hiring in the suburbs is always harder than staffing downtown. There are no universities or bus lines in the suburbs. We had to run job fairs twice as long as normal.” Wise says the saving grace was that, since the two restaurants shared a concept, certain decisions—uniforms, graphic design, menus, furniture, artwork, etc.—only had to be made once.
A big part of the Joey Gerard’s experience is the “Drink Like It’s 1958” bar menu, with 11 classic cocktails ($6 and $7), such as Manhattans, Korbel Sidecars, and Rob Roys. The biggest seller is the brandy Old Fashioned; Greendale might pour 500 of them a week. (Wisconsinites drink more domestic brandy than any other state.)
Tropical drinks ($8) such as Mai Tais, Singapore Slings, Mojitos, and Zombies are served in 12-ounce tiki glasses festooned with tiny umbrellas. Ice cream drinks (Brandy Alexanders, Grasshoppers, and Golden Cadillacs) are $8 for eight ounces.
The restaurants both offer 50 wines priced under $50, while Mequon stocks higher-end wines as well. A dozen wines are available by the glass, along with 15 bottled beers and 11 on tap. The Milwaukee-made Sprecher root beer is on tap as well. Drinks are expected to be 35 percent of sales.
Seated for lunch or dinner, guests nibble from a breadbasket and relish tray while perusing the large menu. Many choose an appetizer Lazy Susan to start. There’s a $9.95 assortment (summer sausage, bread-and-butter pickles, almond-crusted cheddar ball) and an $18.50 version (adding Braunschweiger, Gruyère, smoked trout, deviled eggs, broccoli slaw, and pickled beets). All Lazy Susan items are also available à la carte ($2.50 to $4.95).
Among the offerings are three legendary Wisconsin brands: Usinger’s sausage (founded in 1880), Ma Baensch herring (since 1932), and Merkts cheese (1950s).
Starters include Bookbinder’s red snapper soup (adapted from the legendary Philadelphia restaurant’s snapping turtle soup), grandma’s chicken noodle soup (add a matzo ball for 95 cents), oysters Rockefeller, shrimp cocktail, and Waldorf salad.
Entrées revisit such classics as beef Wellington, trout amandine, steak Diane, and broasted chicken (cooked in a pressure fryer). Everything is served with sides (creamed spinach, button mushrooms, etc). There are also sandwiches, burgers, pastas, salads, and a kids’ menu. Bananas Foster, Schaum Torte, German chocolate cake, and pie of the day ($5.95) are typical desserts.
Friday night fish fries are a beloved Wisconsin tradition, and the Bartolottas made sure theirs was superb. Batter-dipped Atlantic cod is fried crispy, served with potato cakes or fries, coleslaw, and tartar sauce. Greendale does 150 to 175 plates each Friday; Mequon around 100. Overall, fish fries account for 30 to 40 percent of Friday food sales. Meanwhile, pan-fried lake perch, pan-seared trout, salmon, and whitefish are all mainstays on the everyday menu. Joey Gerard’s was the first Midwest restaurant to install a Josper by Wood Stone charcoal oven, which cooks meat, seafood, and vegetables at more than 700 degrees. Extremely popular in Spain, where they were first produced, the ovens are relatively new to the States. Bartolotta’s corporate chef Adam Siegel says he and the two Joey Gerards’ executive chefs—Joe Schreiter in Greendale and Andrew Ruiz in Mequon—are thrilled with them.
The success of Joey Gerard’s indicates that, once again, the Bartolottas knew exactly what Milwaukee was hungry for. This time around, Milwaukee wanted authentic, familiar, comforting, and homegrown.
“Joey’s did a great job of capturing the retro vibe of a 1950s supper club,” says Ron Faiola, who celebrates the genre in his recent film and book (see sidebar). “One of the supper club owners I interviewed lamented, ‘They’re not building new supper clubs anymore.’ And no sooner had the movie come out than Bartolotta’s opened Joey Gerard’s. The timing to me seems perfect, as people are tired of chain restaurants and they love to relive old memories.” Speaking of memories, why the name Joey Gerard’s? “Gerard’s my middle name, and my mom called me that when I was in trouble,” Joe explains. “It was a name we all heard a lot.”
A Colorful Past"Julie Mautner"
Wisconsin supper clubs first appeared in the 1930s. Many started off as dance halls, roadhouses, and taverns.
“They were often in isolated areas,” reports Wisconsin native Ron Faiola, whose 2011 documentary Wisconsin Supper Clubs: An Old-Fashioned Experience led to a just-released coffee-table book with the same title. “And during Prohibition, they usually had the cooperation of local authorities. It was natural that they’d keep serving liquor. One of the supper club owners in my book told me the sheriff would get a tip that the feds were moving in, and he’d help them move the booze and gaming machines until the raid was over.”
Today, Faiola says, the phrase “supper club” conveys a scenic location with a north woods or lake country feel, a unique atmosphere, a certain level of service and quality. They’re unequivocally family-run.
And what about the food? “It was always tasty,” says David McAninch, who grew up in Chicago, spent summers in Wisconsin, loved supper clubs, and wrote about them in 2011 for the New York Times. “Supper clubs were doing custom-cut dry-aged steaks long before the practice became an urban fetish, and the vibe was always pure Wisconsin gemütlichkeit, leavened by a lively mix of locals and vacationing families.”
Despite its popularity with a new generation of diners, many see the supper club as an endangered species. “They’ve been a dining tradition for generations,” Faiola says. “But as corporate chains increase, are these family-owned establishments fading away? Supper clubs are such a big part of Wisconsin’s food culture.”
Faiola, for his part, is doing his best to document and celebrate the tradition. In April, he was the guest of honor at Joey Gerard’s for two “author dinners” based on his new Wisconsin Supper Clubs book. The dinners, priced at $55 per person, including one copy of the book per couple, sold out three weeks before the event.