Someone once told me you could cut a Smoky’s filet with a butter knife.
On a recent visit to the venerable University Avenue steakhouse, I put the restaurant’s 8-ounce filet mignon to the test. Setting aside the steak knife, I reached for my flatware. Sure enough, the dull knife went straight through the thick cut of meat with ease.
Not only was the tender steak cooked medium rare, as ordered, it had excellent flavor.
Tom Schmock, who owns Smoky’s with his brother, Larry, said the key to their steaks is searing them on a really hot, thick, steel griddle that holds its heat. The grill puts a nice crust on the meat and seals in its juices.
“You can’t reproduce that at home, even in a cast-iron pan,” Schmock said.
Our elderly waiter spoke softly and didn’t hear well, but was part of what made our visit memorable. He said he’d worked at Smoky’s 22 years, but quickly added that some employees had been there 55 or 60 years.
Schmock confirmed that, but said no current employees have been on the job that long. The restaurant has seen a number of staff members work into their 70s before they either retire or pass away, he said.
After all, the supper club dates back to 1953 when the Schmock parents, Janet and Leonard “Smoky,” bought Hogan’s Club, in what is now the parking lot of Bagels Forever. The family lived upstairs until they could afford to buy a house, Tom said.
In 1969, the Schmocks moved Smoky’s down the block to the current location, with its familiar stone facade.
Smoky’s always closes for a period in the summer and winter for a detailed cleaning. It reopened in mid-August after being closed for 10 days with new carpeting, repaired upholstery, and bar menu additions.
They should turn the lights up a bit to show off the improvements. As it is, you need a flashlight to read the menu.
The atmosphere is casual for a place that gets top dollar for its steaks. And that means $46 for a 10-ounce filet mignon, and $42 for an 8-ouncer.
My first visit was on a night after the Badgers had played, and we were led to an area with a large UW emblem on the wall. Plenty of customers were still in their Badgers red, as were many of the bartenders.
Back in the day, UW/NFL football star and UW athletic director Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch was a Saturday night fixture, Schmock said.
The dinner menu has only four appetizers, and we skipped that course since entrées come in true supper club style with the day’s soup, a dinner salad, and a potato or vegetable.
Meals start with a “relish dish,” really a container of raw vegetables: carrots, celery, radish and green onion. We didn’t eat much from it, but I overheard a woman at the next table ask for some ranch dressing to dip the vegetables in. That’s not a bad idea.
The bread basket with slices of Italian bread and whole-grain rolls was more appealing to us.
My friend enjoyed her broiled Canadian walleye ($28), which had achieved an ideal taste and texture. She had to pick a few small bones out of her mouth, but that didn’t bother her.
As for the sides, Smoky’s hash browns are considered the best in Madison by most anyone who’s had them. And it’s easy to see why. They come as a round patty with a crisp, golden top. Inside, they’re not at all greasy. The day’s soup, chicken-rice, was slightly creamy and about as likable as this type of soup can be.
The day’s vegetable was a combination of broccoli and cauliflower, and we would have eaten them had they been lightly buttered and seasoned. Few restaurants do that, but they should. The salad was fine, with a mix of lettuces, tomatoes, cucumber, red onion and croutons.
Smoky’s offers a nod to vegetarians with a vegetable stir fry ($13.50) and vegetable lasagna ($17). Both dishes also include a salad. If I had a do-over, I wouldn’t order the stir fry. I admired the effort, but the supper club take on Chinese food felt forced. I appreciated the wild rice, soy sauce and wide variety of vegetables, but it came out looking beige instead of bright and colorful. It could also lose the baby corn and water chestnuts.
For dessert, there are just two types of cheesecake and vanilla ice cream. Instead, my friend ordered us a Golden Cadillac ($13). Made with vanilla ice cream, Galliano liqueur and white crème de cacao, it was piled high in a martini glass. It was subtle on the booze and went down easily. We savored every spoonful.
Lately, the third generation of Schmocks has gotten more involved. Larry’s son, Matthew, has taken over much of Tom’s responsibilities. And Matthew’s brother, Tim, works Tuesday nights.
A new chef, Zachary Grose, formerly of Short Stack, has added some contemporary touches to the bar menu that now includes sesame-crusted ahi tuna in a green curry coconut sauce. That, and pan-seared diver scallops with a sweet-potato puree and “crispy pork jowl bacon,” have proven popular.
These items, which aren’t yet listed on the restaurant’s website, are less expensive and can only be eaten at the bar. And they don’t come with all the super club extras.
On a later visit to try the bar menu, a friend had a remarkable half-pound bar burger ($13) with high-quality beef from Knoche’s Butcher Shop, and wonderful, thick, crinkle-cut fries. It hardly needed ketchup or mustard. I had the tuna, and found its rare center too chewy at times.
Still, the nicely-spicy curry sauce, used sparingly, worked. It could convincingly be served in any Thai restaurant. The sautéed, julienned vegetables beneath the fish had a funky flavor that will grow on you if given the chance.
The martini menu at Smoky’s is about as big as the dinner menu and bar menu combined. I recommend No. 39, the Wake Up Call ($12) with butterscotch schnapps, hazelnut liqueur, Irish cream and coffee. It’s deliciously potent.
If you haven’t been to Smoky’s lately, what’s stopping you? The vast majority of restaurants don’t last even five years. Smoky’s has made it to 64. There’s a good reason for that.