Few things are as timeless as a Wisconsin supper club, though perhaps red velvet is one of them. The two come together at St. Croix Falls’ Dalles House Supper Club Restaurant and Lounge; co-owner Sonya Fry took over the restaurant on the Minnesota–Wisconsin border in fall 2005. Fry, a former employee who grew up in the restaurant business, gave the landmark a serious once over, but also made sure she didn’t change the overall atmosphere. The red velvet chairs and curtains that define a first impression at Dalles are an unforgettable element that has been in local birthday, wedding and anniversary photos for generations.
It’s Fry’s passion for upholding the club’s tradition while keeping up with the times that’s kept it popular into the 21st century. The supper club is an institution, a timeless place where the community gathers for a variety of reasons. It serves the town of 2,133 with a place for a weeknight casual dinner, a quick work lunch and weekend entertainment.
Fry was just 23 when she bought the business with partner Steve Balej. The supper club was given a thorough cleaning and touch-ups, while the bar was updated to make it both sunnier and more contemporary. The lighter wood on the bar top and the black tile floor give a convivial atmosphere that complements the community dining in the next room.
She made sure not to make significant changes. “It was a facelift, not a remodel,” Fry stresses. She added live music on Saturdays, local beer and wine options, and the Dam Burger Challenge (launched when the dam in St. Croix Falls had its 100th anniversary). However, Fry understood that the core of Dalles’s success was maintaining a brand reputation—known for high-quality food, large portions and good service—that was built before she was even born.
“The supper club really just needed a coat of paint, some updating and a new menu that honored the tradition of the Dalles House, but offered the local people and the tourists a little bit more,” Fry says. She researched Dalles’s classic recipes, reviving the once-popular (and now popular again) popovers and daily sweet butters. Instituting a from-scratch kitchen guarantees the quality; chefs cut their own steaks in house, including a 9 oz. filet mignon that dwarfs the servings at other restaurants. Dalles House duck a l’orange is another revived recipe that comes braised in a tangy orange sauce and is popular year round. For more contemporary palates there are salads, pastas and the plate-size 1 lb. Dam Burger Challenge. It’s about honoring the deep tradition of Dalles House, but with new twists like the burger challenge to keep it appealing to those who want more than a trip down memory lane.
“We’ve spent so much time and energy,” Fry says, to keep the classic feel while making sure that Dalles House remains relevant to the present. “The people who get what we’re truly doing love it, and they come back again and again and again.”
Today the diverse mix of locals and tourists, live music and a classic Wisconsin supper club, have culminated into a time-tested atmosphere that’s instantly unique upon entry, Fry says: “Memories were started long before I was alive at Dulles House.”
The drink: Crème Brulee Latte
The bar: Dalles House Café and Coffeehouse
The barista: Sarah Fry
The Dalles House staff is known on a first-name basis across town, and that connection between the supper club and the community continues at the new Dalles Café and Coffeehouse, a half-day diner that pours specialty coffee drinks and bakes breakfast sandwiches until early afternoon each day.
The building already was owned by Steve Balej, a co-owner at the supper club. One day the supper club’s long-tenured employee Bev Jensen was telling Fry how she missed having her own café, though it had been too much to handle single-handedly. Fry suggested the space: “We could do something like that on a smaller basis, and it might be manageable,” Jensen said.
In 2012 they opened Dalles Bakery and Coffeehouse, which changed over to Dalles Café and Coffehouse last summer. They’ve moved away from the bakery element, but serve coffee and breakfast to all walks of life. Jensen runs the kitchen, and Sonya Fry’s sister Sarah is barista.
The coffeehouse has filled a niche in the community without siphoning business from the supper club, which doesn’t serve breakfast. When Sonya gets her coffee at 8 a.m. each morning, she sees the same customers grabbing a to-go sandwich before work and the same senior citizens arguing about politics. “I think it’s what the town really needed,” she says. “It’s important to have a friendly place to go in the morning.”