Like any time-tested recipe for a good meal, certain restaurants have a few things in common. When those things include an old fashioned, a Friday fish fry and Saturday night prime rib, it’s likely the venue is more than just a restaurant.
It’s a classic Wisconsin supper club.
It’s 5 p.m. June 5 at the Dorf Haus in Roxbury and people are already packing the bar and filling up seats in the German-themed supper club. It is usually closed Mondays, save for the popular Bavarian-style smorgasbord held the first Monday of every month.
Rebecca Maier-Frey, who co-manages the Dorf Haus with her brother, Monte Maier, said her parents weren’t planning a German-style restaurant when they traded their home for the 1845 built building in 1959. They were going to run a mill shop in the back of the building, a former dance hall, while continuing to run the tavern and grocery store in the front.
As fate would have it, Vern Maier went to an auction to purchase compressors for the tavern and learned restaurant equipment was part of the package. Wondering what they would do with the restaurant supplies, the Maiers put it all aside until 1961 when a truck accident sidelined Vern from his construction business. Not one to rest on his laurels, Vern Maier started tending bar, hired a cook and served all-you-can-eat fish and chicken dinners for $1. There was seating for 25 in the tavern. Later the Maiers added on to the business, expanding not only the square footage but also expanding the menu to include German food.
The Dorf Haus was born.
A treasure on the lake
Set back in the woods of Lake Delton, along the shore of Mirror Lake, springs forth Ishnala. A former ceremonial ground for the Ho-Chunk Tribe, pioneers purchased it from the tribe in 1826, establishing a trading post.
In the early 1900s, the Coleman family purchased the cabin and built their home on the property. The original stone fireplace, log walls and staircase still remain as part of the restaurant’s architecture. Ishnala was purchased in 1953 from the Hoffman brothers, building Ishnala as it looks today. About 20 years ago, Bob Prosser, a former busboy for another Hoffman-owned restaurant, worked his way up through management and took over ownership of Ishnala and maintains it to this day.
Prosser said the success of Ishnala has as much to do with its atmosphere and lake side location as it does customer service.
“We are right outside the waterpark capital of the world. You drive a mile through a winding road in the woods to get to the restaurant; Mirror Lake wraps around it. It’s going to stay the way it is forever, around hundreds of acres of nature.”
Prosser said people love to sit on the deck, listen to the sounds of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, while taking in the quiet beauty of the no-wake lake.
“It’s just such a relaxing place,” he said. “It’s like sitting on your deck at home. It’s what a supper club was meant to do.”
Supper club atmosphere
Bill Trepes is another employee turned owner, having purchased The Chapparal in Wonewoc in 2010. He bought it from Clete and Noreen Plantenberg, who owned the restaurant from 1972-2010.
“I had been working there since 1980; they just asked me one day if I wanted to buy it,” he said. “Two weeks later I agreed. I knew the business inside and out. After working at a place for 25 years you get to know a lot about it.”
Trepes said he’s been working hard to bring the Chapparal back to its original glory, while expanding hours and menu options.
“It’s always been home-cooked food made from scratch,” Trepes said. “I make everything — from the dinner rolls on up.”
As the former Johnson Inn, Jamie Cimaroli purchased the Portage-based Cimaroli’s Supper Club in 1999 from his parents. Since then he has strived to offer home-cooked, quality meals. But what makes Cimaroli’s great, he said, is the great service people get when they come.
“Customer service is our number one goal,” Cimaroli said. “I believe people should leave here completely satisfied. We really try to hold onto that and give them a true supper club experience.”
Quindt’s Towne Lounge, based in Baraboo, has been offering customers the same great experience for the past 20 years. Run by second-generation owners Ryan and Rebecca Quindt, they purchased the restaurant from Ryan’s parents, Rebecca Quindt said.
She said Quindt’s is known for its consistency — from the food to the cook and wait staff.
“Because we have had the same cook, people know when they come here they are going to get a good meal and friendly service,” Rebecca Quindt said.
Prosser, like Trepes and Maier-Frey, attributes the success of their respective businesses to a lot of hard work and good old-fashioned elbow grease — and the many small details that make each place unique.
“We’ve elevated our game; our service is top-notch from bus boy to bartender,” Prosser said of his staff at Ishnala. “I hire people with personality. You can’t train personality.”
Good service and good food at a good price. That’s the secret to the longevity experienced by Marty Kenecke, owner of Marty’s Steakhouse in Reedsburg.
Originally built by nine Reedsburg-area business people in the early 1970s, the Hill family took over the restaurant in 1974.
“Mr. Hill built onto the restaurant adding a ballroom and hotel,” said Kenecke. “He had it until 1984, then it was sold to the Teske family during a sheriff’s sale.”
Kenecke and his late wife purchased the business in 1994, formerly called the Voyager Inn, renaming the restaurant to Marty’s Steakhouse.
“We owned a property where the mobile gas station is in Reedsburg and we were going to build a budget hotel on the site,” Kenecke recalled. “The banker called and said the Voyager Inn was for sale. I had no reservations about getting into the restaurant industry.”
Kenecke has made it work. “I think to make a restaurant successful you need a decent atmosphere and a good location,” he said. “But the biggest thing you need comes from the help. If the help is good you will have a good business whatever you do. And we have very good help.”
Atmosphere and heritage are two key factors in the success of the Dorf Haus as well.
“We’ve found a niche — a Bavarian-style supper club in the little hamlet of Roxbury,” Maier-Frey said. “Our parents had the vision to see that food representing our German heritage in this region of the state would work – and it has.”
She said there are not many German restaurants in the area; certainly fewer that offer dinner theater, oomph-pa-pa-band music and banquets as well as one capable of hosting wedding receptions and polka dancing.
Stained-glass pieces, carvings and paintings depicting German scenery help create a welcoming atmosphere for guests of the Dorf Haus.
“Our guests come from a 60-mile radius to dine with us, so we want to make the experience a great one,” Maier-Frey said. “Our parents wanted to create a destination for our guests, so the more things of interest they could bring in, they did.”
While the Dorf Haus has capitalized on German fare and American specialty dishes, Cimaroli’s goes through 25,000 pounds of flat-iron steak.
“It’s our number one seller,” Cimaroli said. Cimaroli’s is also known for its BBQ ribs and its popular Friday night fish fry’s. The brandy old-fashioned is also a staple.
At Marty’s, prime rib is king. “We also do a lot of fish fry’s on Fridays,” Kenecke said.
Ishnala is as popular for its stunning lake views as it is its filet.
“It’s our number one seller,” Prosser said. “That’s never changed.” Ishnala also sells plenty of prime rib, New York strip steak, twin lobster tails and even roast duck. It doesn’t really change; it’s what we sell a majority of. We don’t change the menu much. But that’s OK, we take a lot of pride in what we serve.”
“Our parents put a huge amount of time and love into making the Dorf Haus what it is and we are proud to continue that legacy,” said Maier-Frey. “We feel fortunate to have three-generations of families as our customers.”
Groups, families and couples have been visiting Ishnala for 63 years.
“I just had a lady tell me she was here in 1954 and said it was exactly how she remembered it,” Prosser said. “Grandparents are bringing their grandchildren. The list of people coming here keeps growing. It’s become a destination.”
Follow Autumn Luedke on Twitter @Apwriter1 or contact at (608) 393-5777