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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Steaks and Nostalgia

Supper at Bobu’s

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It was sometime after World War II when the supper club became middle-class America’s choice for a night on the town. Supper clubs were neither four-star restaurants nor diners, but offered good food familiar to American tastes in a relaxed setting. Inevitably there was bar near the entrance, where patrons loosened up with a few drinks before sitting down dinner—“supper” it was usually called back then, at least in this part of the country.

Nowadays, restaurants capturing the unpretentious feel of the old supper clubs have become scarcer. One contender, Bobu’s Steakhouse and Lounge, has been open for more than two years at the western edge of West Allis. Specifically, Bobu’s seems cut from the tail end of the supper club era, the 1970s. For anyone who grew up in Milwaukee during those days, Bobu’s is a reminder of times past, a world certainty and freedom where drinks were cheap and no one was carded, where phone calls didn’t follow you everywhere and work ended at 5 o’clock sharp.

During those years Bobu’s owner, Bob Radtke, ran a disco called the Sand Dollar. His chief waitress, Diamond Lil, is a veteran of most every West Side restaurant from the ’70s onward, including Balistreri’s and the Red Mill.

With its dark paneling, red bar stools and white tablecloths, Bobu’s recreates the essence of the term “supper club.” Despite the exotic suggestion of the restaurant’s name (“Bobu” is actually Radtke’s nickname), it’s a steak and chop joint whose Italian accent is heard in the menu’s veal Parmesan, chicken piccata, Caesar salad and pasta pomodoro.

Warning: The appetizers are filling enough to serve as supper. The potato skins ($6), deep-fried and topped with three cheeses and bacon, spill over the platter. The eggplant ($7) comes in long and hefty strips, tenderly fried and lightly battered, served with a bowl of marinara. Unlike typical bar food, they are not greasy. The straw onion rings ($6) form a mound tall enough to ski on.

Still hungry? Dinner begins with a warm loaf of white bread (rye on Fridays to go with the four fish fry specials). The entrees, many of them reasonably priced at less than $20, include a choice of homemade soup or a house salad of mixed lettuce and tomatoes with freshly made croutons. Potato options include the usual baked variety and french fries, the less-expected red-skin mashed and, surprisingly, hash browns, almost unheard of in restaurants past breakfast time. Friday adds another choice: potato cakes (not potato pancakes) served with applesauce.

Strict vegetarians are limited to pasta pomodoro ($11). Chicken and fish are readily available, but somehow you just know that red meat, beef in particular, is the house specialty. The largest, most elaborate preparation, the 12-ounce steak pepperanto ($32), is built around peppered tenderloin tips sauteed with bell peppers, red onions, tomatoes and roasted garlic, flamed with a splash of brandy. The steak Bobu ($27) also speaks of Italian American. It’s a 14-ounce New York strip with roma tomatoes, oregano and basil in a roasted garlic sauce. The modest 6-ounce steer filet ($19) comes done to order—in my case, medium pink inside and blackened at the edges, topped with some of those crunchy onion rings and accompanied by mushrooms. Similarly, the Bobu burger ($7) is a half-pound of choice ground beef, cooked to perfection on a toasted kaiser roll, with a choice of three cheeses.

Bobu’s is the kind of place where boisterous locals gather at the bar and everyone knows their servers by name. By the end of the night, everyone at the bar probably knows everyone else’s name as well.

BOBU’S STEAKHOUSE & LOUNGE
11505 W. National Ave. (414) 321-7300 Credit Cards: All major Smoking section

Photo by Tate Bunker