A direct result of the Streets and San Man influence, in September ReneG, Erik M, BobS and I went to Club 81, Too on the southeast side of Chicago in the vicinity of the old Wisconsin Steel Mills.
Erik M got the ball rolling with this excited e-mail to ReneG and I:
OK, this place was featured, briefly, in a news segment, last night, on WTTW. It was a Streets and San Man bit on outdoor dining in Chicago. They talked about this place for a minute. By the looks of it, I am already in love. It is in Hegewisch. It is a tiny stand-alone tavern surrounded on two sides by a virtual park. There is also a lake. They are known for a roast beef sandwich that is served on rye, and the fried fish. In the warmer months, folks sit outside and eat at a picnic table.
It is like the love child of a Wisconsin lakeside tavern and a Calumet City steel mill-workers bar.
Do you know this place?!! [Really a question to our intrepid ReneG]
I really want to go 1) while its nice out, and 2) preferably during the daylight hours, like, say, for lunch.
Initially, it was suggested to go on a Saturday, I countered with a Sunday visit. Erik sensed they many not serve on Sunday. Hmmmm. Based on that comment I phoned because the distance was enough I didn't want to be disappointed.
“What time is the restaurant serving on Sunday.”
“The restaurant is closed [ah ha Erik is right!], but the bar is open.”
“Ok, what are the hours on Saturday?”
“The restaurant is open only Wednesday and Friday. [huh?] On Wednesday, our hours are 11-2, then 4-8. On Friday, our hours are 11-2 and 3-8:30. If you are in the door at 8:30 you are still served. The bar is open every day.”
Very eccentric schedule.
Just to add more meat to this trip, we also were in contact with the Fireman who very briefly posted in February-March last year who we suspected knew Club 81, Too, "Be sure to try the Horseradish sauce with the roast beef. It is homemade and wonderful! Try the HOT if you are feeling frisky!" Unfortunately we did not meet him yet again as he was at a baseball game.
On Friday evening traffic, it took me two hours to reach Club 81, Too arriving at the same time as Erik who collected BobS and ReneG. We came early enough to check out the park with horseshoe game and a Bocce Ball court needing some maintenance. We commented Club 81, Too location in the middle of a residential neighborhood, you had to know this place existed because you would never casually bump into it.
We walked into the bar with the Friday night crowd relaxing and enjoying themselves. To the right was the dining room, which had a small town Foreign Legion hall feel to it, which was not appealing to some of us. The meet-and-greet family member co-owner immediately identified we were new to the place. He told us about his brother the Chef, his other brother who works here who sustained injuries in Vietnam, the sister who was on vacation and (maybe) another sister who works back of the house. We told him the Streets and San Guy caused our visit, he said we were not alone. He explained the menu with fried chicken specific to Wednesday though fish is the Friday specialty.
When we didn’t order the recommended shrimp, he brought out complimentary samples for our future consideration. He came by with some good-natured jokes, which we reasoned all the regulars have heard a few times over. He also explained the eccentric hours: when the restaurant was open daily or opened twice a week, they served roughly the same volume of people. So why not put your energies into two very concentrated days instead of a weaker daily traffic. Interesting concept, which works very well for them since they were crowded.
We learned the Chef brother occasionally revs up the smoker. He also makes several hundred pounds of Polish sausage during the holidays, which people place orders in advance after Thanksgiving. [Shortly after I wrote this, I collected Erik M’s and Rene G’s order information and place our order. We collected it together hoping to enjoy another dinner. Unfortunately the restaurant was closed for a private party. Instead, we went to John’s for pizza. The Polish sausage is very coarsely ground and teaming with garlic. I served these sausages with German red cabbage and parsley boiled potatoes, which my family enjoyed. I smoked the remainder on the 4th of July, which was also well received.]
We had to pinch ourselves to remind us we were still in Chicago, not Wisconsin.
According to ReneG, "There are a couple other places in the vicinity: Riverside Marina, 13601 S Calhoun (S&S Man recs grilled ham and cheese) and M&M Windjammer, 13701 S Hoxie (JSM on Chowhound rec'd burgers and cod on Fri)."
Fast forward to September 5th, 2005:
Earlier this summer, it was decided the merry group would return to sample the menu yet again and take some pictures. Easier said than done, last week after another effort to coordinate Rene G and I decided to return on our own for the Friday fish fry. Upon seating, we were given a bowl of pickled beets to snack on while reading the menu.
We ordered crab cakes as an appetizer to share:
Rene G selected the Lake Perch, which appeared to be the genuine article. No tartar or cocktail sauce is offered, however the coleslaw makes a great accompaniment with extra portions available for the asking.
I ordered a walleye fillet, which filled my plate. In both cases, the fish were skillfully fried to cooked rather than overcooked. The additions on our plates of green onions, radishes and cottage cheese reminded me of relish plates my Grandmother would serve as well as the rye bread with butter.
While we had heard the menu emphasis on Wednesday was different, we returned the following Wednesday to learn it was nearly the same menu with less fish dishes offered. To get a read on the BBQ offered, we shared a plate of rib tips. This was not smoked BBQ, which they offer on occasion. This was perhaps boiled, sauced and baked BBQ with the meat Jello qualities often criticized here. While Rene G ate the crust of his, he was quite surprised I ate my portion all the while complaining it wasn’t very good. As I have noted before, I have a capacity to eat food I don’t especially like.
For my main course, I ordered their fried chicken and Rene G ordered Walleye. My fried chicken was ever so lightly dusted with seasoned flour and fried. They have a good skill with frying because my wing, leg, thigh and breast were each cooked correctly. Not one piece was under or over cooked, which is a balancing act when everything arrives warm to the table.
Rene G’s Walleye were several filets rather than the grandiose one I had been served the Friday before. Despite an afternoon of eating and meandering with Gary and friends, I noticed he ate all his fish.
Club 81, Too is certainly a neighborhood institution and home of the perpetual party where everyone knows your name, though equally welcoming to strangers. It is also family oriented with kids present every time we have visited. It’s very likely the place the regulars must visit first whenever they have been out of town for an extended period.
Club 81, Too is yet another data point there is a lot we need to learn of the south side.
Club 81 Too
13157 S Avenue M (written as stated on the signs)
The restaurant is ONLY open Wednesday and Friday!
Wednesday: 11-2, 4-8
Friday: 11-2, 3-8:30