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Christopher Bjorke, Grand Forks Herald , Published June 10 2012

Supper clubs face challenges, but some live on

GRAND FORKS - Before “neighborhood” restaurants had corporate headquarters, before there were 24-hour cable networks devoted only to food and before anyone ever dreamed of photographing a meal to post on the Internet, going out on a Friday night involved a certain ritual.

“Dad was putting on a sport coat and a tie and Mom was putting on a dress and Lawrence Welk was on TV,” said Joel Elvrum, owner of the Ranch Steakhouse in Devils Lake.

The destination for Dad and Mom was a supper club, where they would eat steak and seafood. They could drink an old-fashioned or a brandy Alexander and they would probably run into their friends and neighbors.

The reminders of that era are scattered here and there, including Elvrum’s restaurant, the Ranch Steakhouse in Devils Lake, established in 1946, and purchased by him in 1999.

On a lively Friday night, the Ranch looks like a scene from the old days. The smartly dressed owner greets patrons by name and they discuss the night’s dining options.

“If you’re having a bad day, the owner knows your name and knows what you want to eat half the time,” said customer Mike Kenney, before interjecting, “Crab cakes! Delicious,” as server passed by with a dish.

But other places, such as the Bronze Boot in Grand Forks and the River Bend Supper Club outside of East Grand Forks, testify to the challenge of sustaining an old-fashioned dining establishment through decades of changes in tastes, lifestyles and restaurants.

The Bronze Boot closed last month after more than 50 years in business. The River Bend closed in 2004 after operating as a family-run restaurant since 1962.

“You don’t find many places left like the Bronze Boot, at least not around here,” said Marilyn Hagerty, long-time restaurant reviewer for the Herald’s Eatbeat column. “It’s just kind of passing.”

Hard to define

The definition of a supper club is hard to pin down. The words “supper” and “club” evoke a place where the meal is a special event and the setting promises a measure of luxury or exclusivity.

“It’s very important that supper clubs have linen napkins,” said Dave Hoekstra, a Chicago journalist who has written a book on Midwestern supper clubs. Beyond that specific, the category is “pretty loose and free.”

According to Hoekstra, supper club staple meals include prime rib and Friday night fish fries. The businesses are often outside of town, sometimes at a lake resort or other scenic setting. They are family-run and usually passed down from one generation to another. Customers also span generations. Food is important, but so is the businesses’ social aspect.

“These were places where people would spend the whole night back in the day,” Hoekstra said. “You’d meet people in supper clubs. Now you go on the Internet and meet people.”

Around Grand Forks, the Bronze Boot and the River Bend were the models of the supper club style, along with Whitey’s Cafe, which shared a loyal clientele drawn from around town and the rural areas.

“We always thought we were cut from the same cloth,” said Greg Stennes, Whitey’s former owner, speaking of the Bronze Boot. “Any time I went to the Boot, I saw a lot of my customers there.”

Traditional take

Supper clubs stuck with a proven menu that was augmented by attentive service and a roster of frills.

“You always got a relish tray, a bread basket and an appetizer option,” Stennes said.

Dave Homstad, co-owner of the Blue Moose in East Grand Forks, described the formula as “a higher-end product and more leisurely dining.” Menus emphasized meals done well that did not stray much beyond what was familiar to local tastes.

“With meat and potatoes and farmers, that was almost an everyday thing for them,” he said.

Hoekstra placed the supper club’s heyday in the years following World War II, at a time when the automobile was dictating people’s lifestyles more than ever before. It was also a time when people dined out less and franchise restaurant chains had not taken their place in the industry.

“When you went out to dinner, that’s where there was to go, to a supper club,” Hagerty said. The success of the supper clubs’ formula also played a role in their struggle to adapt as tastes and habits changed.

Hard to adapt

Supper clubs represented a bygone lifestyle, but they also represented a way of life.

Dennis Blackmun grew up working at the River Bend, the family business that consumed much of the family’s time.

“I really just thought that was a normal thing to do,” he said, recalling his teenage years laboring at the club.

Because of the loyalty of the restaurant’s customers, Blackmun said his family did not want to mess up a proven formula.

“We were reluctant to change because it worked for so many years,” he said.

But adherence to a formula can also keep a restaurant from adapting to new tastes, even as loyal customers stick around.

“Sooner or later, those customers are gone,” he said. “We kind of dug in our heels and said, ‘This is what we do.’”

That motto, “This is what we do,” does not carry as much weight today compared to the days when a family-run restaurant was an operation that demanded daily devotion from young and old.

“You’ve got to work your joint. You own it, you operate it,” said Kim Holmes, owner of Sanders 1907. “It’s a way of life.”

The classic supper club offered patrons meticulous service, from the owner who greeted them at the door to the servers who knew their names, their kids’ names and their favorite drinks.

“When they spend a little more, their expectations are very high, as well they should be,” Blackmun said.

The wages required to keep together a loyal staff and provide that level of service is beyond many restaurant owners’ means if they want to make a profit, Blackmun said.

“Walleye’s doubled. Shrimp has doubled and good cuts of beef have really gone up,” he said. “The margins are so tight in that business.”

Re-established tradition

Despite the changes in the restaurant business, Elvrum’s Ranch manages to create a 21st century supper club that is true to the tradition, but not stuck in it.

Elvrum and his wife bought the restaurant in 1999, returning to their native North Dakota after living in different cities around the country.

“I knew I wanted to do good old-fashioned meat and potatoes,” he said. “I saw myself as the steward of that heritage. There’s a lot here that’s bigger than me.”

The aptly named Ranch was built in a barn by Maxine and Lloyd Engh on farmland that produced food for Maxine’s family’s hotels in Devils Lake. It passed through various hands over the years, eventually falling into disrepair by the time Elvrum took over.

Today the restaurant is dark wood, chandeliers and walls covered with historic photos. But is not a museum of the past. Its changing menu features dishes the Enghs would probably scratch their heads over: pad thai, Mediterranean sea bass with fennel and sushi, which has been popular enough to make chef Aaron Killian wonder if he could install a regular sushi bar.

“It’s stuff that doesn’t happen around here,” said Killian, a Pennsylvania native who ended up with a job while driving through North Dakota on his way from Alaska back to his home state. “We kind of wanted to elevate the place.”

He and Elvrum try to nudge the area to embrace new tastes, but they still know what pays their bills.

“The menu itself is pretty traditional,” Killian said. “The biggest selling thing on the menu is ribeye. That’s never, ever going to change.”