In the Dells, Wally’s House of Embers stays in the family
June 6, 2013 5:42PM
House of Embers supper club has been a Wisconsin Dells landmark for the past 50 years. | Paul Natkin
DINE & SIGN
Author Dave Hoekstra will sign copies of “The Supper Club Book,” 6 p.m. June 28, at House of Embers, 935 Wisconsin Dells Pkwy. (Highway 12), Wisconsin Dells, Wis., where you can enjoy traditional supper club appetizers and the music of Billy Anderson. More info: (608) 253-6411; houseofembers.com
Updated: July 10, 2013 6:02AM
EDITOR’S NOTE: Supper clubs are as Midwestern as cheese curds and prime rib. While the first was established in Beverly Hills, Calif., Chicago Sun-Times reporter Dave Hoekstra makes the case for the enduring icons in the just-released “The Supper Club Book: A Celebration of a Midwest Tradition” (Chicago Review Press, $29.95). Here is an excerpt.
The warmth of an old supper club can suggest the wonderment of a new experience. Implied promise is found in romantic lighting, linen napkins, and gentle demeanor. The House of Embers is one of those places.
I’m sitting in the fifty-some-year-old Wisconsin Dells supper club in search of a good martini. I am surrounded by classic Wisconsin sandstone, the late 1950s building material that mimicked the rectangular geometry of modern art. The stone is native to the Dells. I love the fuzzy feeling it creates.
I see colorful touches that adorn the seven-thousand-square-foot supper club like flowers on a dress. Originally a broom closet, the Omar Sharif Room — a romantic love shack — seats two. The room has mauve-colored walls and is adorned with sweeping leopard-print curtains. Photos of Sharif from his best movie roles hang throughout the space. The concept comes from Sharif’s appearance in “Funny Girl,” when he takes Barbra Streisand to dinner in a private room. Nearly four hundred marriage proposals have been made in the Sharif Room since it opened in 1976.
I call an ex-girlfriend in Los Angeles who is dating Sharif. She says he is in Madrid for the holidays and is unable to comment on his room. Despite their thirty-one-year age difference, she says Sharif kisses like he’s in the movies: He holds you close, but leans back from the head only. Then, he holds your face from underneath. She claims Sharif would never put his hand on the side of a woman’s face because it would block the camera view. That’s supper club style.
The supper club’s cocktail lounge is a mishmash of decorating ideas — Martha Stewart meets Emeril Lagasse. A ceiling lamp has a pineapple motif. Framed black-and-white photographs of Clark Gable and Elizabeth Taylor hang behind the bar as if the House of Embers were Musso and Frank in Hollywood.
The back bar and ceiling are illuminated by leaded stained-glass windows salvaged from a Wisconsin church, while a disco ball hangs near singer Billy Anderson, who plays a Hammond B-3 organ. A fan of B-3 greats like Jimmy Smith and Groove Holmes, Anderson has been playing the Dells since 1966. The remainder of the lounge’s ceiling is covered in leopard-print swagged fabric. The bar serves twenty-one martinis, including the Margatini — rocker Sammy Hagar’s Cabo Wabo tequila mixed with triple sec and lemon and lime juice, served with a salted rim. Old-fashioneds are also very popular.
The supper club also has a Humphrey Bogart Room (for two to four people) and a Rudolph Valentino Room (for four to eight people).
And it also has Wally. Wally and Barbara Obois opened the House of Embers in 1959, back when Highway 12 was a two-laner.
Wally had moved to the Dells in 1954 from Queens to check out the Midwest’s wide open spaces. Wally was born in 1927; he is retired and in failing health. Barbara died in November 2011.
Wally is humble about how the supper club got its wacky name. “Something burning with charcoal,” he tells me during a 2003 stop at the club. “When we started, we cooked with live coal — burning embers.” The supper club has used gas since the restaurant was rebuilt in 1976 behind the original Embers. Tables and chairs were carried by hand from the old supper club, now a parking lot, into the new supper club. Wally rebuilt the dining room with beams from a razed barn that were piled in a nearby field.
The House of Embers is known for its tender ribs, smoked over hot hickory logs (they don’t use chips, which can create cold smoke). The supper club makes its own barbecue sauce, which is thin and vinegary. You can taste the flavor of the meat under the sauce.
Cinnamon rolls are served before dinner. Yikes! That concept works because the rolls are airy and not heavy. Barbara created the recipe for the cinnamon rolls, which have been featured in Bon Appétit magazine. She was always circumspect about revealing the recipe, outside of saying the secret is in how she mixes the dough.
The kitchen has a couple of three-ring notebooks filled with legacy recipes from Barbara. The recipes are still used today. Most of the recipes are typed out, double-spaced.
Chefs Mark and Mike Obois, along with their sister Debbie, purchased the restaurant from their parents in 1999. Mark and Mike are graduates of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. Mark left in 2011 but Mike remains as a chef, host, and sometimes bartender. Debbie is bookkeeper and part-time hostess.
Besides the ribs, the supper club is famous for steaks, Austrian veal (flambéed with brandy and finished with cream, brown sauce, and Swiss cheese), and the supper club staple of fish, in this case breaded haddock (with caper tartar sauce), served on the Friday night fish fry.
“Clientele is much smarter now,” Mike says. “They want more flavors. Their budgets are tighter than they were years ago. They want more splash, but we still sell more ribs and steaks than anything. But 2011 was our best summer ever by far, despite the economy. After we did our outdoor addition, everybody wants to sit outside. Even though it’s a supper club, outside means more casual. It brings more people in the door.”
The House of Embers seats 180, with capacity bumping up to 250 in the summer when al fresco dining is offered adjacent to an outdoor bar. A majority of the good weather clientele comes from Chicago.
The supper club also caters to stars performing at the Crystal Grand Music Theatre, down the road at 430 Munroe Avenue. Crystal Grand guests Willie Nelson and Bill Cosby have feasted on House of Embers chicken and ribs. Late Wisconsin Dells entrepreneur Tommy Bartlett was a House of Embers regular.
Wally had friends from all walks of life. Don Koehler, “the World’s Tallest Man,” was a House of Embers visitor in the early 1960s. Koehler was eight feet, two inches tall. He did promotions for the now-defunct Big Joe’s manufacturing plant in the Dells. A picture of Wally and Koehler greet customers in the front lobby of the supper club. Wally is five-foot-five.
Koehler died in 1981 in Chicago from heart failure, by which time he was estimated to be about seven-foot-ten. He was fifty-five years old. “Dad always says he had a big heart,” Mike recalls. “Don had a specially fit car. In the summer he would drive real slow downtown and put his hand out the window to make it look like he was pushing the car. He had quite a few brothers and sisters. He has relatives from Racine who come in because we have the picture on the wall.”
Before water parks and high-tech pastimes, Doug Alii and his Tahitian Drum Dancers were one of the most popular mid-1960s acts at the Tommy Bartlett Show on Lake Delton in the Dells. The revue featured fire knives, hypnotic drumming, and women in Tahitian dress. The Samoan-born Alii was also a great golfer and the best limbo dancer in Wisconsin. “We’d do a luau at the end of every summer,” Mike says. “They’d come in and dig the pit and show us how to smoke the pig. We’d supply the pig. Everyone had a party.”
Mike was born in 1960. He looks around the dimly lit bar. The lounge and dining room are filled with antiques that Barbara collected. Mike says, “This is still kind of that old funky retro look. People go, ‘Wow, this is what it was,’” and he looks at jet black dashes throughout the bar. “My dad’s motto was ‘Everything in black,’” he says with a smile. “You can tape it or paint it and no one can tell if it is falling apart. Even parts on the outside of the building. People are amazed we’re still surviving.
“As a kid we used to walk across the street and swim in the pool at the Mayflower Motel. We didn’t have to look both ways. I remember when they widened the highway to four lanes. A lot of the old hotels have changed, but what’s changed tremendously is the water parks. That’s been very helpful to us with people spending their money in the community.”
Wally and Barbara had five children and all of them worked at the supper club at one time or another. One of Wally’s favorite motivational tactics was to scatter small change across the restaurant floor to make sure Mike swept up the restaurant with care. Co-owner Debbie was born in 1957; Linda, born in 1955, is a hostess/waitress; former co-owner Mark is involved with another area restaurant; and a third sister, Mary, works in marketing on the West Coast.
“To me, that’s what a supper club is,” Mike says. “It’s a family. Their blood, sweat, and tears are behind it. You can see their effort. Not that big companies don’t care, but this is our livelihood. Right here. If I don’t make it here with my ideas, my work, and my staff . . . I’ve got family to support. People go into a supper club and they know you’re going to see the owner, daughter, cousin, or all of them. It’s a lot of fun. People say, ‘You work all the time.’ But you’re goofing off, too.”
The youngest generation gets the supper club concept in the Dells. Congenial bartender Ian Biney was born in 1987. His favorite Billy Anderson song is the popular calypso ballad “Yellow Bird,” a rare call for a man this young. “My friends mostly understand all this,” Ian says while mixing, yes, an old-fashioned. “I say I work at a supper club. They ask when we are open and I tell them just for dinner. They’re surprised there’s no lunch. It’s dinnertime, but we still call it a supper club. ’Cause, well, dinner club doesn’t sound right.”
Barbara arrived in the Dells in 1958 and got a job at the legendary Del-Bar (named because it is the halfway point between the Dells and Baraboo, Wisconsin) supper club, across the street from the House of Embers.
Mike says, “We’re competitors, but I do yoga twice a week with Jane, the Del-Bar owner. It’s a good relationship. If we run out of something we call them; if they need a box of taters, they call us.”
Midwest supper clubs look out for each other.
“Walter was a bartender there,” Barbara told me in 2003. “That’s how I met him. He was supposed to be hip. These girls used to come in with motorcycle clothes on and go, ‘Is Walter around?’ I thought, ‘I better stay away from this guy.’ Then he asked me if he could drive me home. He knew I didn’t have a car. He had a long, pointy cream Cadillac. I figured he had money.” Wally and Barbara got married six months after their first date. Within a year of their marriage Wally and a partner bought the Embers, a nondescript restaurant and bar on Highway 12. The partner dropped out within six months and Barbara stepped in.
They made the new house their home.
Wally was born in Austria, where he lived until 1936. His parents didn’t have the money to bring him to America until he was ten. After that, he was reared by his uncle Tony Baldasti in Queens, New York. As a teenager, Wally worked as an apprentice electrician on the battleship Missouri in the Brooklyn navy yard.
Uncle Tony had his legs blown off below the knee on the Russian front during World War II. “His buddies were going to leave him,” Mark says, sitting in the restaurant’s enclosed veranda. “They thought he was going to die anyway. So he pulled out his Luger and said, ‘You better take me, or I’m going to take you.’ And he lived into his mid-eighties. Whenever his mom would go to Europe, she would take back six bottles of Slivovitz, Uncle Tony’s homemade plum brandy, in her trench coat. And when we’d go to New York, we’d bring some back. I have some here, if you’d like a sip.”
We re-adjourn to the lounge. Billy Anderson is singing Louis Armstrong’s “(What a) Wonderful World.” Someone reaches across the bar for one of those 1960s cartoon cocktail napkins with the quote “Happiness is finding two olives in your martini when you’re hungry” by Johnny Carson. A stranger suggests a toast, which is a good idea.
You are among new friends in a dark room that is illuminated by the spirit of tomorrow.
You are happy.