Farewell, Smoky’s Club

The cast of colorful characters topped even the steaks at Smoky's, which closes on Feb. 28 after 69 years.
Photo of the exterior of Smoky's Club from the side with the iconic sign on the right and the blue sky behind it
Photo by Maija Inveiss.
Smoky's Club is closing for good after nearly 70 years in Madison.

I once started a newspaper column by noting that Smoky’s Club has such a rich history that even the people who owned it before it was Smoky’s are legendary.

The restaurant — which closes for good next month after 69 years, most of them in its current 3005 University Ave. location — is best known for its steaks.

Midwest Living magazine named Smoky’s the best steakhouse in the Midwest in 1988, and the Knife and Fork Club of America listed it among the top 10 in the country several years running.

But for some of us, a restaurant or bar is made truly special by the people who work, eat, drink, hang out and swing from the chandeliers there — the characters and their stories. By that measure, few if any places in Madison can top Smoky’s.

It might make sense to start with Leonard “Smoky” Schmock, who gave the restaurant its name — except we’d miss hearing about Jennie Justo, who sold it to Schmock in 1969.

I first heard about Justo in a publication called “The Spirit of Greenbush,” produced in October 2000 in association with the dedication of the memorial monument honoring Madison’s historic Greenbush neighborhood.

An enormously difficult family circumstance — her father murdered, her mother placed in protective custody — put Justo, still a teen, in charge of her younger siblings. This was during Prohibition. Desperate, Justo opened a speakeasy in the basement of the family home on Spring Street.

She did well enough that when she was finally stopped — in 1931, age 23, after serving alcohol to two federal agents — the press referred to her as the “queen of the bootleggers.” Justo was eventually incarcerated for a year in Milwaukee. She came back by train and was serenaded and handed roses at the West Washington Avenue depot by her former customers.

Justo married Madison Sports Hall of Famer Art Bramhall, who played three sports professionally — the queen of the bootleggers weds the king of the sports page! — and in 1938 they built and opened Justo’s Club at 3005 University Ave. It was a roaring success.

Three decades later, Schmock and his wife, Janet, needed to relocate their restaurant, Smoky’s Club, due to street expansion. It had opened in 1953 at 2925 University Ave. One block west, Justo and Bramhall were ready to sell. The transfer — Smoky’s going to 3005 University — was reported in a November 1969 Wisconsin State Journal story.

The Schmocks had met while both were working at the Hoffman House on East Wilson Street. He got his nickname, Smoky, from the way his last name was pronounced around his native city of Bloomer — “Schmoke.”

The family ran Smoky’s, and eventually sons Tom and Larry took over for their parents. With time it became a celebrated part of the Madison landscape, frequented by local notables and visitors like basketball coaching legend Bobby Knight, out for dinner with his Madison pal John Powless.

Smoky himself — prior to his death in 2001 — liked to sit at an end of the bar and tell stories. That’s where I once got him talking about Marion Roberts — I knew the name from my dad — who had dazzled the city in the 1960s by bringing in celebrity friends (Mickey Mantle! Rocky Marciano!), renting limos and buying champagne by the case. He flashed across Madison in the 1960s like a comet.

“If anyone ever had a good time,” Smoky told me, “it was Marion Roberts.” He said Roberts once invited him on a trip to South America.

“Why there?” Smoky asked.

“I’m going to check out an underwater gold mine,” Roberts said.

Alas, Roberts was a con man. Who’s perfect? Roberts went to prison, but Smoky wasn’t sorry to have met him: “I might have more money, but I’d have had a lot less fun.”

One of my favorite Smoky’s characters spent many years working behind its bar — Bob Perry, better known as “Martini Bob.” His longevity did not make Perry unique at Smoky’s — the waitstaff seemed to rarely turn over and the friendly, familiar faces added to the appeal.

Martini Bob, though, was famous. In 2003, Perry started a martini club — sign up, and after you bought eight martinis, the ninth was free. The club astonished its founder by growing to more than 2,300 members who enjoyed a menu that included 300 different martinis. Perry even named one for Jeanan’s and my dog, Bobaloo — which was fitting since if you had more than one, you were liable to forget your dog’s name.

One day in 2010, I heard that Martini Bob had some news. I went to Smoky’s prior to opening and found him chatting with Tom Schmock.

I grinned at Martini Bob. “I understand you have your own song.”

“All the great ones do,” Tom said.

The previous summer, a musician named J.W. Davis had played a club on Williamson Street and then found his way to Smoky’s for a martini.

Davis was impressed enough to write a song, “Martini Bob,” which he played at a coffeehouse in Portland, Oregon, a performance still available on YouTube.

Smoky’s last day will be Feb. 28. It will be replaced by a multiple-story mixed use project.

It’s probably sacrilege, but my favorite dish at Smoky’s wasn’t the steaks, it was the hash browns.

Tom Schmock once told me their secret: Tempered steel pans seasoned with beef fat.

World class hash browns. They were still no match for the people.

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