Preserving history at Driftless Social
Another set of Schmock brothers are prepared to reincarnate Smoky’s in their own way.
Much to Madison’s dismay, Smoky’s Club recently closed after 69 years in business. Opened in 1953 by Leonard “Smoky” Schmock and his wife, Janet, it was a Madison mainstay on University Avenue that was known for its behemoth martini list, steak and seafood dinners and a delightfully tacky atmosphere. Matt Schmock grew up in Smoky’s, owned first by his grandparents before his dad, Larry, and uncle, Tom, took over.
The decision to close was made for many reasons: staffing shortages, high food costs, an offer on the property and the difficulty in creating a succession plan to keep Smoky’s going. It was the right time, Tom Schmock says, but the pain that comes with losing a classic supper club that was important both to his family and the greater community is no less agonizing. Yet he understands that it’s the way things go.
“We’re not the first and we won’t be the last,” Tom Schmock says.
But another set of Schmock brothers (Larry’s children) are prepared to reincarnate Smoky’s in their own way. Matt Schmock and his brother, Tim, plan to open Driftless Social in the former Schubert’s in Mount Horeb this year.
Before the Smoky’s announcement, Matt Schmock described a restaurant that would be reminiscent of a 1920s speakeasy. He envisioned a dark, comfortable interior with vintage booths, brick walls and a restored tin ceiling in a building that had housed a restaurant since 1911. “I think it’s a perfect spot for an old-school, old-time supper club,” Matt Schmock says.
Then Smoky’s closed, and his focus seems to have shifted. “Now it’s like, oh man, I really should try and re-create Smoky’s as best I can,” he says. He plans to fill the walls with family pictures and incorporate some Smoky’s memorabilia that’s been collected by his grandparents, dad and uncle from salvage yards and antique stores for decades. “I’m going to try and re-create what my grandparents started,” he says. It’ll take time, he knows. “You have to get a couple scratches in the floor.”
He’s taking lessons learned at Smoky’s with him. Involved in the business since he was a teen, Matt Schmock watched Smoky’s clientele change. It’s what prompted the supper club’s first drastic menu update in 64 years, back in 2017. “The neighborhood is getting much younger, and younger families are moving in, and they don’t always want that old-school, old-fashioned type food. They’re looking for more of a modern take on old dishes,” he says. While his grandma’s homemade cottage cheese and beets stayed on Smoky’s menu alongside steaks, hand-breaded shrimp and hash browns, the new menu boasted tuna, coconut shrimp, steak tips and more affordable pasta dishes.
“People loved them,” Matt Schmock says. Sometimes all it took to please a younger guest was adding steak toppings, like compound butter, blue cheese or a brandy peppercorn sauce.
He’s also planning to pick up Smoky’s reputation as a martini destination, but on a smaller scale. Bob “Martini Bob” Perry, who worked at Smoky’s for more than 30 years, created a list of hundreds of martinis for the supper club at one point. That list, while epic, isn’t sustainable anymore, Matt Schmock says.
The brothers are taking their time with the Driftless Social remodel, being careful to preserve the space’s history, incorporate Smoky’s touches and make sure guests still recognize the bones of the building’s former tenants — Schubert’s, although not a supper club, was iconic, too. If they’re lucky, Matt Schmock says, they’ll create something that generations of families will enjoy, just like people appreciated Smoky’s.
“If parents and grandparents keep doing that, taking their kids to these classic places and getting them to appreciate places like that and not chains, I think the [supper club] trend will keep going,” he says.
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