Little Jack City

Little Jack's Steak House
201 Lowry Ave. NE, Mpls.; (612) 781-3371
Hours: Monday-Thursday 11:00 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 11:00 a.m.-10:30 p.m.

If you're anything like me, you're beset by a constant plague of Manhattanites, loosed into our fair city for a few empty hours between flights or drives, bored, grumpy, tired, and skilled at nothing but overattenuated critical evisceration. And if you're anything like me, you've already shown them everything Minneapolis has to offer--Nye's, Auriga, Goodfellow's, the C.C. Club, the Local--and feel obligated to pull yet another trick out of your hat to convince them that you've made a good and reasonable choice to live in a place that is possibly in Michigan, possibly part of Indianapolis, and quite probably both.

Well, fear not. For I am prepared to tell you about a place that has the visual appeal of Goodfellow's, the bartender talent of the Monte Carlo, the only-in-Minneapolis-ness of Nye's, and the bargain pricing of a land that cares not about the NASDAQ. I refer, of course, to Little Jack's Steak House, a family-run supper club that has been going strong on Lowry Avenue in Northeast since Jack and Josephine Reshetar founded it in 1932. Josephine ran the kitchen, while Jack, who was only five foot three, helmed the bar; thus the name. (And no, Little Jack's is not a spinoff of nearby steakhouse Jax Cafe, and yes, they do seem to have opened the bar before the formal end of Prohibition, and no, no one wants to talk about where the liquor came from.)

Anyhoo, Jack and Josephine operated the business for many years, then handed it down to their son Jack who married a devoted Little Jack's waitress named Joanie, and after a few decades Jack and Joanie handed the business down to yet another generation, which runs it to this day. In fact, they run Little Jack's in the exact same way Grandpa and Grandma did, from the scratch-made Roquefort dressing to the breading on the walleye and, of course, the royalty theme braided through the space.

Yes, royalty. You get your first hint of crowns and castles by way of the Eisenhower-medieval neon and the backlit heraldic crest of martini and lobster out front. Entering from the enormous parking lot, you soon find yourself in the Royal Room, which is decorated with an enormous, hand-painted wallpaper mural showing a pastel hunt scene--Jason Reshetar says that wallpaper cost $12,000, and the only place you'll find anything like it is in the White House.

Past the Royal Room is the Lounge, which is festooned with medieval dragon art and gilt-framed, old-masterish paintings, most of which depict elbow-benders tippling happily with various drinking vessels. Through the Lounge, on the other side of a shiny Turkish brazier, you find what would have to be the Scottish Room, hung round with forest-green plaid. And past that is the pièce de résistance, the dining room to top all dining rooms: The Viscount Room. The Viscount was remodeled in the 1950s, and, like lipstick on chocolate, it's all dark and scarlet and deliciously decadent: magenta showpiece booths, matching curvy chairs, chandeliers that look like they're fitted with tubes of Jell-O-cube stacks, paintings of Spanish señoritas posing sultrily at bullfights, silk carnations in cut-glass vases, and a general aura of love in the afternoon, circa 1956.

The love only gets stronger once you tuck into one of these sweetheart booths and order a drink--preferably something old-fashioned, like a gimlet, a Manhattan, or even an old-fashioned ($3.50). Those drinks are usually prepared by expert bartender Jeanne Cluelow, who's been mixing at Little Jack's since the Sixties, and makes what I consider the best Manhattan in town--smooth as buttered marble. And also, somehow, cheap as hell: One night I ordered four multiple-alcohol cocktails while waiting for dinner and was charged only $13. My out-of-town friends' jaws hung open for so long I thought the regulars were going to start using them for ashtrays.

Once you've got a drink in hand, it's time to reckon with the menu--and be prepared to reckon for a while. There are more than 150 dinner options, and so many lunch choices they'll make your head spin--especially once you get distracted by the eyebrow-raising names. Monikers like "Dmek the Barbarian eight-ounce chopped beef tenderloin" ($9.95); "Businessmen's Special broiled beef tenderloin 'Garni'" ($9.95); "Southern Gentlemen the Robert E. Lee" (a turkey sandwich with egg, bacon, olives, and Thousand Island dressing, $7.95); "Northern Gentlemen the U.S. Grant" (a grilled cheese, bacon, and onion sandwich, $7.50); "Dutch Diplomat," "Italian Diplomat," "German Diplomat 'Triple Decker'"; a couple of "Man-Sized" chopped sirloins; an "American Traveler"--I could go on and on. Then there's the daily specials to sort out, and the side dishes: At Little Jack's you're always getting more food and more choices than you know what to do with. Hash browns? Au gratin potatoes? Fries? Whipped potatoes? And what dressing on the salad? Roquefort? French? Italian oil or creamy Italian?

Whatever you order, be assured it will be absolutely letter-perfect classic supper club. The batter on the deep-fried scallops ($8.75) is so light it's nearly greaseless; the Reuben ($7.95), made with thick slices of hand-cut corned beef, is so moist, fresh, and hot it suggests something far more rarefied than a mere sandwich. And a special of "English cut" prime rib ($8.25) was fork-tender and so big it flopped over the plate; the fresh onion, mushroom, and pepper gravy that accompanied it--along with the whipped potatoes, cole slaw, and cup of homemade soup--didn't elevate the food to the level of cuisine, but it did make an unforgettable impression.

It didn't bother me in the least that the whipped potatoes came bearing their own lagoon of melted butter, or that the au gratin potatoes were a saturated orange of a particularly glowing shade. I--and, I'd venture, most people under 40--eat Minnesota Supper Club far less often than Thai, Caribbean, Vietnamese, or just about any other cuisine, and the idiosyncrasies of the genre strike me as exotic, and adventurous in a way that would probably make some Little Jack's veterans scratch their heads.

Then again, co-owner Jason Reshetar says he's been serving more patrons from the post-Sesame Street generations lately: "A lot of them come in looking for that classic supper-club atmosphere," he notes, "more formality, big martinis, straight-up Manhattans, a bartender who's been here for more than 20 years. That's the classic dining experience: You're recognized when you come in. We butcher all the beef and steaks here. All the soups, stocks, dressings, everything's made from scratch."

From scratch, and from recipes that are 60 years old and pure Americana. In fact, Reshetar points out that some of the keepers of those recipes have been there since before I was born: Kitchen manager Annie Petroske, for one, has been in charge of sandwiches and sauces for more than 30 years. Executive manager Terri Rock is a comparative youngster, having signed up during the Carter years, and chef Ed Mahon only came on board in the last decade. But it's not like he's dragging in newfangled stuff like endive or coconut milk--he has more than enough to deal with maintaining the oldfangled stuff.

And nothing's more oldfangled than the Little Jack's Special Hors D'Oeuvres Tray ($7.50 per person, minimum of two people) or, as I prefer to call it, The Tray of Bottomless Plenty. The Tray is available only at dinner, and it should only be ordered by triathletes, grizzly bears, and other hungry souls, for the Tray for two is actually two trays, each a foot long and six inches wide, one brimming with hot food and the other cold. To wit: Four pork ribs, two delicious, full-size fillets of fried fish, a handful of chicken wings, egg rolls, fried mushrooms, and a pile of garlic toast; plus a bunch of deviled eggs, a bowl of pickled herring fillets, potato salad, radishes, olives, cherry tomatoes, celery, two dipping bowls of dressing, and four giant shrimp in a cocktail bowl filled with an unusual, addictive blend of chopped tomatoes and various secret ingredients. (If you really must know what's in the cocktail sauce, try to find the issue of the Saturday Evening Post that Jason Reshetar says profiled his grandmother as one of the top female chefs in the nation, sometime in the Forties. And if you do, send me a copy.)

If you can possibly eat anything after getting through the Tray of Plenty (I did, but I had auxiliary stomachs implanted especially for this assignment), you may get one of the steaks: I tried the most expensive one (natch), the $25.95 porterhouse, and it was cooked perfectly to temperature, sweet, and supple. I was even more impressed with one of the nightly specials, an enormous fillet of fried walleye ($11.95) that was as light as any I've ever had--and with the Little Jack's dinner standard of potato and vegetable choices, I counted it quite a bargain.

I particularly counted it so because I know that when I next return to the concrete canyons on the Hudson, there's no way my friends could hope to match the splendor and gluttony of the Viscount Room. And if you're anything like me, you rejoice in the squirming of your closest friends.

(Oh, you say you're not anything like me? Well goody, goody for you, buddy, shave your head and call you the governor, ain't you lucky. But I wouldn't count my chickens quite so fast--like squirrels in the attic, termites on the porch, celebrities in the election, those city-that-never-sleepers can strike at any time. At least now you're armed and ready.)

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