Smoke Daddy, first opened in 1994, is a great example of a typical Wicker Park bar: a strange mix of influences that somehow manages to work well and is unique when compared with most any other bar in the city. In this case, you’ll find beer, bourbon, blues and barbecue. Though featuring blues nightly, it is not overrun with tourists on the weekend thanks to its off-the-beaten-track location and neighborhood appeal. While it’s a bit small, Smoke Daddy makes the most of this dark, once-smoky space with some damn fine barbecue, making it tough to beat for a better time at a barbecue joint, even with increasing competition.
Smoke Daddy is no bigger than your average diner, so it may be easy to miss as you’re coming down Division. Just look for the narrow pinkish building with glass blocks in the front, a pink neon “Smoke Daddy” sign, and light bulbs spelling out “WOW” above the door. Inside, you’ll find seating along the long bar counter, in red vinyl booths at the side, and at a few more tables in the back. The bar itself is adorned with corrugated steel, green rails, chrome-trimmed bar stools, a set of Mickey Mouse ears, and a Hawaiian tapestry covering up the window behind the bar. The walls are adorned with blues legends, the floor is covered with green and white checkered linoleum, and there are several old-fashioned, pier-style lights so that you’re sure to spot any barbecue mishaps on your clothing.
The barbecue, curiously billed as “Memphis-Texarkana style,” is some of the best you’ll find in Chicago, rivaling that of Carson’s Ribs, Chicago Joe’s, and even Twin Anchors. One-page, laminated menus detail the specialties: smoked pork sandwiches, spare ribs, chicken sandwiches, rib tips, and baby back ribs are all smoked slowly in an authentic pit-barbecue oven that weighs almost a ton. On one of my recent visits, several people were seen ordering carry out (just like is often seen at Buffalo Wild Wings), and a table full of on-duty Chicago Police officers was seen chomping on ribs. These are excellent indicators of good food. My only gripe: the baby back ribs are very good, but Smoke Daddy is a bit stingy on the sauce and the coleslaw was virtually inedible. However, the large basket of fries helped make up for it. In the 2002 edition of Zagat’s Chicago restaurant survey, Smoke Daddy was rated overall as having very good food, fair decor and fair service, with an average meal costing you about $18 – not bad for the “‘Daddy of all’ rib places.” Smoke Daddy also earned three out of four forks from the Chicago Tribune, for a rating of “excellent.” After you’ve managed to stuff a piece of pie down your gob after a round of barbecue, head to the back where you can wash up in the hand sink, you slob! There’s no fancy wet naps here. The beer selection is fair even without beer taps, particularly due to the availability of Little Kings. Water is served in retro, red cafeteria-style glasses.
“His [Max Brumbach’s] bones are awesome, baby backs with dark, sweet K.C.-style sauce and, my favorite, the loosey-goosey-gooey spare ribs with Daddy’s own remarkable spicy and vinegary Texarkana-style sauce.”– Chicago Magazine, July 2002
Music is played nightly for no cover charge, and consists primarily of blues but also includes jazz on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The Rockin’ Johnny Band is a big draw on Mondays, and Torturing Elvis can be heard on Sunday nights. My recommendation: if you go on Monday, get there before 8:30 p.m. to get a seat. Because Smoke Daddy is so narrow, there is just enough room on the “stage” (really a tiny raised platform) to fit the drum kit and the energetic bass player. Thus, the lead and rhythm guitar, as well as the harmonica player, stand right in front of the door. So, if you come in late, you will briefly become part of the show. And, for male musicians, a trip to the bathroom reveals interesting old Fender guitar advertisements and pricing.
The crowd itself is becoming increasingly yuppified with the regentrification of the surrounding neighborhood. Recently, a group of guys in ties were seen holding up a cell phone so that their buddy on the line could hear the band. The place still attracts enough neighborhood types to prevent Smoke Daddy from becoming a frat bar. Let’s keep our fingers crossed on that one.
An odd footnote: recently an establishment called “Bone Daddy” opened by the owners of the Twisted Spoke. Some controversy has arisen due to the similar names. In addition, Bone Daddy serves up barbecue and is located fairly close to Smoke Daddy. One has to wonder at the similarities, but I’m sure there’s enough demand for barbecue to go around. [Editor’s note: Bone Daddy closed in 2004, but Smoke Daddy is going strong…]
So, next time you’ve got a hankering for Memphis-Texarkana barbecue, stop by the Smoke Daddy – but don’t wear white. My recommendation: head over after Beer School at the Map Room, and then head to Smoke Daddy’s afterwards for some grub. Then head to Phyllis’ Musical Inn next door for some live music and beer garden basketball, or head to the Gold Star Lounge across the street for some cocktails in a classically alternative Wicker Park atmosphere. And, check out the secret recipe if you’d like to get your own Smoke Daddy freak on. Smoke Daddy is now owned by the Dunlay’s and D.O.C. Wine Bar people, though they’ve kept the place true to Max Brumbach’s original design. For more information, check out the Smoke Daddy website and a good compare & contrast of Smoke Daddy vs. Smoque by the Chicago Bites girls. See you there, Daddy-o.
“Wow… that sauce!”