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► Smoky's... A story lurks behind each piece of restaurant's "Genuine Junk"▼ Smoky's... A story lurks behind each piece of restaurant's "Genuine Junk"

 WISCONSIN STATE JOURNAL: Sunday, September 5, 1982

Smoky's... A story lurks behind each piece of restaurant's " Genuine Junk"

By Sunny Schubert
Feature Writer

"It looks a bit like Sanford and Son's, doesn't it?" said Jan Schmock with a laugh. "You can get goofy gazing at the things behind the bar." Indeed you can. The interior of the Schmock's restaurant, Smoky's Club, 3005 University Avenue is almost as famous as the food. While the viands are known for consistent quality, the ambiance is acclaimed for persistent eccentricity.

But the memorabilia adorning the walls and ceiling of Smoky's is not the contrived clutter of carefully selected designer junk favored by places like Charley's Café and TGIFriday's. Smoky's has genuine junk, which earns there's a story behind every artifact.

Take a seat at the bar, and you can find yourself face-to-face with a large stuffed muskellunge, caught by proprietor Leonard "Smoky" Schmock. The muskie is wearing a tie adorned with multiple tie tacks, with a squirrel tail disappearing down its toothy gullet. The tie, made of Swiss silk, was donated by a customer. The muskie takes his aerial swim in a vaguely aquarium atmosphere of dried blowfish, at least one of which lights up; a plastic lobster; a couple of crabs; and numerous stuffed alligators of varying sizes.

Several Smokey the Bears dangle from the rafters, each a gift from regular patrons. There's a piñata left over from son Larry's 6th birthday; Larry's 26 now and tending bar.

On the bar, amid the bottles, is a toy slot machine, an unopened six-pack of beer from the defunct Fauerbach Brewery, and a tin lantern adorned with tiny mosquito houses. A string of cowbells hangs nearby.

Atop the wooden rooflet that overhangs the bar is an old vacuum cleaner, currently in use as a perch for a wooden partridge. "We tried to sell the vacuum at a garage sale, but nobody wanted it" explained Larry. "So we put it up there."

Diners are treated to a seeming endless eyeful of ... things, for lack of a better word. Lots of stuff. As for the overall effect, "eclectic" is perhaps too mild a description; "bizarre too harsh. "Bazaar applies best.

It's like walking into a permanent garage sale, although nothing is for sale. Certainly not the stuffed marlin over the fireplace, which was a gift from a customer. Not the crude crayon drawings that adorn one wall; those came from the children who donated their placemat masterpieces.

Smoky certainly won't part with his pennant collection, which includes most Big Ten schools and a couple of classics, like Super Bowl I (the Green Bay Packers) and a "Welcome Home Eric Heiden" pennant from the 1980 Winter Olympics.

The three huge wasp nests are family memorabilia. "The boys (Larry and Tom, who now cook at the family restaurant) shot them out of trees while squirrel-hunting," says Mrs. Schmock. The wooden beer kegs are collectors' items from the old Rice Lake brewery, says Smoky.

The wineskins, even the one painted with "Bourbon Street New Orleans," are souvenirs from a trip to Bogota, Colombia. The original oil painting of six sorry imbibers came from the Monmartre section of Paris, France.

The giant pinecones were collected on a family vacation in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The wind chimes - one small room contains 17 sets - came from Hong Kong and Hawaii.

The hearth is adorned with a plastic rose tree decorated with Christmas ornaments and a plastic Halloween jack-o-lantern, while the mantelpiece holds dozens of sports trophies from various Smoky's-sponsored teams. The ship's wheel came from San Francisco.

It is a perpetually changing collection. Even as Mrs. Schmock pointed out various items, Smoky disappeared into the basement and returned with a starter's flag from Indianapolis 500 and a pennant from some long ago Kentucky Derby. He knocked off the dust and nailed them up without a word.

Smoky's has been in business for 19 years, the last 12 in its current location. The previous occupant was Justo's Club, owned by the wife of former football great Art Bramhall. After Bramhall retired from the Chicago Bears, he moved to Madison and became the voice of the University of Wisconsin Badgers for radio station WIBA, as Smoky will explain if you ask him about the 1950's vintage Bramhall poster behind the bar.

Some stuff comes down. The twinkly multicolored Christmas lights the Schmocks used to leave up all year - for years and years - came down a couple of months ago, along with strands of tinsel rope and artfully draped fishnets.

"The fire department said they were a hazard," said Mrs. Schmock, shaking her head sadly. Left alone to uphold the year-round holiday motif is a plaque of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, doing his Yuletide dance next to a string of cork fishing-net floats.

Assorted miscellaneous items also disappear at cleaning time, she added. "It's nice putting all this stuff up, but to take it all down and clean it and then put it back is a major chore. We just never get it all back up.

"Believe it or not," she said, "we actually get people in here who ask, "Who does your decorating?" As if anyone would actually "do" this!"

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► Where the Beef is... By George Hendrix▼ Where the Beef is... By George Hendrix

MIDWEST LIVING: August, 1988

Where the Beef is... By George Hendrix

Our super sirloin sleuth reveals the lucks winners of the Great Midwest Living Steak House Hunt...

When I call home down in Kansas, Mom usually asks what interesting, new project I'm up to at the magazine these days. "Oh, I'm off on another road trip," I said a few weeks back, innocently adding that "I have to eat at some more steak houses."

"Have to?" she mocked. "Have to? Why, you poor, poor dear!"

Sorry, Mom this is work. You don't think leading the Midwest Living Steakhouse Hunt is all butter-knife-tender prime cuts and crispy onion rings, do you? Why, one time I had to wait 45 minutes for a table, and twice my appetizer was pickled beets!

In the last nine months, I've criss-crossed the Heartland from the wheat belt to the Ohio River and back, painstakingly scrutinizing the top steak house in each of the dozen Midwest states. To pick the top spots, we tallied your votes, readers, in response to the "Midwest Steak House Hunt" contest announced in our October, 1987 issue.

My modus operandi never varied: I'd slip into a crowded dining room, soak up the ambience, and casually order a huge hunk of meat. Then, when the waitress wasn't looking, I'd scribble terse notes to myself like, "Dynamite cottage fries!" or "No desserts?"

This is what I learned: You readers really know how to pick steak houses. And the best Midwest steak house of all - the restaurant with the most sumptuous combination of sizzlin' beef, down-home fixin's, and "can I get ya another cup, hon" charm - is in a squat little concrete-block building on the south shoulder of busy University Street south shoulder of busy University Street in Madison, Wisconsin: Smoky's Club.

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► A WINNING FORMULA▼ A WINNING FORMULA

A WINNING FORMULA

As reader JoAnn Six of Middleton, Wisconsin, lovingly reflected in casting her vote for Smoky's: "It's small, it's overcrowded, and overdecorated... it's unique." And the food is great, too!

For 35 years, Leonard "Smoky" Schmock and his wife Janet (now assisted by sons Larry, Tom and sometimes daughter Barbara) have wowed steak lovers with gorgeous, deeply seared filets as thick as two big fists stacked atop one another. The family's tender, wedgy T-bones ooze with juice flavored by a delicate marbling of fat. And when the meat hits Smoky's metal platters, heated for hours in a 500-degree oven, it unleashes the most furious, aroma-rousing tempest of sizzle I encountered anywhere on my hunt.

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► A MARVELOUS MESS OF MEMENTOS▼ A MARVELOUS MESS OF MEMENTOS

A MARVELOUS MESS OF MEMENTOS

As for the celebrated décor at 3005 University Street, Smoky's Club looks like a crew of tipsy elves went on a rampage after raiding a curiosity shop. A stuffed 38 pound muskie that Smoky caught in the Chippewa River lunges from the wall next to an airplane made of Old Style beer cans and suspended from an overhang above the bar. In the shadows topping the overhang, a Korean War-vintage Hoover carpet sweeper beckons with its handle toward a stuffed baby alligator in a birdcage.

Just bout every memento collected by Smoky, his family, friends, and loyal customers - dating back to when Harry Truman was President - hangs on the walls or dangles from the ceiling.

Smoky chats with anyone and everyone who stops by. The farm kid from Bloomer, Wisconsin - he came to Madison during the Depression to play football at the university - allows that "I guess we're a pretty friendly place."

Heartily agreeing, reader Karen Buelow of Greenfield, Wisconsin writes:
"I've rubbed elbows with the governor, senators, doctors, factory workers, and farmers - all in the same evening."

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► THE SECRET: QUALITY COUNTS▼ THE SECRET: QUALITY COUNTS

THE SECRET: QUALITY COUNTS

Smoky's steaks and the ambience bowled me over, but it was the buttery, lightly crusted hash browns that convinced me I'd found "the" winner. Smoky attributes the flavor to boiling the potatoes with their skins on. The spuds are cooled, peeled, and chopped, then friend in cast-iron skillets as they're ordered. A bevy of made-in-the-house breads, soups, and appetizers (including pickled beets) tempt the tastebuds.

Regulars tell me the food is consistently superior. No mystery about that Smoky says. After all, he and Janet have been perfecting the same menu since 1953. The real secret of the restaurant's food and success, Smoky confides, is simple: "We insist of quality."

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► ASKING TOUGH QUESTIONS▼ ASKING TOUGH QUESTIONS

ASKING TOUGH QUESTIONS

I found the same religious attention to quality at every stop on my hunt. In fact, quality was the only constant. I'm convinced there's no such thing as a "typical" steak house. In Topeka, Kansas, a yellowing 8x10 inch card tacked to a wall served as the only menu at the austere North Star Inn. At bright, noisy Gracie's in New Lothrop, Michigan the menu "for lighter eaters" suggested half a fried chicken.

What a job this assignment was! I ate 12 great steaks and enjoyed a dozen memorable evenings. Then, I agonized: "Are the onion rings really better at The Lark in Tiffin, Iowa, than at The Pine Club in Dayton, Ohio?" Talk about a pressure-packed assignment. Even now, thinking about it puts a hard little knot in the pit of my stomach. Maybe I just need to loosen my belt another notch.

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► Smoky's sells more than sizzle with thick steaks▼ Smoky's sells more than sizzle with thick steaks

THE BUSINESS JOURNAL: Week of October 29, 1984

Smoky's sells more than sizzle with thick steaks

By Michael Muckian

Said a commanding female voice in no uncertain terms: "You're going to have to move, please! I've got hot plates here." She certainly did, an entire tray full of them, in fact. They all sizzled with thick, stubby steaks ready for serving. One false move and it would be third-degree burn time for anyone unlucky enough to be seated nearby.

You could tell just by looking at the waitress, however, that we really weren't in any danger of that. She moved with a grace, security and surety that said she'd been through this maze many times before. And, at Smoky's Club, 3005 University Avenue, Madison, WI there is always a maze of standers, sitters, diners and drinkers after any home Wisconsin Badger football game.

That's because, as one Madison cab driver told me recently; Smoky's really does serve "some of the best steaks" in town. And for those football fans still involved in the spirit of the game, wallowing tin the continuation of the Cap Randall-originated congestion gives them the opportunity to party, as well at eat hearty.

Smoky's caters primarily to an older crowd and signs advising that "Profane and abusive language will not be tolerated" decorate many of the walls.

It's a good place to eat if you have the time and energy. Fortunately, we did, and I have no trouble dodging the tray-wielding waitress, and then another going the other way. It was standing room only at the bar and, given the long line of people snaking out toward the back door, we were lucky to have managed a position up front.

The wait can get long on a football Saturday, sometimes as long as 90 minutes if diners decide to linger longer to savor a sweet victory. Our predicted time was one hour, but fate smiled on us, I guess, and we were seated after only 25 minutes. Smoky's doesn't take reservations on a football Saturday, so I considered our abbreviated time fortunate.

Since steak is Smoky's specialty, it dominates the menu. There are also the other standbys of American cuisine: chicken, lobster, shrimp and walleye pike. The servings are generous and the preparations straightforward. At $6.50 to $12 per entrée with everything included, Smoky's represents an excellent value.

We decided this time to test the chef's mettle by ordering what he does best. Yet, even among the steaks there were six offerings from which to choose.

Smoky's offers three different cuts in two sizes each. The fillets, our waitress explained, were the most tender. The sirloins were more flavorful, but leaned toward the chewy side. The T-bones offered a little of both, with some of each type on either side of the bone.

We also had to choose between a 16 ounce or a 20 ounce cut, with a price difference of only 50 cents to $1 between the two. They don't fool around at Smoky's and neither did we. Two 20 ounce filets, please.

Our service was prompt (without being pushy), courteous and even a little concerned. We considered that alone to be major achievement in light of the hoards of people milling hungrily about.

First to arrive was a generous basket of rolls and quart-sized aluminum pot filled with raw vegetables. Carrots, celery sticks, scallions and radishes served as an adequate appetizer. We also ate what amounted to some good sized but fairly ordinary restaurant rolls.

We were served cottage cheese with an unusual combination of caraway, black pepper and chives mixed in. The spices enhanced the dish in a unique and definitely enjoyable way.

The coup du jour, cabbage au gratin, came next. It's one of 10 homemade soups the restaurant offers; though not all are available at the same time. The cheese is joined with the soup, making a thick broth stocked with chunks of the vegetable. It goes a long way in removing the autumn chill.

In spite of the relative rapidity of service, we did have the chance to examine the décor, which is best described as "Early Garage Sale." Some of the most absurd things litter the restaurant, including pieces of department store mannequins, ancient sports pennants and bumper stickers, one of which says, "When lutefisk is outlawed, only outlaws will have lutefisk." Who can argue with that?

Smoky (yes, there really is one - he tends bar) must be one of those kind of guys that never likes to throw anything away, and his restaurant represents 30 years of such accumulation. I'd be afraid to look in his basement.

But I wasn't afraid to dive right into the steak when it arrived. At 20 ounces, I expected a broad, flat plain the size of a desktop blotter. What I got was a short, stout cut nearly two inches thick. A cinch I thought, eyeing the meat and the huge pile of what turned out to be the world's best homemade hash browns.

Think again, my stomach grumbled, after I had consumed only half of the rich, juicy steak. Delicious? Yes. A cinch? Not in a million years. Doggy bag, please.

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► Steaking A Claim... Bloomer native's restaurant tops▼ Steaking A Claim... Bloomer native's restaurant tops

WEST CENTRAL WISCONSIN NEWSPAPER: June 18, 1988

Steaking A Claim... Bloomer native's restaurant tops

By Rod Stetzer

Bloomer native Leonard "Smoky" Schmock is suddenly as hot as one of his famed sizzling steak platters.

Schmock's Madison restaurant, Smoky's Club, 3005 University Avenue, was selected in the August edition of "Midwest Living" magazine as being the best steak house in 12 states.

Then on June 8, Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson issued a "Certificate of Commendation," honoring the work of Schmock and his family at the restaurant.

"It seems like a long time and yet, it doesn't seem that long ago when we were pounding around on the farm up there in Bloomer," Schmock said in a telephone interview this week.

"Already here it is ... 51 years ago. Time marches on. But, it's still been good."

The 72 year-old Schmock was born on his family's farm located about five miles north of Bloomer, between Bloomer and New Auburn. Schmock's grandfather, father and then his two brothers Edgar and Donald of Bloomer, ran the farm throughout the years.

Edgar and Donald of Bloomer, ran the farm throughout the years. His brothers sold the farm about three years ago and he still vacations in the area.

Schmock attended the one-room Pleasant Valley school before going to Bloomer High School. While there, he played tackle and end for the high school football team.

But World War II intervened, and Schmock signed up for a flight training course at the university. From there he entered the Navy Air Corps, where he was a flight instructor for two years. He flew float planes, which were used in recognizance. The planes were catapulted off of flight decks, and pilots had to land in the water where the aircraft were picked up and placed back onto the flight deck.

"That's great entertainment, especially at night," Schmock joked.

After the war, Schmock headed back to Bloomer where he tried a stint as a cropduster. He was watching another pilot to see where to dust between Colfax and Elk Mound when a tree got in the way.

"There I was about 50 feet in he air, hanging there. I climbed down the tree and went back to West Bend and got another (plane) and finished out the job.

Schmock returned to Madison, working weekdays as a salesman and weekends at restaurants. Finally, he got a chance to buy a restaurant for $5,000.

Ever since 1953 Schmock and his wife, Janet, have been working with more or less the same menu, offering chicken, lobster, shrimp and three types of steak. The latter is served on platters heated in 500 degree ovens.

Having a friendly, capable staff brings success he said

"People do like to talk to you and find out what the hell is going on. You know you get a backlog of customers and they come in and ask you about other customers. So you're kind of a little bit of an information bureau as well."

But it goes beyond chatting with customers. The one-time kid from Bloomer has a simple formula for success...

"Keep it consistent and don't hedge on quality... You might save money for a short time by cutting quality, but as quick as you do, you will lose it in the long run."

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► RELAXED SMOKY'S FEATURES CLASSIC STEAKHOUSE FARE▼ RELAXED SMOKY'S FEATURES CLASSIC STEAKHOUSE FARE

RELAXED SMOKY'S FEATURES CLASSIC STEAKHOUSE FARE

Published on Sunday, January 5, 1992
© 1992 Madison Newspapers, Inc.

Byline: By Chris Martell Features writer

If Americans are eating less red meat, you'd never know it by the crowd at Smoky's Club, which opened in 1953 and has had a loyal following ever since.

Smoky's reputation has gone well beyond the Madison area: the restaurant was ranked in Midwest Magazine as the best steakhouse in the Midwest, won top honors this year from the Knife and Fork Club of America and is listed in Northwest Airlines magazine as a good place to eat.

The service moves along with military precision, which may be tied in some way to the owners' fondness for World War II aircraft, pictures which share wall space with illustrated religious slogans. The other dining rooms are more like a dormitory room, with inflatable sea creatures, Mexican souvenir hats and other oddities hung from the ceiling.

Leonard Schmock, who owns the restaurant with wife Janet and their three children, explained that many of the artifacts were collected when he was in the Navy and on annual treks to the Super Bowl. Some of the arresting memorabilia are gifts from customers.

"A guy brought me a bee hive the other day, and I get furniture, you name it,'' he said. The net effect is homey, friendly and conducive to a relaxed dinner.

When we called for reservations, we were told that they are not accepted on Friday and Saturday evenings. But Schmock said reservations are sometimes accepted on those evenings.

But when I appeared with two children in tow and no reservations on a Saturday night, we were immediately spirited off to a corner table in the back room where there were no smokers, even though there are no sections where smoking is strictly forbidden. That thoughtful gesture was much appreciated, and it made us feel welcome and comfortable even though they were the only children in the place that evening.

The menu consists of simple, classic steakhouse fare, but even the little things were done with panache: the side order of cottage cheese, $1, had the appealing touch of caraway seed and scallion, and the pickled beets, $1, were refreshing without being too sour. We also enjoyed the soup of the day, which was black bean, and the simple dinner salads with a piquant Roquefort dressing.

My small filet mignon, $13, was, at nine ounces, just the right size, impressively flavorful and reasonably tender.

The New York strip, $16, at 14 ounces was too much even for a companion who had fasted all day in anticipation of dinner at Smoky's. That steak had an even more memorable flavor. The children split a ground sirloin patty, $5, and even that was plenty. There is no tenderizer used and the meat is not marinated. Every piece of meat was perfectly seared over a gas grill and remained very juicy inside. The meat is raised and aged in the Midwest and never frozen before it is cooked.

As good as the meat was, the humble hashed brown potatoes nearly stole the show. They were huge, puffy and crisp on the outside, without being greasy in the slightest. If you're not there for a full dinner, you can still savor this special side dish for $1.50.

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BEST STEAKS...▼ BEST STEAKS...

MILWAUKEE JOURNAL: October 10, 1993

By Dennis Grotte, Wisconsin Magazine

BEST STEAKS...

At Smoky's Club, 3005 University Avenue, Madison WI...

Walk into this popular Madison club, look up and you might think someone bought out the entire contents of five rummage sales and stuck it on the ceiling. Everything from plastic pumpkins to battered tubas dangles above the heads of patrons.

Don't look up for long because the real action at Smoky's Club is on the steak platters, specifically in a large filet mignon ($16 for 10 to 11 ounces, $14 for the 8 to 9 ounce steak) and a New York strip sirloin steak ($17.).

It came as a big surprise to me that Smoky's supreme steaks aren't charcoal-broiled. They're grilled at 500 degrees in a large commercial oven. That temperature produces a steak with a deep brown glistening crust; a tender, moist interior, and magnificent flavor.

The club's name comes from it's owner, Leonard (Smoky) Schmock, who opened it in 1952 with his wife, Janet. Smoky, now in his late 70's, still supervises the restaurant and Janet still works as hostess a few nights a week. But the couple now share club ownership with their two sons, Tom and Larry.

Tom Schmock personally inspects each steak that Smoky's purchases. The meat is aged to produce a drier, more flavorful steak that grills perfectly. Salt and pepper are the only seasonings used.

And just in case someone in your party doesn't eat red meat, Smoky's fried chicken and shrimp are also quite good.

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► SMOKY'S DESERVES HIGH MARKS FOR STEAKS▼ SMOKY'S DESERVES HIGH MARKS FOR STEAKS

SMOKY'S DESERVES HIGH MARKS FOR STEAKS

Published on Saturday, October 16, 1993
© 1993 Madison Newspapers, Inc.

Byline: Steve Korris

At Smoky's Club, the steaks are so good that customers come right out of the sky. Three airlines list Smoky's in their in-flight magazines as one of the 10 best steak houses in the country, and some fliers phone for reservations as soon as they land.

To match the reputation against reality, I visited Smoky's and selected the biggest steak on the menu - a 20-ounce T-bone.

It was worth a trip by auto, plane or any other conveyance. The flavor was remarkably strong, and the beef juicy and tender.

At $18, the T-bone dinner included soup, salad and a choice of fries or hash browns.

I chose the fries, which were crisp along the edges, firm inside, and delicious.

Other dinner choices for steak lovers are New York strip sirloin, $17; filet mignon, $16; and ribeye and sirloin, $15. The small filet and the small sirloin dinners are $14.

Wonderful steaks are not the only things that Smoky's has going for it either.

Creative side dishes and riotous decorations add flavor.

In fact, it was beets as much as beef that made dinner at Smoky's a unique experience. Pickled according to an original recipe of Janet Schmock, who has operated Smoky's with her husband Leonard for 40 years, they were a perfect blend of sweetness and vinegar.

Equally tasty was another of Janet's creations, cottage cheese with scallions, celery and caraway seeds. Both dishes were $1.50.

Another unexpected treat was the relish, a vase full of ice topped with radishes, carrots and celery. Munching on these fresh delights made waiting for the main course a pleasure.

So did the decor. Decorations hung from ceilings and walls, set off with colored lights and tinsel. It was like a TGIFridays, but better. A chain restaurant is impersonal, no matter how cute the junk is. Smoky's clutter carries human touches.

Indeed, while the steaks may attract Madison's big spenders and gourmet tourists, the decor, the prices and the service are designed to make families of modest means feel welcome.

"We get kids," Leonard Schmock says, "lots of them. There is something for them to look at.'' The buzz of conversation is so strong that normal child noise does not matter at all.

There is plenty for them to eat, too. The ground sirloin sandwich with fries, at $5, is ample for two young children. They can also pick from such side dishes as onion rings and breaded cheese curds ($3.50 each) or soup ($2).

Some grown-ups, too, find the steak dinners a little too big.

"I can't eat the big steaks anymore," confesses Leonard Schmock. "Desk people in general don't eat as heavily." My partner chose the open faced tenderloin steak for $7.50. It was just the size she wanted, and she found it tasty and very tender. She chose hash browns, and I ended up wishing that I had. Smooth as butter, they were even better than the fries.

Diners who wish to steer away from steaks can order jumbo shrimp for $13, Canadian walleye pike for $11.50, broiled African lobster tail at market, or a four-piece chicken dinner for $9. Lighter choices include a $7.50 chicken tenderloin dinner and a $7 deep-fried chicken basket.

I enjoyed a Smoky's on tap, which was really the locally brewed Garten Brau amber. My partner had a glass of wine. For dessert, we shared raspberry sherbet, bringing the bill to $39.30 with tax.

The only problem at Smoky's is parking. Navigating the rear lot when customers have double parked is a test of skill and patience. At peak times, such as the end of a Badger home football game, gridlock reigns not only in the lot, but on Schmitt Place.

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► SMOKY'S OWNERS HAVE THRIVED FOR 40 YEARS▼ SMOKY'S OWNERS HAVE THRIVED FOR 40 YEARS

SMOKY'S OWNERS HAVE THRIVED FOR 40 YEARS
A-ONE STEAKHOUSE HAS SERVED NOTABLES

Published on Thursday, December 8, 1994
© 1994 Madison Newspapers, Inc.

Byline: By Genie Campbell

It seems only fitting that Len and Janet Schmock, owners of Smoky's Club, a Madison institution that annually makes the Top 10 U.S. steakhouse list compiled by the Fork and Knife Club, met while both were working in a restaurant. Just home from the war, Len was looking for something to do as a livelihood. From the time she was in high school, Janet had worked as a waitress. They owned and operated Hogan's Club from 1953 until '69, when the widening of University Avenue shut them down. Luckily, Justo's, in business down the street since 1936, was available, so the Schmocks bought it and renamed it Smoky's Club.

Today, Smoky's has a dining capacity of 170 people and employs 70 mostly part-time employees. On a weekend night, the restaurant will serve 500-plus steaks. The restaurant is now managed by sons Tom and Larry. Smoky's is also where the Schmocks' daughter, Barbara, a nurse, bakes chocolate chip cookies sold through area snack bars and stores as `Barbie's Batch Made From Scratch.'

WSJ: You seat 170 people, though it's not uncommon, is it, for people to wait up to an hour and a half for a table on a Friday or Saturday night?

Janet: We never know. People will call and ask, `how long will the wait be?' Monday night could be like a football night. It all depends on what's happening at the university and what's going on in town. We're fortunate that we're just a few blocks from campus, within cab range, and then, of course, we have faithful customers who are here a lot. But we do get a lot of people coming from the university.

WSJ: Has the Badgers' football success increased your business even more?

Janet: I can't say that. There is a lot of excitement in town. One thing I can say is, when there is a game, we open at 4 (instead of 4:30) and it starts to fill up even then... We're busier earlier because there are a lot of people in town.

WSJ: You've been in the restaurant business for more than 40 years. What makes a place like this so successful for so long?

Len: Paying attention; by staying and being here. You can't run your business from the dog track or Las Vegas or Chicago

Janet: We have wonderful help, but of course, we were the managers

When we first started out and had three children, I did all the cooking.

We lived upstairs (from Hogan's Club) and sometimes I'd be walking a child with one hand and cooking with the other. That was 40 years ago. It's different now.

Len: I think the trouble in this industry is that people start out with a bang and then get tired of the grind. Some will start out with all kinds of ideas and enthusiasm but it wears off. That's where they start getting into trouble. WSJ: How did you two maintain your enthusiasm over all these years?

Janet: We knew we had to do it; we were determined. It had to go and we worked hard.

Len: I say it's like a wheelbarrow. If you get on the back end and push, it goes. If you set it down, it won't go anywhere.

WSJ: Though your sons are now operating the business, do you still come to the restaurant every day?

Janet: I no longer hostess every night but Len is here every single day from 7 o'clock until 5. He sits right here and does all the book work. But he doesn't work nights anymore.

Len: You see, we get endless calls of all description from everywhere in the country, even as far as London. Are you there? We're coming in. We've never been here before. And if you're not here to answer all of that, what do they know?

WSJ: Are you referring to your reputation as one of the country's top steak-houses? Janet: They do read a lot about us in airline magazines...

Len: And the university draws an awful lot of people through conventions and symposiums. If you've been here for 40 years, they'll test you out...

I don't know how the Top 10 (list) from the Fork and Knife Club (based in Dallas, Texas) started out or how we got on it, to tell you the truth. They say they were here anonymously two or three times and I wasn't here. Maybe, they just didn't ask.

We've gotten a lot of mileage out of that. But our first explosion was from Midwest Living magazine, which chose us as the No. 1 steakhouse in the Midwest, out of 360 restaurants in 12 states.

Janet: They were here one whole day filming.

WSJ: What steak do people order the most?

Janet: In number, tenderloin. Our waitresses are not allowed to say one steak is better than another because they're all the best we can buy. What we do is have them describe each steak.

Len: When they ask me, I'll say, `What do you like?' And when they answer, I'll say, `Well then, that's the best.' (He laughs.)

WSJ: And your personal favorites?

Janet: I like a sirloin, a strip or a rib-eye.

Len: I like T-bones.

WSJ: So what do you do with your evenings now?

Janet: He's happy to go home after all these years...

Len: Watch the boob tube. I put football on. Like last night, there was a great game until 11 o'clock.

Janet: We're getting caught up on some things we couldn't before; we were here every night. Were we ever thrilled when we could dash across the street and go to the Cuba Club for lunch on a Sunday. Now we can do a few things.

WSJ: I know Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight eats here whenever his team is in town. Who else is sure to stop by for dinner?

Len: We have the Purdue coach and his basketball team meet here every year, the night before the game. The (Minnesota) Gophers do. Texas Tech asked us to fax a menu.

We had ABC Sports here this fall. We've had CBS and we've had Max McGee and Paul Hornung and those type of people. And we've had the referees for the football games coming in on Saturdays.

WSJ: And the UW football team?

Len: Barry (Alvarez) and his crew come in. They'll call us and say, `I hope you can take care of us. At 6 o'clock we'd like to bring in a half dozen recruits.' Janet: They like a great big steak.

Len: And they like a little atmosphere. Lord only knows they get enough of McDonald's and Burger King...

WSJ: Who's the most unusual person you've served?

Len: (TV and radio personality) Gene Rayburn, way back when.

Janet: Frank Lloyd Wright, years ago.

WSJ: If you hadn't gone into the restaurant business, what career would you have chosen?

Janet: I don't know what I'd be doing. I was a waitress and I loved it.

Len: I could have flown with the airlines, but I was sick of flying. I had had enough of that. Get up in the middle of the night and buck the weather. This is like getting ready for a party every day because you're going to have different people every day.

Janet: You're working the party, but it's fun; it really is exciting.

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► You have to be a horse to do it!▼ You have to be a horse to do it!

MADISON AREA GUIDE: February, 1996

By Veronica Deane

You have to be a horse to do it!

You have to be a horse it do it. How better could two former farm kids, Leonard and Janet Schmock, express the amount of energy, hard work and commitment it has taken to keep a restaurant name on the hungry tongues of people for 45 years?

Smoky's means steaks... great steaks... not only to Madison folks, but to people across the state and nation. Passengers have been known to get off a plane and taxi to Smoky's. Tourists who consider food as the best part of a vacation, have picked Smoky's from recommended lists long before they arrive.

Year after Year, Smoky's stood among the TOP 10 of the National Fork and Knife Club. They went to Door County for a meeting of the Restaurant Association one year and were surprised to be named #1 among 360 restaurants in 12 states. Midwest Magazine has published 2 feature articles so complimentary that one can almost taste the food as one reads about it. Various Madison BEST OF awards hang on the restaurant's walls.

"The Lord is so good. He doesn't let it go to our heads," Janet said.

Along with the awards, there are "Crazy Legs" Hirsch memorabilia and pictures of a number of UW football teams.

"One customer came in here and found his father in one of those pictures. Got him pretty excited."

Smoky's is not swirling with smoke, rather the name Schmock is pronounced Schmoke in Leonard's hometown.

Leonard, the farm kid from Bloomer, came to the UW to play football. Later he served his country as a pilot. But the football spirit still exists. He has attended 29 Super Bowl games and visiting sports teams often chose Smoky's.

Bobby Knight brings his basketball team. "He kind of huddles over his food looking in his plate, as if he is thinking about the upcoming game. That may surprise fans who've watched him go ape when his team is on the floor." Purdue teams have also found Smoky's. And the ABC-TV sports crew, Rocky Marciano and the late Mickey Mantle.

In this day when it's almost impossible to find a really tender steak in the meat counters, the word gets out when good steak is served. If you have a yen for a steak you want it Smoky-perfect. My read meat man and I satisfied that yearning one evening by indulging in fork tender filets, brown & beautiful on the outside, red shading into pink on the inside. Exactly as we had ordered them. Succulent. Served sizzling on hot, hot platters.

Other steaks offered include a New York Strip, T-bone or Sirloin. Seafood is special too... Jumbo Shrimp, Canadian Walleyed Pike-broiled or deep fried & Lobster Tail. A 4 piece chicken dinner is also a favorite or one of the light dinners.

Soup du jour was tomato cabbage with a delicious herb flavoring. The meal included a crock of relishes, dinner rolls & garlic bread. Salads were not fancy, but icy crisp & enhanced by homemade dressings - French, Thousand Island, Vinegar & Oil, Ranch and our favorite, French Roquefort.

Hash browns have become another Smoky's trademark. Fresh potatoes boiled in the skins to retain flavor and nutrition. Brown & crispy & surprise - no grease to leave a lingering aftertaste. I could have made a meal on the cottage cheese. And don't miss the pickled beets.

For dessert, if you can possibly think about one, there are simple ice cream dishes or you may want to buy daughter Barbara's Chocolate Chip cookies.

Janet was a farm kid also... from Black Earth. When it was time for her to leave home, her talents lay in housekeeping & cooking, so she became a live-in maid. Later, she gained vital experience in various places as a waitress, ending up at the old Hoffman House, where Leonard tended bar. They both came to know many Madison residents and it gave them the courage to buy the first restaurant to become Smoky's for $5,000.

Some folks had misgivings about them being too young and inexperienced.

"We were so confident. We wanted to do the very best we could in a cozy, friendly, environment. We struggled. It was not easy. We lived up over the restaurant & often were scrubbing floors downstairs at three in the morning," Janet recalled.

"The water turned to ice on those floors on winter nights," Smoky added

"I used to do all the cooking... rolls, pies, everything. We boiled meat bones to make our soup stock. When the children arrived, I took them to the kitchen with me. I had dreamed of sitting out front, greeting guests, but a friend gave me good advice: "It isn't the person out front that pleases, it's the food that comes from the kitchen." Janet said.

The Schmocks have trained all of their own cooks since those early days. They start as dishwashers, become bus people, salad makers, etc... until they reach pots and pans.

"They are all blends. They know about all the positions."

"We couldn't have survived without wonderful, caring help." The Schmocks will say, mentioning Viola, who was still working at 80. Nora, who is requested by regular patrons, or Maggie, who was one of the original women in the kitchen. "We have a wonderful relationship. We have even taken care of non-English speaking parties because among us we can speak Norwegian, German, Spanish & Italian."

They have survived the financially difficult time when the others were folding up. They have overcome the off again, on again media hype that red meat is bad for you. And come through a crushing blow of losing everything when a fire totally destroyed their home. They moved into another home and started a tradition. Every family on their street, their cousins and their aunts are invited for a huge Christmas party at Smoky's every year... to sing carols, eat wonderful food and thoroughly enjoy what the holiday is all about.

They love having families as customers and even the little ones in high-chairs are fascinated by the well known eclectic decor - some items collected during their vacations, others from the second hand stores and much given to them by customers. There's a large antique store sign, a wordless parrot and a stuffed baby alligator in a bird cage. A blowfish, a string of wooden fish and a preserved 18 lb. Muskie caught by Smoky. A Hoover vacuum cleaner and a strange golf cart and clubs. Pictures of clowns and one of the late Snowball, a friend to everyone on State Street. The wall next to us had pictures of various fighter planes. Another held a patron's gift - a painting which he watched an artist create on the street of Paris.

Pay attention every day. Check all the meats and other ingredients that come into the kitchen. Pay your bills. Walk before you run. Serve consistent quality. Make people feel at home. These are the rules Janet & Smoky set for themselves and the reasons for their successful 45 years. Janet would add, "And the Lord is so good."

Granted, you may have to be a "horse" to accomplish what Janet and Leonard have done. But it also takes faith and courage, graciousness & selflessness. And the work ethic of 2 Wisconsin farm kids and "the Lord's hand."

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► SMOKY'S STILL ONE OF THE BEST▼ SMOKY'S STILL ONE OF THE BEST

SMOKY'S STILL ONE OF THE BEST

Published on Saturday, April 26, 1997
© 1997 Madison Newspapers, Inc.

Byline: Michael Muckian

Visiting criticism on Smoky's Club is a little like doing an artistic evaluation of Mount Rushmore. It's there, it's an institution, and its legend precedes it. End of story.

At least that's always been our impression. Known for its steaks and soups, Smoky's always has been a benchmark of tradition among Madison restaurants.

It's the quintessential American steak house, the last of a vanishing breed. Apparently, people know it and still flock to it, even early on a Wednesday night.

Lately, we've heard some minor criticism of Smoky's, that the cuts of beef hadn't been up to par or the preparation no longer was what it once was.

Was this a legitimate concern or merely someone trying to be chic? (The "Beethoven wasn't so great'' syndrome, if you will.)

A downturn at Smoky's was not a cultural trend to be taken lightly. We thought we'd better check it out.

We arrived early and wound our way through the dark, cluttered restaurant to the "west wing.''

The ceiling was still hung with garage sale leftovers and littered with those little holiday lights that seem so festive at certain times of year and so annoying at others. The west wing was well-lit, a little less cluttered, and seemed to have a theme to its bric-a-brac (sports pennants and paintings of military aircraft).

We were seated under one of the many signs warning against the use of profane or abusive language. Perhaps our legend preceded us.

The menu is steak, specifically New York strip sirloin ($19), large filet mignon ($18), large sirloin ($17), large T-bone ($19), small filet ($16), small sirloin ($16) and ground sirloin ($9).

For those not interested in steak, the menu also offers deep-fried jumbo shrimp ($15), broiled lobster tail (market price), Canadian walleyed pike ($12), scallops ($14) and chicken ($9). There are also several sandwiches and lighter fare, most of which are $7.

All dinners come with soup or tomato juice, salad, rolls, choice of French fries or homemade hash browns, and a relish dish.

To steak or not to steak? There really wasn't any question, at least for one of us. I chose the small filet (8 ounces) with broccoli au gratin soup and hash browns and ordered my salad with homemade Roquefort dressing (50 cents extra.)

Jeannie ordered the Canadian walleyed pike broiled with the same set of side orders. A bucket of cut carrots, celery, radishes and scallions over ice was delivered to our table, and we noshed gratefully.

Jeannie was satisfied with water. I had a glass of industrial strength Cabernet Sauvignon ($3). Just one glass, mind you.

We also asked the waitress to make sure the kitchen didn't lose our order. We had an appointment to go to that evening. Our hostess assured us the restaurant had the best service in town. We would put that to the test.

Soup arrived first. The broccoli au gratin wasn't as thick as we had expected, but nevertheless had a viscosity suitable for the dish. The broccoli had been pureed to little green specks, which made for a better blend with the broth. We had expected a little cheesier brew, but found the soup pleasant enough.

Salads were next, standard blends of chopped iceberg lettuce, cucumber slices, a single cherry tomato and boxed croutons. The Roquefort was flavorful, and we would have enjoyed just a little more of it.

A basket of four rolls, individually wrapped saltines and homemade garlic toast rounds fell into place here, too. All fine, but nothing to knock your socks off.

That role, apparently, was reserved for the entrees.

Both the steak and the pike arrived on sizzling steel platters we were warned were too hot to touch.

The fish was spread luxuriously across its plate, occupying the entire space. My steak was a short, squat stack of meat positioned center plate. Our hash browns for two arrived together, a pancake-sized patty or potato on its own plate.

The pike, dusted with paprika and sauteed in butter, had a lush, creamy texture that melted in your mouth. It was a little on the bony side, but other than that proved a very fine entree.

My steak was equally tender, very moist, with just the right amount of flavor. Dark on the outside and pink on the inside, it was easily among the best steaks I'd had in a long, long time.

Based on our experience, reports of Smoky's demise appear to have been greatly exaggerated. Feel free to visit with confidence.

And if you're in a hurry, don't worry. We were seated and served and departed within 40 minutes. Maybe it is the best service in town.

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► MILWAUKEE JOURNAL: May, 1997▼ MILWAUKEE JOURNAL: May, 1997

MILWAUKEE JOURNAL: May, 1997

By Constance Daniell

You could call it "the house that steaks built." Generations of students have been weaned from the hamburger habit and turned on to steaks at the venerable Smoky's restaurant while attending college in Madison.

It was 34 years ago that Janet and Leonard (Smoky) Schmock opened the first Smoky's just a block down the street from it's present location on University Ave. In those day, of course, that was the outskirts of town.

Then, as now, the big drawing card was steaks. Oh the menu always contained a few other choices - still does: chicken, lobster, a fish dish. But it was the steaks - New York strips, filet mignons, sirloins, and T-bones - that drew raves from adoring patrons.

Smoky's has become something of a Madison institution. Visiting alumni invariably make a beeline for the place. On any given night the restaurant will be catering to as many out of town patrons as area residents.

Experience has taught us that "forget it" is the best advice for anyone thinking of dining at Smoky's on the evening after a Badger football game. Regardless of a team victory or loss, the place is packed.

Weekends are almost as busy, so we made reservations for four at 7 p.m. on a Thursday. Our friends Howie and Ginny Koop, who live in nearby Dane, joined us.

Arriving shortly after 7, we inched our way through wall-to-wall people to reach the hostess station, only to be told there would be a short wait. It took some doing, but my husband managed to work his way to the bar and order a round of cocktails: two manhattans and two martinis.

About 20 minutes later we were seated at our table, where a tray of chilled, crisp, raw, fresh vegetables awaited. We ordered a second round of cocktails and decided to share two appetizer offerings: shrimp cocktail and onion rings.

The shrimp not whole as expected but chopped into bite-size pieces, were overpriced, I thought. The onion rings on the other hand were excellent: an ample serving of large rings lightly battered and deep-fried to a crusty golden brown.

Homemade soup of the day... night's offering of cabbage soup - an excellent choice. Steaming bowls of well-seasoned, creamy chicken broth contained large chunks of floating cabbage.

For entrees, three of us ordered steaks: a 20 ounce large T-bone, a 12 ounce New York strip and, for me, a 8 ounce filet. Each was succulently tender, properly aged for the best flavor and broiled to medium-rare perfection as ordered: crusty brown outside, delicate pink inside.

Ginny's Canadian walleye pike, lightly battered, deep-fried to a tempting golden hue, was moist and fresh-flavored. French-fried potatoes and hash browns were offered, and we all chose the latter, another Smoky's specialty. They were homemade, not the frozen hash browns so frequently encountered, and were crisply fried to form a dark brown crust enclosing a creamy white center.

The salad, unfortunately, was a rather lackluster blend of the inevitable iceberg lettuce. The Italian house dressing was bland and ordinary.

Ice cream and chocolate sundaes were the only dessert offerings, so we passed. The bill, including two imported beers served with dinner and three coffees with the entrees came to $69. plus tax.

Despite crowded conditions, the service was surprisingly fast and efficient. From the time we were seated until our coffee was served covered little more than an hour.

The restaurant's dining room is cavernous, connected to several smaller dining rooms that seem like annexes added as afterthoughts.

Tables are jammed together and the "decor" at Smoky's includes walls and ceilings covered with an incredible mix of collectibles: wind chimes of every description, football and baseball pennants, posters, placards printed with religious homilies, a floating plastic Oscar Mayer wiener, beer mugs hung over the bar...

Howie described it, not unkindly as an "eclectic collection of junk."

In a telephone conversation a few days later, Janet Schmock laughed and called the decorating scheme "early garage sale or attic."

"So many customers bring things in and want us to put them up, " she explained. "It's something people think is fun."

In the restaurant's early days, Janet did all the cooking while Smoky handled the bar. Today, it's still very much a family affair with two sons, Larry and Tom, taking an active role, too.

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► SMOKY'S▼ SMOKY'S

THE CAPITAL TIMES: 1998

By Debra Carr-Eising

SMOKY'S

Bad language and rowdy behavior are not tolerated.

Few reservations are taken because priority is given to walk-ins. Still, the waiting can be long - especially on a busy Saturday night.

The place shuts down altogether for two weeks in the winter and another two weeks in August. Plus, it's closed on all holidays.

Such strict guidelines would seem to hinder a business, but Janet and Leonard Schmock have made them into a recipe for success.

Their restaurant - Smoky's, 3005 University Avenue, Madison, WI is a popular place to go for sizzling beef in Madison.

In fact, Smoky's has been named on of the country's Top 10 Steak Houses by the Knife and Fork Club of Dallas, Texas. It's an honor Smoky's has maintained for two years.

We really try to serve the best, says Janet Schmock. "Our meet suppliers can tell you that. They stand right here when we inspect everything. What we don't exactly like - the coloring, texture or marbling of certain steaks - we send back... our standards are pretty high."

In addition to good food, the Schmocks attribute their success to loyal customers and good service. Their ratio of waitresses to customers, for example, is quite high.

"We've always been blessed with very good help," says Janet Schmock. "And over the years, we've had very few bad eggs. In fact, a couple of our waitresses have been here 35 years."

Another important part of the whole picture is to always be on premise, says Leonard Schmock. After all, people like to know that the owner is interested.

"You never know when something might break down," he adds, "and you have to be there to innovate and get things rolling again."

In 1953, the Schmocks opened their first restaurant just a few blocks from their present location.

"We started out with only $5,000., but we were willing to really, really work - and we did," recalls Janet Schmock. "Leonard did all the bartending, and I did most of the cooking, then we'd both clean up until 3 or 4 in the morning.

" We were open seven days a week for a long time. I don't know how we did it while also raising three children. It was no picnic, believe me!"

In those early days, the Schmock family lived in five rooms above the small restaurant, which had a seating capacity of 50.

Today, Smoky's has five dining rooms that we can seat 175.

"We just finished our third expansion," explains Leonard Schmock. "If you would have look through that window last year, you'd have seen threetreess.

"Abut those sparrows weren't paying the rent," he jokes, "so we thought we'd put up a wall."

Although the building may be large, Smoky's menu remains rather small - specializing in four different steaks.

"Our waitresses are forbidden to suggest a certain steak because in a T-bone, you get part sirloin, part filet," says Janet Schmock. "A top sirloin is very flavorful and thick like a roast, but they say the filet is the most tender.

"So, what's good is what a customer happens to like. Some people will eat absolutely nothing but tenderloin. Others will eat only a strip."

In addition to excellent food, Smoky's is noted for its unusual decor - a wonderful mix of glitz that hangs from the ceiling and covers the walls.

"Some of it's memorabilia from our travels around the world and various other outposts," explains Leonard Schmock, who flew in the Navy for five years during World War II and fondly points to photographs of wartime aircraft.

"People like looking around at this stuff," he adds. "It gives them something to do if they have to wait for a table."

Customers also are encouraged to bring in interesting things that they no longer want. For example, loyal patrons have donated a ship made from beer cans, large mounted fish and inflatable Oscar Mayer wieners.

"We've accumulated a lot of stuff, but many of our pictures were lost when our house burned down in 1987," recalls Janet Schmock. "No one was hurt in that fire, though, so we've got a lot to be thankful for."

Originally from Bloomer, Leonard Schmock came to Madison in 1937 to play football and study agriculture at the University of Wisconsin, World War II, however interrupted his plans.

After the war, Leonard stayed in a plane and did crop dusting for area farmers. He also was a bartender at the old Cuba Club, as well as a salesman for Libby Foods before opening his own business.

Over the years, Smoky's has evolved into a family operation with sons Larry and Tom assuming more of the day-to-day responsibilities.

The Schmock's daughter, Barbara - who's a nurse at the UW - also lends an occasional helping had. But she's busy with her own business (Barbie's Batch Baked From Scratch), which supplies homemade chocolate chip cookies to area convenience stores and specialty shops.

"I'm still here every day," says Leonard Schmock, with turned 76 on his last birthday. "You can always find something to do - even as old as I am," he quips.

" A lot of our original customers aren't around anymore, but their relatives keep coming. We're into the grandchildren now."

Smoky's early clientele included some noteworthy people, such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Philip La Follette.

"They'd sit out in front until we opened," recalls Leonard Schmock. "Frank Lloyd Wright would sit in the back of his car with the top down. His driver would let him off and he'd come in with his cane.

"I'm told that George Bush ate here back in 1978 on a minor mission before he was elected into office."

Jazz musicians Al Hirt and Ronnie Cole also have dined at Smoky's, as well as several former Packers, including Max McGee, Paul Hornung and Fuzzy Thurston, Elroy Hirsch is a regular.

"Smoky's is kind of the place to go for Big 10 coaches," says Larry Schmock. "Purdue and Minnesota bring their whole basketball teams here when they're in town."

All of the meat ordering and much of the bookkeeping are now done by Tom Schmock, who grew up in the restaurant business.

"A degree in hotel and restaurant management really doesn't mean a lot here because we don't run the place like a corporate restaurant," says Larry Schmock.

"Everyone has their own way of doing business. What we prepare in the kitchen is basic meat and potatoes. There's not much prep work other than the soups and salad dressings."

In the summer, Leonard Schmock is often at the Farmers Market gathering ingredients for their homemade soups.

"He loves to grocery shop," says his wife. "I love to cook and clean, and we both love food. It seems like we were meant to do this."

But you have to love it, adds Leonard Schmock. The hours can be long, especially when you're first starting out.

"Every night, though, you're constantly meeting new people," he adds. "That's the fun part of restaurant life."

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► I dream of beef - The ever-popular Smoky's continues to serve superb steaks.▼ I dream of beef - The ever-popular Smoky's continues to serve superb steaks.

Isthmus: March 9-15, 2001

I dream of beef
The ever-popular Smoky's continues to serve superb steaks.

By Raphael Kadushin

What makes a restaurant a local landmark? Partly it’s the size of the crowds, and the crowds at Smoky’s start assembling early. In fact, the restaurant’s parking lot was already full when we pulled up on a recent Saturday at 4:45 p.m., and that wasn’t much of a surprise. Long considered one of the Midwest’s most reliable steakhouses, Smoky’s boasts a distinguished pedigree. And it doesn’t take reservations.

We were relatively lucky; we only had to wait about 15 minutes before the hostess called us up over her booming microphone. That was just enough time to admire, or at least scan, the setting. The cavernous dining room itself was already jammed with people. Hanging from the low ceiling were Christmas lights, musical instruments, birdcages, a lunchbox and an inflatable pig. The desperately festive effect was offset a little by the barrage of signs hanging in the hallway. Profane language, one warned, will not be allowed. Words that bless, another admonished, are like a fountain of life. Words that curse are like a cesspool.

Unfortunately we were accompanied by a profane friend (a.k.a. Mr. Scatological, or the human cesspool), who seemed intent on testing the house policy. Fortunately, our companion’s Tourette’s-like stream was drowned out by the crowd, and we ended up sitting in the middle of the dining room, under an inflatable football, and feeling very lucky.

We felt even luckier when dinner arrived. While you may be eating in an overgrown carnival booth, here there’s no question that Smoky’s takes its legacy very seriously. Steak is its enduring claim to fame, and you won’t get a better one in town (although you can do just as well at the Tornado Club, without the wait). The best buy was my large 13-ounce sirloin, a relative steal at $19. Accompanied, like all dinners, by a serviceable tomato juice or soup (a watery French onion), and a crisp iceberg lettuce salad, the hunk of meat didn’t need any prelude. Caramelized brown on the outside, perfectly tender and pink on the inside, the sirloin sat sizzling on its metal platter, spitting juice. Accompanied by a round of buttery hash browns wrapped up in their own golden crust, the steak satisfied every carnivorous urge.

Just as good was an 8-ounce filet mignon, though this wasn’t the evening’s big surprise. While a plate of four lightly breaded chicken pieces was a good deal for $10, it was a broiled African lobster tail that almost stole the show from the impeccable steaks. After almost losing a tooth recently to a rubbery lobster in a 3-Michelin-starred French temple de cuisine, I was elated with Smoky’s tail. This was everything lobster should be: sweet, rich and almost velvety. How do you top that? Desserts, our efficient server told us, are just limited to ice cream, sundaes or sherbet, but most people don’t ask. And why should they, after the best surf-and-turf around?

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Yahara House

Page Summary: Read restaurant reviews about Smokys Club, one of the best restaurants and steak houses in Madison, WI, serving Middleton, Verona and Waunakee, as well as Mount Horeb. Looking for restaurants near me? Smoky's serves up the best steaks, chops, seafood, cocktails and martini's in Dane County, including Cross Plains. Mc Farland and Oregon, Wisconsin.

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