Restaurant Tours: back to the 50s--must we? | Calendar | Chicago Reader

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Restaurant Tours: back to the 50s--must we?

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Club Lucky prides itself on being a 40s- and 50s-style supper club. The cocktail lounge even has vintage martini shakers on the back bar. Talk about fond memories--with two in diapers and a sitter just once a week, that Saturday-night martini was all we had to live for. The economy being what it is I can see why they're back in style.

Other than martinis, as I recall, the 40s and 50s had no style at all. But suddenly everybody's nostalgic for them. Forgotten are the backyard atomic bomb shelters and the frustrations of pre-sexual-revolution dating. Then again, perhaps that's why the era's comeback is focused on the food and furnishings.

Not that food in the 50s was good. Housewives were judged by their ability to get jello out of a mold, the first word in every recipe was "throw," and the basis for all sauces was an undiluted Campbell's soup.

Style was no better. Aside from the numbing uniformity of tract houses whose picture windows framed a table lamp, the furniture was awesomely hideous. Club Lucky reminded me of every decorating mistake I ever made--the same drapery pattern, the linoleum floors, the Naugahyde (that's what we called vinyl in those days) booths, and the flying-saucer light fixtures. What it didn't remind me of was a supper club. Those were small, elegant boites where people ate hummingbirds' wings, listened to chanteuses, and danced like Ginger and Fred. Try to imagine Ginger and Fred attempting to trip the light fantastic after meatball sandwiches.

I invited my daughter Jill along, thinking she'd like a break from two little kids who'd been home for days with the flu. Besides, I needed a ride. She drove me there in a snowstorm she refused to believe I hadn't planned, whining all the way that she was going blind from the pinkeye the kids had given her.

So she couldn't see the menu, what difference did it make? She'd already eaten her Jenny Craig rations for the day. All she ordered was a Club Lucky Salad ($7.50 serves two), an enormous "garbage salad" of lettuce, fontinella cheese, carrots, salami, and roasted red peppers. She put Jenny Craig dressing on her half. On my half I put Club Lucky dressing, that wonderful Italian dressing that's exactly the same everywhere and that you can't find in any cookbook.

I started to order the roasted peppers on Italian bread ($1), but the waitress very nicely warned me that it wasn't worth the trouble (the service was exceptional each time I visited). The cold antipasto, ($7.95 per person), which I had on a later visit, varies daily. Mine consisted of frittata, grilled eggplant and asparagus spears, sliced beef, olives, and chipolinni carmelized onions. It was a far better choice than the rubbery grilled calamari ($5.95) in a lemon-vegetable vinaigrette with a relish made of capers and sweet peppers, and topped with those pathetic little baby octopuses. The bread, though thickly sliced and warm, wasn't as interesting as the wonderful variety of crusty breads available at the trendier places.

Not that Club Lucky isn't trendy in its own way. The crowd--and there is one--is on the arty side, a judgment I've made based on the number of men with ponytails. This night it was a two-ponytail crowd--both gray and worn by aging hippies. I'd been there on a weekend when everyone seemed to be very young and very hip, many of them what my favorite new book about the under-30 crowd, Douglas Coupland's Generation X, refers to as "black holes," a "subgroup best known for their possession of almost entirely black wardrobes." Jill saw some people she knew, which didn't improve her mood--she was wearing glasses instead of contacts and no eye makeup because of the pinkeye.

I ordered two entrees to make up for my daughter. The chicken Vesuvio with roasted potatoes and peas in garlic wine sauce ($7.75 for a half/$15 for a whole) was so loaded with pepper it was almost as fiery as its namesake; ditto the pasta Siciliana ($9.75), capellini with sauteed eggplant, red sweet peppers, olives, and capers in tomato sauce. The cook must have been in love that night, because on another visit the seasonings were well balanced. The house specialty of eggplant parmigiano ($7.95) and the spinach and ricotta cheese lasagna ($8) were both perfectly adequate. Other traditional dishes included fettuccine Alfredo ($8.75), filet oreganato ($14.95), veal Francese ($14.95)--breaded and sauteed in lemon, butter, and white wine--and cheese ravioli with marinara sauce ($7.25).

Jill condescended to taste my chicken and pasta. We ate in silence, occasionally interrupted by her reminders of what a good daughter she was to go out with me on such a night and my complaints that a person who only ordered salad wasn't much help to a food critic.

Desserts include the inevitable but always delicious tiramisu ($4.25)--I love the way mascarpone cheese tastes just like whipped cream--spumoni ($2.50), assorted cookies ($4), fresh fruit ($4.75), and amaretto cheesecake ($2.75). My cappuccino ($2) was excellent, as was the Italian beer I used to cool down my palate after the Vesuvio.

The evening didn't turn out to be one of our better mother-daughter bonding experiences. About all we agreed on was that 40s and 50s interior design was overrated, that the food at Club Lucky was average at best, and that, as far as our kids were concerned, there was occasionally something to be said for being childless.

Club Lucky, at 1824 W. Wabansia, is open for dinner until 11 on weeknights, midnight on Friday and Saturday. Although they don't take reservations, they'll wait-list you for a table if you call an hour before you plan to come in. For more information call 227-2300.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/J. Alexander Newberry.

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