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Restaurant Flashback: Eating Lion and Bear at Cafe Bohemia

By Anthony Todd in Food on Feb 15, 2012 4:00PM

Classic cocktails, waiters in tuxedos, cream sauces, lion steaks: the glamorous dining days of 1930s Chicago. If you just did a double take, you're not the only one; we did one when we started digging into the long-defunct Cafe Bohemia, a staple of the Chicago restaurant world from the 1930s to the 1980s, and came across a gorgeous matchbook from the restaurant on Ebay. When we saw "Chicago's Most Unusual Menu" on the back, we had to find out more.

As with any shuttered restaurant, it can be difficult to find much. Luckily, Cafe Bohemia was so unusual that bits and pieces of its legacy have survived. The restaurant was located at 138 S. Clinton Street and was open from 1936 until 1986. The original spot was opened by a hunter named Joe Basek, who was determined to introduce authentic game dishes to Chicago diners. His successor, James Janek, ran the restaurant until it closed in 1986.

One menu (undated) shows a selection of game that would probably terrify most adventurous eaters today. Diners could order Broiled Northern Moose Steak, Broiled Western Mountain Sheep, Broiled Western Antelope Steak, Roast Native Beaver, Braised Steak Strips of African Lion (served in a Grand Marnier Sauce!) or Steak Strips of Bengal Tiger. One wonders what purveyors were able to get ahold of these exotic animals, but they definitely were served.

A story from several different sources (including Janek's Tribune obituary) tells of the owner butchering wild bears brought into his restaurant by hunters. Janek would judge the thickness of the bear's fat and try to predict how bad the winter would be.

Now, it's possible that all of this exotic fare wasn't actually palatable. After we put out a call on Twitter for any memories of Cafe Bohemia, "J Bifro" told us that his in-laws were talking about Cafe Bohemia recently. " Someone ordered lion and it reeked. No one at table could eat with the smell." At least we still have the matchbook.

Anyone who remembers this long-time Chicago restaurant, give us a shout in the comments.