I've always wanted to try Smoky's Club in Madison, WI and I was there recently on business and I decided to give it a thorough check.
Smoky's isn't much to look at from the outside - it's a typical 1950's style supper club, built long before Madison began to expand to the west. Smoky's started out just down the street from their present location (which was once known as Justo's Club). Leonard (Smoky) Schmock (pronounced Shmoke) and his wife, Janet, wanted to have a little steakhouse that would cater to the parents of kids who went to school at the University of Wisconsin.
Over the years, Smoky's has garnered a number of awards and accolades including being named the "Best Steakhouse in the Midwest" by Midwest Living Magazine in 1988, and for being named for three or four years in a row in the early 90's as one of the top 10 steakhouses in the nation by some obscure publication called "Knife and Fork".
OK, so, they got some awards. But that was years ago. Is Smoky's still as good? I wanted to find out that night I was in Madison so I invited one of my local dealers to go out to dinner at Smoky's. We were going to meet at Smoky's around 8 p.m., so I got there a little before 8 to wait for him in the bar.
I went in and was met by a hostess, probably in her late 50's or early 60's. Actually, she just sort of looked at me for a moment, then went back to writing something down. She finally looked up and said, "May I help you?"
I told her that I needed a table for two, but it appeared that my guest wasn't there yet. She replied in a somewhat cold and snooty tenor, "Do you have a reservation?" I said I didn't. But looking around the place, there were many open tables and since it was a Tuesday night I didn't expect an after 8 p.m. rush on the place. I told her that I'd wait at the bar for my guest to show up. She didn't say anything as I walked toward the bar. I thought I was being nice, but my first impression was, "What a bitch!"
I sat at the bar and had a beer. I looked around the place and it is difficult to describe the restaurant. It's dark and cozy, but there's all this "kitsch" hanging from the walls and ceiling. I suppose there are interesting stories behind each and everything on display, but it seemed awfully "busy", visually.
After about 20 minutes, I got a call from my guest who apologized that he was going to have to beg off on dinner that evening. I told him that it was no problem, I was a big boy and I've had dinner many times by myself. I went up to the hostess and told her that there had been a change of plans and my guest was not going to show up. I wondered if I could get a steak at the bar.
She looked down her nose at me like I was a bum who just walked in off the street. She then said in a rather pretentious tone, "We do NOT serve dinner at the bar. This is not THAT type of place."
Looking back, I really wish I would have made some smart ass comment like, "Oh yeah? Well, what kind of place IS this? I've eaten at the bar in a lot nicer steakhouses than this place, lady!"
She wordlessly sat me at a table in the corner of the non-smoking dining room. My waitress came over and she was a little nicer than the hostess, but not very personable. Her "give-a-shit" factor was pretty low. Who knows? Maybe she was having trouble at home or something, but I just thought she was a little too cold and unemotional for a restaurant like Smoky's. It was obvious she didn't want to be working that particular evening.
I ordered the 10 oz filet, which at $34.00 bucks I thought it had better be good. With dinner you had your choice of potato, plus a salad along with either cup of Manhattan-style (tomato based) clam chowder or tomato juice. The clam chowder was pretty good. The salad was OK, the dressing (French) was homemade and kind of bland.
Smoky's cooks their steaks at 600 degrees (F) and serve them on a sizzling platter, ala Ruth's Chris Steakhouse. I opted for hash browns with cheese on top (I usually don't eat potatoes that much any longer so I went with the least amount of potato available). The steak was still sizzling on the platter for about three minutes after it was served to me.
And it was good, but cooked a little more than the medium rare that I asked for. I don't know if it was a $34 dollar steak, let alone a top ten steak in my book, but it was good. The hash browns weren't bad, but I really didn't think they were anything special. Then again, I'm not big on potatoes that much any longer. They have to be really special to knock my socks off any more. The bill for food, three beers and a so-so tip for the indifferent waitress was about $55.00.
As I got up to leave, I wandered into a room off the entrance that had a lot of reviews and awards on the wall. I don't know who this Knife and Fork magazine is, but they certainly did have Smoky's in their top ten in the early 90's along side some great steak houses such Smith and Wollensky, Chicago Chop House, Hereford House, Morton's and Shula's. I've eaten in each of those places and I can safely say that while Smoky's is good, it is NO WAY in the same class - food, service, ambiance - as those restaurants.
Smoky's may have been something back in the late 80's and early 90's when it was getting all those awards, but today it's nothing more than a good, big Midwestern city steakhouse. Not outstanding, but good. Above average good, I'll give them that. Even with the indifferent service and the unnecessarily cold reception from the hostess, I'll say it was good.
As I left the place, I glanced at the hostess giving her every opportunity to say, "Thank you, come again!" But she didn't say a word, looking past me as if I didn't exist.
There are many choices of restaurants in Madison. Although the food was good, I was turned off by the attitude of the hostess and the limp rag nature of my waitress. It will be quite some time before I go back to Smoky's.