Address: 7777 Timmerman Drive, East Dubuque, Ill.
Dining hours: 4 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 4 to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. (brunch) and 4 to 8:30 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday and Tuesday.
On the web: timmermanssupperclub.com
EAST DUBUQUE, Ill. — Ascending the steps from the lobby and reaching the main floor, visitors to Timmerman’s Supper Club see tables arranged around a room surrounded by 52 windows with blufftop views of the surrounding area.
“Our supper club is different than most,” said co-owner Mark Hayes.
Billed as a modern wonder when it was completed in 1961, Timmerman’s boasts a unique location on a bluff and a history steeped in lore.
The stories contribute to the attraction.
There was the time founder Helen Timmerman turned away country music icon Waylon
Jennings because his attire didn’t fit her standards for diners. There were the times the establishment would open early to allow Mike Ditka, William “Refrigerator” Perry and other members of the Chicago Bears an opportunity to eat in peace before heading to training sessions in Platteville, Wis. There were times Helen Timmerman insisted that patrons visit the bar for a few drinks before she would seat and serve them dinner.
The stories have continued through ownership changes and the more recent challenges of COVID-19 for more than 60 years.
“It’s amazing for a restaurant to remain in business this long,” said co-owner Gary Neuses. “It’s a tough business. You have to be willing to put in the time.”
ESTABLISHING A TRADITION
Helen and Bob Timmerman married in 1936. The couple had bar and restaurant experience in Iowa and Wisconsin before founding their self-named supper club in 1961.
“Originally, the location was supposed to be on Hiawatha Drive (in East Dubuque), but the City Council didn’t give them a permit to build up there because they didn’t want the traffic going through a residential area,” Neuses said.
Instead, the couple sited the restaurant on a bluff north of U.S. 20 east of East Dubuque’s downtown. Just north of the supper club on Timmerman Drive is Lacoma Golf Club.
Advertisements for Timmerman’s grand opening in late August 1961 promised diners “a complete menu” with chicken, steak and seafood, as well as “Helen’s famous homemade rolls.”
The establishment also boasted of “a tastefully furnished dining spot” and “a panoramic view of Dubuqueland.”
The restaurant became a dining staple in the tri-state area.
“There have been generations of families bringing their loved ones here for celebrations, birthdays and anniversaries,” Neuses said. “When Bob and Helen had it, a lot of people had their wedding receptions here.”
Helen Timmerman also owned a nearby hotel. That business separated from the restaurant when Juan and Sandy Rodriguez purchased Timmerman’s in 1994.
Bob Timmerman died in 1970. Helen Timmerman continued operating the supper club until she retired in March 1985. She had sold the restaurant to David and Patti Thiltgen the previous year. The Thiltgens in turn sold the business to the Rodriguezes. Helen Timmerman died in 2002 at age 92.
Hayes, 54, and Neuses, 53, purchased Timmerman’s in 2003 but were well-versed in the story of the establishment.
“I started working in 1984, right after David Thiltgen had bought it,” Hayes said. “I started as a dishwasher.”
Neuses started working at Timmerman’s five years later as a bartender.
Hayes described their purchase of the business from the Rodriguezes as something that “just kind of happened.”
“Juan gave the opportunity to us,” he said.
MAINTAINING A TRADITION
Hayes said he and Neuses purchased Timmerman’s with the aim to maintain its historic status as a dining spot.
“When we purchased it, Juan had it running great,” Hayes said. “It was just a matter of keeping things consistent and keeping the traditions. If the wheel is not broken, don’t fix it — that sort of thing.”
Hayes and Neuses spent more time with Rodriguez in the months before the pair assumed ownership.
“We wanted to learn how to keep things consistent,” Hayes said. “Coming in and making a bunch of big changes didn’t seem to make any sense.”
The idea was to create a seamless ownership transition.
“Some people didn’t even know there were different owners,” Hayes said.
While maintaining the restaurant’s traditional dining fare, Hayes said some evolution has occurred on the menu.
“We’re basically a steak house,” he said. “Obviously, you have some traditional stuff on the menu and some new stuff, too. You’re trying to please a lot of different people.”
MARKING PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE
October marks the beginning of the restaurant’s busiest season.
“The leaves are starting to change, and there is the Galena Country Fair (in October),” Hayes said. “Buses are coming in (to the area) for different shows. The holiday season also is busy because of parties.”
Party business is picking up at Timmerman’s following a barren period caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Groups and businesses stopped getting together,” Hayes said.
Neuses said they were fortunate during the pandemic that they owned the restaurant and had no rent or lease payments and that the restaurant’s core clientele remained supportive.
“But there were no tourists,” he said.
The pair of owners also handled finances before the arrival of the pandemic so that the business could absorb COVID-19-related losses.
“We also had our core people coming in and supporting us,” Hayes said.
Expanding the restaurant’s core customer base is a key ingredient to its continued success, according to Hayes.
“The traditional, older clientele are moving on, so you have to see how you can attract a younger crowd,” he said.
A weekly meal service seems to help.
“The younger crowd discovers (Timmerman’s) through the Sunday brunch and then thinks, ‘Well, maybe we should try this place for dinner,’” Neuses said.
Lent is another busy time for Timmerman’s.
“People around this area love fish fries,” Hayes said. “We serve a good portion of fish.”
The restaurant doesn’t just rely upon locals.
“We get people from Chicago, Davenport, Madison, Cedar Rapids,” Hayes said.
Timmerman’s has attracted wider attention within the past decade with its inclusion in a popular book about a uniquely Midwestern dining tradition.
Chicago author Dave Hoekstra included Timmerman’s in “The Supper Club Book: A Celebration of a Midwest Tradition.”
The 2013 book named Timmerman’s “the only true supper club in the Land of Lincoln.”
“A lot of people collected that book, and they try to go to each supper club (featured in the book),” Neuses said. “They will ask us to sign the book to prove that they were there to their friends.”