Fitting into the trend of comfortable, cozy, and comforting restaurants, chef Joe Papach opened The Harvey House in Madison, Wis., with his wife Shaina two years ago. But instead of a casual sort of eatery often associated with that genre, he modeled his concept on the Midwestern supper club, giving a touch of elegance to the operation.
"We fell in love with the celebratory slowdown that happens at the supper club, where they order the extra drink or get the dessert," said Shaina Papach, who's the restaurant’s creative director. "We wanted to take some elements of that style of dining that resonated with us."
One aspect of the supper club setting came in the design. Papach loved the traditional wood paneled walls and the way they help provide the warmth expected in these venues, but she also added an open kitchen — a detour from the supper club model of the 1960s, but one that brings extra hominess to the space, she said.
Given that Wisconsin is home to more than 200 traditional supper clubs, the Papaches had a lot of fodder to inspire them, including the original trailblazing locales such as Door County's Sister Bay Bowl, which launched in 1964, and Roepke’s Village Inn Supper Club in Chilton, which has operated since 1963.
"We wanted to create a restaurant that made people think, 'Wow we are in Wisconsin,'" said Shaina Papach, a Madison native. Plus, she added, "many supper clubs have classic combos of things that we already loved, so Joe took his techniques and years of cooking and applied that to the traditions of a supper club."
Joe's pedigree includes a recent six-year stint at The French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., as well as time at Quince and Cotogna in San Francisco, and Gramercy Tavern in New York City. The couple met while working at Gramercy Tavern, and Shaina's résumé also includes time at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., as well as working with Alice Waters' Edible Schoolyard Project, and at the Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture in Pocanticoo Hills, N.Y.
Other supper club style fare served at The Harvey House includes starters such as shrimp cocktail ($18), smoked kielbasa in a blanket ($18), and chicken liver mousse with Port wine jelly ($16). Perhaps the most supper club-like dish is the relish tray for two. The colorful $18 plate comes with jewel-like crudités, smoked salmon dip, deviled eggs, rye crisps, house-made bread-and-butter pickles, and a bowl of airy, whipped ranch dressing to dip the vegetables in.
"For the relish tray we didn't want to just put raw vegetables on a plate with a pint of ice the way most supper clubs do. We wanted to give it more substance " said Joe, who compresses the vegetables in a light salt-sugar bath.
Shaina added, "The point is to start your pallet off with a nice, bright flavor and not fill you up. We wanted to get people's taste buds going and to start the meal off in a fun way."
Also on the menu is Joe's take on the classic wedge salad ($15) that uses local bacon and house-made blue cheese dressing. The onion soup ($12) is glammed up with melted Roth Alpine Grand Cru cheese and brioche nestled on top the rich, onion-filled broth, and the spinach salad ($14) features warm bacon dressing and deviled eggs. All the portions are Midwestern hearty, making for meals best shared with others for maximum tasting.
Another way the Papaches work the supper club idea into The Harvey House is through service. Shaina stressed how they try to be warm and friendly, leaning toward saying yes to things whenever possible. Before opening, the couple searched second-hand stores for kitchen pieces from Wisconsin history, such as the vintage cake stands used to serve the relish tray and vintage glasses for after-dinner pours of amaro.
Even the space and name of the restaurant tap into history. The Harvey House is located in Madison’s historic train depot, dating back to 1903. The actual kitchen is in the old baggage claim house, and guests can book private dining and parties in a vintage train car parked on the now defunct railroad track.
As for the name, it comes from railroad history too: Fred Harvey's famous line of Harvey Houses, a restaurant chain attached to hotels at railroad stations launched in 1876.
While the Madison restaurant was never a real Harvey House — in fact the company never came to Wisconsin at all — Joe wanted to pay homage to the history and how it relates to trains and the service industry. He said it’s all about the art of hospitality/
Overall, the Papaches don't want to change Wisconsin’s rich supper club culture, but instead add to the history while giving the concept a modern makeover in order to keep the tradition going. It's easy to see how the couple achieved their goal, after a Martini (or two), a relish tray, salad and an entrée, diners may not want to leave. Instead, they stay, ordering yet another drink and dessert to keep the evening going.