The Lost Art of the Western Supper Club

Supper Club

Driving with my folks in the 1970s to dine at the Seven-Up Ranch Supper Club in Lincoln, Mont., was a big event when I was a kid. I didn’t realize it then, but the quaint décor and odd culinary touches—breadsticks with salads instead of croutons, for example, or a garnish tray that included pickled beets—were essential features of a rural phenomenon known as “supper club cuisine.”

Sadly, the Seven-Up burned when I was a teenager, and by then my tastes had shifted anyway to cheaper fare, like pizza from Little Big Men and burgers from RB Drive-in. In college I acquired more refined tastes—ethnic food and restaurants with menu items wholly alien to a place like the Seven-Up: tofu, sprouts, and cappuccino.

I didn’t think about supper club cuisine again until I moved to Great Falls, where I fell into the habit of eating at places like Borrie’s on a Friday night, where you could get a plate of baked spaghetti with brown sauce (sometimes called “gravy” on the menu at these places) that would come with half a baked chicken riding on top.

The tables all had long breadsticks accompanying salads and garnish trays with six or eight dressings. Somewhere tucked in the flow of courses would be a dish with the pickled beets, or pickled something—sometimes just pickles—and Farmers’ coffee to wash it down.

I liked eating at these places, not just for the food, which I realized now had a kind of nostalgic flavor that I savor more and more as I grow older, but because I liked to look around at the people: working class mostly, people who wore overalls and flannel shirts all day, but now the men sported western suits—the kind I hadn’t seen in years—polyester, probably, with pearl snaps, the women in sensible dresses and tortoiseshell combs in their hair.

People look happy in places like this, even if they sigh when they settle into their booth.

A few years ago I had dinner with the TV food guru Anthony Bourdain at the supper club of supper clubs in Montana—Lydia’s, down in Butte. I hadn’t eaten there since 1985, by my reckoning, the year I was a senior in high school and drove down from Helena with a girl I was hoping to impress. But in 30 years, the place hadn’t changed a bit.

The antipasto platter came out before we ordered, just as I remembered, with savory salami and pepperoncini and—their signature flourish—sweet potato salad. Every entrée came with a side of fried raviolis and French fries, and the steaks were real western steaks, served without a lot of distracting garnishes and drizzles. Because seafood seemed especially exotic to me as a kid, I had the scallops, for old times’ sake, huge shellfish medallions drenched in butter.

At the end of the meal, we got small dishes of real ice cream—Wilcoxson’s, it tasted like—which made me think of another of my favorite supper clubs, Eddie’s Club up in Great Falls, where every meal ended with a small dish of peppermint ice cream.

Eddie’s was famous for its Campfire Burger and its piano bar, where my wife and I used to go play scrabble and listen to jazz on a Friday night. Sadly, Eddie’s went the way of so many of the old supper clubs, closing after 73 years of business.

In world that changes faster than the weather in Montana, it’s comforting to find yourself in a western supper club on a Friday or Saturday night, where the food is just like you remembered, with breadsticks to nibble while you wait for a steak, and the ice cream comes at the end.

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