It's always surprising to stumble on fresh pockets of Madison history, sometimes in the most unexpected places. I've passed the stone bar on East Olin Avenue for years and noticed the successive name changes, from the Wonder Bar, to the Madison Cigar Bar, the M.O.B. Roadhouse and the Bar Next Door. But until we sat down for dinner, drawn by the promise of a new steakhouse menu and the lure of a reclaimed name - it's Luedtke's Wonder Bar now - I didn't know the spot flaunted such a lurid past.
The long, storied history came by way of our unfailingly gracious waitress, Lana. Opened in 1929 by Eddie Touhy, brother of Chicago's mafia kingpin Roger "The Terrible" Touhy, Eddie's Wonder Bar was a local gangster hangout and speakeasy, the illegal alcohol delivered in a tunnel running under the building. Some people, Lana suggests, claim that bodies were dumped on the other side of the tunnel, and the newly renovated place - now reformatted as part dining room, part bar - does have the air of a happily haunted house. Above the big stone fireplace is the portrait of a busty '60s pinup, Angelina Jolie crossed with Ann-Margret, whose eyes inevitably follow you (according to Lana, she's one of the sisters who owned the bar long after Eddie decamped). And there are reports that the jukebox used to turn on by itself, or maybe by some unseen hand. The hand, though, was selective. "It only played Elvis and Sinatra," Lana says.
The new menu is pretty selective too, leaning primarily to steakhouse standards. Given the homey atmosphere, the prices are surprisingly upscale. A $33 steak is a splurge these days (although you can get a sirloin and a 6-ounce filet mignon for $19). That means you need to choose wisely.
If you're going to spring for an appetizer, settle on the barbecued bacon-wrapped prawns, four very meaty grilled shrimp slathered with a sweet barbecue sauce and wrapped in applewood-smoked bacon. Blackened scallops, slightly overcooked, were less impressive. So was a loaded wedge salad that paired crisp iceberg lettuce with a little cup of crumbled bacon, and had nothing on the Tornado's epic wedge or the Capitol Chophouse's peerless chopped salad.
The entrees, though, redeemed things. The 28-ounce tomahawk steak, which took up half the table and looked like Thor's hammer, was a very generous bone-in prime ribeye with a distinctive taste of game meat. Just as good was the Wonder Bar signature steak, a 12-ounce filet of strip loin, cut from the heart of the New York sirloin. Supremely tender, spitting juice and topped with a crown of béarnaise sauce ($2 extra), it was a classic, textbook piece of meat.
The sides don't let all that prime beef down. You can choose from mashed, baked and twice-baked potatoes (or asparagus and broccoli), but choose the hash browns, all buttery sweet potato under a crisped golden crust.
If you're not in a carnivorous mood there are other options (though not really for vegetarians, who will have to make do with a pasta primavera). The Chilean sea bass was oddly tough, and the banana curry glaze and big tangle of sweet potato strings added a predominantly cloying flavor. But the herb-encrusted stuffed chicken was a big surprise; wearing a crisp golden skin and stuffed with a blend of herbs and three cheeses, it actually competed with the steaks for pride of table.
If all that isn't enough to weigh you down, the inevitable trifecta of cheesecake, flourless chocolate torte and crème brûlée offer something sweet. Though you probably owe it to Eddie to knock back the bar's signature old fashioned, or at least one dirty martini.