1. Find a house on a piece of land far from anywhere else. At night, the only significant light sources should be the headlights of passing cars, and the blazing electric sign out front with the name of the place. Suitable names include “Hideaway,” “Valley Bar,” “Elmo’s Place,” or any other name likely to draw a wince from an ad agency hipster.
2. Remove most of the interior walls of the house, leaving only what is needed to keep the roof up, and to separate the industrial-scale kitchen in the back.
3. Install a 20-foot-long bar immediately inside the entrance, then fill every other bit of available space with sturdy, minimalist tables and bent-metal-framed chairs with token padding. Cover the tables with flannel-backed vinyl tablecloths. Leave just enough space between the tables that you can pull a chair out and sque-e-e-ze in to sit down. Arrange the tables in strict geometrical rows. No precious feng shui conversation islands here.
4. Clear an area outside for the parking lot. This should be big enough to allow about half of the crowd of pickup trucks that will jam the location every night. Overflow traffic will line the adjacent two-lane road. Deep irrigation ditches along these roads are optional, but are encouraged.
5. Open the doors. The place will immediately fill with large, kind, boisterous, friendly, hungry people. They have been working all day together, and now they are coming in to continue their day with each other, and to greet other members of their far-flung community. Average table occupancy is eight; a four-top is considered an intimate party, and two-tops are an oddity. Lone diners will almost certainly be dragged into a larger group.
6. When a group is seated, place a “relish tray” on table (see mandatory Facebook “food on a plate” picture). This tray contains ice-cream scoops of (I am not making this up ) braunschweiger, beer cheese, krab [sic] salad, and a small bowl of ranch dressing. All this, plus crackers, celery, carrots, and assorted other noshes make for an appetizer course to rival a complete meal in many urban bistros.
7. Present the menus. These are laminated cards printed sometime around 1957. Popular entrees include several types of steak, pork chops, prime rib, and, for the discerning palate, chicken cordon bleu. These are also about the only entrees, because why would you want to go out and order anything else? Fer cryin’ out loud, if you want pizza you can drive to Dubuque. Side dishes include steamed vegetables, cottage cheese, and my favorite, coleslaw. The latter is made with approximately 60% mayonnaise, 20% sugar, 20% cabbage, and a dash of salt. Delicious; I had two helpings. Couldn’t quite bring myself to try the bacon-wrapped cheese curds, though.
8. Don’t ask for a wine list. But try some of that Spotted Cow Beer. Or the Miller Lite.
9. Bring out the slabs of meat. There is something in the air out here that enables people to cook meat to an exalted, taste-bud-spraining, enlightenment-inducing level of perfection. It probably helps that they keep all the best meat for themselves, and ship the rest out of state, but there is real skill at work here.
At our table we have a prime rib the size of a Buick, a ribeye steak that would barely fit on a queen-size bed, a pork chop that could roof a small house, and an aren’t-we-special order of the chicken cordon bleu, the making of which must have decimated an entire henhouse. All around us people are tearing into similar dishes with a sort of genial ferocity. It doesn’t seem to matter that serving sizes are some multiple of the holding capacity of the human stomach; most of the people present do hard physical work for a living, and they need the fuel. The motto of this place should be, “The Best of Everything, and Too Much, Please.”
10. Have a drink for dessert. This is a hallmark tradition. Take a scoop of Vanilla ice cream and pour some form of liquor over it. These drinks go by names like “Grasshopper,” “Dreamsicle Floatini,” and “Dirty Banana.” The idea is to make up for any shortfall of alcohol, sugar, and fat that you might somehow have experienced thus far.
11. Stick around. Supper clubs are rural social nodes, places where relationships can be nurtured and maintained over a lifetime, where generations of people can keep track of each other, share stories, greet strangers, celebrate with and console each other. To be that kind of place, you need to be a constant, over generations. Like a church where you can laugh out loud.