Like olives, mayonnaise and the eighth grade, Creekside Supper Club can either draw excitement or fear, depending on who you ask.
"We were squealing," an acquaintance told me, still buzzing from her recent visit. The pleasures of supper clubs certainly can be affecting for those familiar with their rituals, down to the look and feel.
At Creekside in Minneapolis, which opened just before the new year, I'm told the aesthetic has been nailed down to a T. See: floral carpet that matches those grandma curtains slung in frocks. The wood paneling that looks and smells like a throwback, too. Dim, fluorescent lighting that lingers like smoke. The cigarette machine. The retro TV. The cat motifs littered throughout the walls, and a dusty glass case in the corner that enshrines them. And, right by the host booth, an oversized rock waterfall formation, sprouting with leaves and coins — much like the relics my old-school, money-grubbing Singapore dentist used to keep in his office.
Three visits were enough to make me understand the appeal of being trapped in what felt like an episode of "The Twilight Zone." It will likely take more than that for me to embrace Creekside as fully as its target audience: the ones in the know — the ones who appear to genuflect at the altar of what (I'm told) is a slightly more upscale take on the classic Wisconsin supper club.
Said otherwise: I'm out of my element.
Supper clubs, I learn, are as sacred to the state's culture as hobnobbing academic clubs are to Boston and dim sum parlors are to Hong Kong. They're classy and — varyingly — clubby, but never stuffy. You go with friends, have a laugh and stay for a bit. It's not the place to conduct business deals. When the weather turns, supper clubs almost always remain open; snowmobile parking spots are common in more rural parts of the state. "You just put on your coat over your fancy clothes and go," a supper club vet says.
So revered are they that the rituals never change, like the fish-fry offerings, prime ribs and surfeit of sides — always served in portions big enough to feed an army. And the cocktails, too, don't waver from their original recipes: There's the Wisconsin-style Korbel brandy Old-Fashioned, which resembles the contents of a lava lamp and is as sweet as Robitussin. After my first sip, I wasn't sure whether to ride that sugar high or book a return visit to my fortune-seeking dentist.
When co-owners Ward Johnson, Eddie Landenberger, and Eli Wollenzien transformed the space that was formerly El Burrito/Pepitos with all the (quaint) trimmings, they clearly were all in.
Wollenzien (of Coalition and Red Sauce Rebellion) created the menu and left Grant Halsne in charge of the kitchen. Under their watch, Creekside's food is classic and easygoing. That's why there's something for everyone, including vegetarians. The complimentary relish tray, for one, is always a treat, while the deep-fried discs of cheese, nearly eclipsing each salad bowl, ensure that you won't go hungry.
And like the 7-Up that supper clubs use to top their sweet Old-Fashioneds, the charm is effervescent, never patronizing. You're never pressured to leave — that's why patrons linger — and the ask to be yourself feels genuine. That sentiment may extend to the service. Dishes arrive fondly with a thud, sides are sometimes forgotten and, on the odd occasion, staffers provide cryptic non-sequiturs. A request for the check made to another server was returned with one. "I'm sure your server will know to give it to you."
There's no room to fuss, and Creekside is not the place for it. Yes, the corn soup tastes like sweet cream, butter and not much corn, but it comes piping hot and its richness is soothing. Likewise, Creekside's onion soup may not come with the taut blanket of Gruyère, but its flavor is true.
At Creekside, as it is with other classics, you are never expected to finish your meal. A "queen" cut of prime rib, the smaller of two cuts, is about as big as the cross section of a tree branch; the fish-fry pieces are shaped and sized like bulbous, elongated potatoes; and the enormity of the chicken wings convinced me they come from a breed of birds that have been radioactively juiced to abandon.
But size notwithstanding, the wings lack seasoning, and the drums are dry. Two out of the three fish fries (cod and a meatier, less flaky perch) were soggy on separate occasions. Despite uniform pink cookery, that prime rib is so tough that you can bounce a quarter off it.
And several other club classics fell flat in execution. Popovers, generous and hot as they may be, are doughy; the cheese curds in an otherwise wholesome (a la carte) order of relish tray are fine, but lukewarm; I was told by my server that the hash browns are "secretly the best thing on this menu," and they are, true to word, crisp. But they also smell of old oil, reused as frequently as the lone Peloton machine in my building.
If Creekside dialed down on sugar, select dishes could work more in its favor. An apple walnut salad comes fearlessly sweetened with cider vinaigrette and brims with candied walnuts that recall jawbreakers. "It's so supper-clubby, though," an acquaintance tells me, probably giddy and high from them. A grilled shrimp cocktail has the same effect.
Is all there is to Creekside just comfort, albeit with varying degrees of success? When you pay $15 for salad and $34 for a crab-stuffed walleye that doesn't taste much like or contain crab, you have a right to judge.
As did I, from my first few visits. But my latest yielded an entirely different dining experience, when dishes were executed with the finesse rarely seen among better establishments around. A bone-in pork chop, bewitched with so much brine that its flesh became so tender, is the juiciest one I've had in recent memory. I'm thinking about it still.
So is the beef short rib, which is just firm enough to shiver apart. It's glazed and sits on a dark moat of red-wine pan sauce, thickened with incredible body and depth.
So is the salmon, a thick slab with good crust and a doneness calibrated to such a pitch-perfect medium-rare that I remained in its gastronomic fugue from first bite to last. The accompanying green beans are an equal revelation: snappy with just a hair of spice.
So is the chocolate moelleux, otherwise known as lava cake. It sure is dated but timeless, especially when the chocolate holds and the underbaked interior batter spills out ceremoniously, as it does here.
These dishes convince me that Halsne really can cook. That his devotion to supper club tradition is not so slavish as to preclude the fancier dishes that you should order, too.
I certainly will the next time I return.
Creekside Supper Club
Location: 4820 Chicago Av. S., Mpls., 612-354-3675, creeksidemn.com
Hours: Tue.-Thu. 4-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 4 p.m.-midnight, Sun. 4-10 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers $9.50-$19; soups and salads $9-$16; entrees $15-$39; desserts $9. Entrees come with sides, which includes the supper club staple of cottage cheese.
Beverage program: A full line of throwback cocktails as well as respectable beer and wine lists, which lean into nostalgia with offerings like white zin and Asti Spumante.
Don't miss: Save room for after-dinner drinks, which can easily stand in for dessert. Choices range from Bailey's Irish Cream ($7) to Brandy Alexanders and Grasshoppers (both $10).
What the stars mean:
⋆⋆⋆ Highly recommended
Jon Cheng is the Star Tribune's restaurant critic. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at @intrepid_glutton.