After 76 years, Kavanaugh's Esquire Club changes hands (2024)

Kavanaugh’s Esquire Club, a northside supper club with 80-plus years of history on Sherman Avenue, will officially (and publicly) change hands on Wednesday, May 8.

The longest running family-owned supper club in the city by two decades, the Esquire Club has planned a baton-passing party at 1025 N. Sherman Ave. New owner Craig Spaulding will serve “the first Old Fashioned” at 5 p.m. to longtime owner John Kavanaugh, whose family bought the restaurant in 1948.

A hopeful guest list includes former governor Tommy Thompson (who used to have his campaign headquarters nearby), state senator Melissa Agard and Rhonda Adams, the executive director of the River Food Pantry. Sales from Old Fashioneds from 5-7 p.m. will go toward the pantry.

“I want to celebrate and honor John Kavanaugh,” Spaulding said, “and his whole family’s legacy that they’ve created over the last nearly 80 years. They are so much a part of that community on the north side. It reaches way beyond that as well … everybody has a story about the Esquire Club.

“I feel completely honored and blessed to be able to do this and try to fill these huge shoes.”

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Spaulding and Kavanaugh have been in negotiations about the restaurant’s future for roughly a year. News about the Esquire Club sale first popped up in the Northside News in January, just as Spaulding was beginning the process of the liquor license transfer and securing ownership.

Until now, Spaulding has been reluctant to talk about his plans, wanting to make sure nothing fell through. He intends to keep the restaurant’s name. It’s a large space, with seating for about 300 people.

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“I wanted to make sure we were prepared,” Spaulding said. “It’s a huge undertaking.”

Spaulding and his partner, Jen, own the business with three silent investors, and Spaulding himself has been working at the restaurant since February.

Spaulding also took over Kavanaugh’s catering contract with the Wisconsin Masonic Center, which serves everything from weddings and the Barrister’s Ball (students from the UW Law School) to MMA fights, theater performances and a possible upcoming event called the Edgar Allan Poe Speakeasy.

The Wisconsin State Journal ran a story about Kavanaugh’s sale in early March, in which John Kavanaugh said of Spaulding: “He’ll be taking it to the next level.”

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“I want to do that with respect to the tradition of supper clubs,” Spaulding said. “I don’t want to alienate regulars that have been coming in for 60, 70, 80 years.

“When I’m sitting at the host desk, taking to-go orders, everyone has a story about how long they’ve been coming here … ‘since I was five years old, my parents had their rehearsal dinner here’ or their wedding reception in the basem*nt.

“It’s the same story over and over and over, I’ve heard it hundreds of times. It’s powerful.”

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The next chapter for Esquire Club

Save a couple years of travel in the late 1980s, Spaulding has lived in the Madison area since 1985. He’s well-known as a local bartender, steeped in the restaurant scene.

Most notably, Spaulding co-owned Café Montmartre from 1992 until its closure in 2009. Before and since, he tended bar at a half dozen local restaurants, from The Fountain and Nau-Ti-Gal to the Avenue Bar. Since 2017, he’s run the downstairs bar at the AC Hotel near the Capitol.

“I absolutely loved that job,” Spaulding said. “It ended up being more like a local tavern. I had tons of local regulars from every walk of life — artists, musicians, realtors, attorneys, judges. The majority of my clientele were locals. They’d mix with the travelers; we’d have regular travelers come in. They’d become friends, and some are friends to this day.”

Spaulding would have marked seven years at the downtown hotel as of his birthday, May 1. But last spring, he got a tip from an Esquire Club regular and a nudge from his partner (“she’s never wrong”) about Kavanaugh’s interest in passing the torch. With some mixed feelings, Spaulding left in January to focus on his “next chapter.”

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“The timing was right,” he said.

According to Cap Times archives, John (Jack) and Jane Kavanaugh purchased the Esquire Club (then listed at 2615 Sherman Ave.) from Robert Hibbard in March 1948.

Hibbard had purchased the “Esquire Bar” himself in 1945 from Leo F. Welsh, who’d run it for at least three years. City records indicate the building Kavanaugh’s is currently in was built in 1938.

By 1966, newspapers ads touted the “newly remodeled” Esquire Club, which was popular for wedding parties, athletic celebrations and city gatherings.

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Jack’s son, also named John Kavanaugh, managed the restaurant before buying it from his parents in 1978. Around Thanksgiving that year, he was quoted in the Cap Times about all-you-can-eat Friday night fish fry at his family’s restaurant, which had become a city staple.

“There are three basic factors that contribute to profitable volume feeding according to Kavanaugh,” the story reads, then quotes him: “It has to be popular, have an easy prep time, and can be continually brought to a point of readiness and served … one time we had a young fellow who ate 35 pieces of fish.”

A few more tidbits from the Esquire Club history:

In 1950, William Black scored a perfect “29” in cribbage playing against Jack Kavanaugh. “He said he held four [sic] fives and the jack of hearts in his hand and turned up the five of hearts … he has been playing cribbage for 10 years, and never saw the coveted ‘29’ hand before.” (Cribbage players will note that this cannot be accurate.)

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In 1990, per Cap Times archives, John Kavanaugh put $125,000 into a renovation, adding 100 seats to the restaurant and lounge. In the grand tradition of restaurant critics outsourcing their harshest critiques to their “dining companions,” in 1991, Cap Times writer Margaret Collins called one room at the club “quite elegant” while her companion “likened it to an ‘oasis’ restaurant over a freeway.”

“The windows reminded me of the Starship Enterprise,” Collins wrote. By 1998, reporters called the club a throwback, noting that “the salad bar looked like something your Aunt Martha would set up in her basem*nt for Uncle Ned’s 60th birthday.”

In recent years, the Esquire Club has become a favorite among conservatives, hosting gatherings for Trump supporters and Election Night parties for Republican candidates. The Northside Business Association meets there. So does, per the State Journal story, “retired Air National Guard members, retired police officers and retired firemen” as well as a fantasy football league.

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Keep the regulars, bring new faces

Supper clubs have both been experiencing a renaissance among younger diners and closing their doors as the next generation of owners and consistent staff prove difficult to find.

Nick’s Restaurant, a 64-year-old supper club-adjacent diner downtown, has announced that it will close on May 11. Quivey’s Grove was put up for sale in 2019. The Wonder Bar closed in 2021. Smoky’s Club closed in 2022.

As the State Journal notes, “Little John” Kavanaugh, the fourth John Kavanaugh in line, opened LJ’s Sports Tavern & Grill in 2017 and was not interested in taking on his father’s supper club.

“I’ve been very fortunate to inherit an amazing staff,” Spaulding said. That includes Esquire Club chef Corey Campion, whom Spaulding said has worked there for 12 years. He cited a cook named Dennis who’s been in the kitchen since the “early 90s or the late 80s,” a longtime bartender named Nick and a third generation server.

“I’ve got a really good base,” Spaulding said. “They know all the stories, all the regulars.”

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Spaulding has already put in new carpeting and done some painting, with the intention to refresh the space. He’s hoping for a little bump from “Top Chef,” which flashed up the Kavanaugh’s sign during a recent Madison supper club episode.

“I don’t want to change things too much, so that I alienate the regulars that have been coming in there for decades,” Spaulding said. “But still, I want to be able to attract a whole other client base.

“It’s a very fine balance that I need to strike.”

Spaulding is already putting in 80-hour weeks, and he has growth on his mind. He intends for Kavanaugh’s to start serving a late night menu (“I think that will do really well, polling people that I know”).

He’s seeking an entertainment license in order to host live jazz trios, playing later in the evenings on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Spaulding wants to start with an Esquire Mother’s Day brunch on Sunday, May 12, and then keep breakfast going on Saturdays and Sundays.

It’s all part of what feels to Spaulding like a northside renaissance, one that includes Lola’s Hi/Lo Lounge, open since last fall, and Simon Dettinger’s forthcoming Northside Lounge (opening this spring, possibly by May 20).

Dettinger, like Spaulding, is another bartender people follow wherever he goes.

“I think it’s in our DNA,” Spaulding said. “We found our calling. … He’s well-known and very highly thought of. It’s always better to have multiple venues for people to go to, because it creates a scene and a community. Then we can support each other.”

After 76 years, Kavanaugh's Esquire Club changes hands (2024)
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