Sunday, August 15, 2021

Eating Lions, Tigers, and Bears at Cafe Bohemia, 138 South Clinton Street, Chicago, Illinois. (1936-1986)

Cafe Bohemia was located in the shadow of Union Station, the restaurant served diners who were attracted, in part, by the novelty of the dishes. Locals, be they opera and theater patrons or Chicago sports fans, were welcomed by either restaurateur Jim Janek Jr. or a family member. The Janek's lived above the restaurant for many years.

The restaurant was opened in 1936 at Clinton and Adams Streets in Chicago by Janek's stepfather, Joe Basek, a hunter who first served wild game. In its early years, the restaurant shocked people for its practice of hanging elk carcasses outside the front door, the sight sometimes delaying traffic.

Although the game varieties became more exotic over the years, crisp duckling with wild rice became the most popular item on the menu. From the beginning, each order of duck included a printed card notifying the patron that their order was serving number 321, 4,782, or 15,978 of the house specialty, which reached one million on November 18, 1970.

Janek butchered wild bears brought into his restaurant by hunters. Janek would judge the thickness of the bear's fat and would forecast the winter weather.

Hefty portions, such as porterhouse steaks that increased one ounce in weight each year—86 ounces for the last year in business and almost always served to groups—as well as an array of mounted heads of wild game—made restaurant legendary.

Cafe Bohemia restaurant gave the world the buffalo burger has served its last dishes of bear, hippopotamus, lion, moose, whale, and crispy duck with wild rice. After a secretive but raucous goodbye to staff and patrons on Wednesday night, May 21, 1986, restaurateur Jim Janek Jr. turned the lock one last time, closing down an establishment that catered to generations of eclectic diners from around the country. Employees said Janek decided to quit the business some months ago and recently sold the building to real-estate developers.
Cafe Bohemia's claim to fame and motto was "Chicago's Most Unusual Menu."

One menu (undated) shows a selection of game that would probably terrify the most adventurous eaters today. Diners could order Broiled Northern Moose Steak, Broiled Western Mountain Sheep, Broiled Western Antelope Steak, Roast Native Beaver (a 3-hour advance notice required), Braised Steak Strips of African Lion (served in a Grand Marnier Sauce!), Chopped African Lion Steak cooked with Grenadine and rice, or braised Bengal Tiger or Bengal Tiger stew, Moose Stew, One-half Pheasant under glass.

On the seafood front, Cafe Bohemia served a 2½ lbs Broiled whole Maine Lobster or a 1 lb African Lobster Tail, Two whole broiled large filets of Mountain Brook Trout, Fresh broiled or sauteed ½ lbs filet of Walleyed Pike, Florida Red Snapper, Fresh broiled or sautéed North Atlantic Whale steak, Deep sea Turtle Steak, English Dover Sole, and of course, the Chicago original Shrimp DeJonghe (created at the "DeJonghe Hotel and Restaurant" located at 14 East Monroe Street from 1899 to 1923. It was there shrimp DeJonghe was created by chef, Emil Zehr).

Other specials included Roasted Prime Ribs, Barbecued Baby Back Ribs, Loin of Pork, Calf's Liver with onions or bacon, Veal cutlet, Spring Lamb Chops (2 Triple Rib), and U.S. Prime beef Steaks of all cuts.

Order from over 20 appetizers and relishes, six unique salads, and more than 15 desserts.

An don't forget the "Stewart's Special" Coffee with 18% Cream (All You Wish) for 25¢ to round out your meal. Now it's time for a nap.

Fresh game is not for everybody. One person said that his in-laws talked about Cafe Bohemia recently. "Someone ordered lion and it reeked. No one at the table could eat with the smell." 

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.

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