Avenue Lounge co-owner dies at age 95

(First published in the July 19, 2018 issue of City Pages)

The supper club run by the late Fran Rutherford and her husband Jim is one of my favorite things about the Wausau area


Stepping into The Avenue Lounge in Schofield was like stepping back in time. Jim and Fran Rutherford would greet you at the beautiful wooden bar, as Sinatra or big band music played in the background. There’s a small fireplace in the dining room that seats only about 25 people. A second room on the ground level held more tables, and this is where my group of about a dozen friends have celebrated New Year’s Eve for several years.

Frances “Fran” W. Behnke Rutherford, co-owner of The Avenue Lounge in Schofield, passed away Saturday, July 14.

Her story is remarkable, and will live on as Jim plans to keep the restaurant open.

Looking like a white two-story home tucked between the dollar store and an insurance office, the upstairs held the home of Jim and Franny. They bought the place in 1994, when they were already in their 70s. The couple completely renovated both the restaurant and the apartment before opening.

They were a couple for 40 years before finally getting married in 2009 (for legal reason related to a liquor license), in front of the fireplace, followed by a small reception with many of their regular customers.

The upscale menu might surprise you: Three types of salmon, frog legs, tender ribs and their special tenderloin, stuffed with garlic and topped with gorgonzola, prepared by long-time chef Annette Elsmo. One of the sides available was Franny’s Yummy Potatoes, which I always ordered: potatoes cut up and sautéed with garlic, onion, and wine. The first course is the simplest of salads served with the best toasted garlic bread.

The entire retro experience was such that my youngest son more than once took new dates there for dinner, as they were always impressed. This is especially interesting because when he first went with us to The Avenue Lounge, Franny, in her grandmotherly manner, chastised him for ordering his steak well done with steak sauce, not to mention that he was wearing a baseball cap.

Most importantly, it’s where I learned to love my Southern Comfort Old-Fashioned Sweet with cherries. No one has ever made one like Jim. He did teach his most recent bartenders whatever the trick was, and they have continued the tradition of the best old fashioned I’ve ever had. And it’s a shame the meals are so filling as the ice cream drinks are incredible, although rarely is there room to enjoy one.

When we started frequenting The Avenue Lounge about 10 years ago, Franny and Jim already were in their 80s and in declining health. Franny had beaten cancer a couple of times (chemo wasn’t bad, she told me, taking it better than many much younger do); Jim’s knees were wearing out from his service as a paratrooper in WWII and from years on the ski patrol on Rib Mountain. He would fascinate you with stories about his many jumps over Germany. The couple usually sat at their spot at the end of the bar, always there, greeting customers who were their friends.

Jim gradually gave over the bartending duties, first on weekends, and finally for each night they were open. Both were getting pretty hard of hearing, so you could easily hear Jim barking out his instructions to Franny and the staff. I found it smarter to stop in to make reservations than to call on the phone.

Don’t forget to ask Jim about celebrating his 90thbirthday across the street at the “gentlemen’s club.” He’ll gladly show you the photo when he was surrounded by beautiful young women, wearing little, if anything. Franny? Not so impressed when she was taken over to celebrate her special day with a group of male dancers.

One time I heard Jim telling about how Fran was running around frantically taking care of something, and he described her as, “running around here like she’s 60!”

We really didn’t want to share too much about this special place with too many people, because we didn’t need it to be filled with new customers taking our spot. But it was too good not to tell select friends, and to celebrate our special days at this hidden gem.

Jim plans on keeping the restaurant open. And I’m sure he’ll be there at the bar, when we go in again. Hopefully he and Annette and their devoted staff will continue this vintage Wisconsin supper club. And I will raise my Southern Comfort Old Fashioned as a tribute to Fran and the special place she helped create.