WICKER PARK — Back in 1994, when Wicker Park was still an edgy, punk rock 'hood, a little barbecue joint called The Smoke Daddy opened on Division Street with a tiny stage for playing the blues in its front window.
Thanks to gentrification, that stretch of Division is now home to places where you can practice yoga, nosh on sushi, chug tasty micro beers and sip handcrafted cappuccinos, among other things.
Even “The Daddy,” as some regulars call it, has undergone a few ownership changes and recently got a sleek makeover to add seating and keep up with the neighborhood’s fancier look.
But next month, The Smoke Daddy owners will celebrate things that haven’t changed much over the last 20 years — its savory selection of smoked meats, tasty sauces and that front-window stage dedicated to the blues — with a “pig roast for the ages.”
And you can bet regulars celebrate by toasting what’s become The Smoke Daddy’s signature cocktail, the “Smokin’ Mary,” a variation on a 70-year old bloody mary recipe — more than 15 ingredients and served with a brisket garnish and a beer chaser — that was added to the drink menu about a decade ago.
Co-owner Michael Dunlay started recreating what had become their family drink of choice since his grandparents fell in love at Penn State University.
“It was before Prohibition and on their first date they had a bloody mary. It was always a thing in our family,” Dunlay said. “Growing up, we spent a lot of weekends with them and we celebrated all special events with a bloody mary.”
Dunlay’s grandfather, Frank Kernan, was a horticulturist who tended the garden that kept the family flush with fresh vegetables.
“My grandfather grew a lot of crops — celery, tomatoes, horseradish and a lot of fresh things that he put in his bloody mary. The predominant spice we all loved was the homegrown horseradish,” Dunlay said.
“He was a great cook, and whatever he had left over in the morning from the dinner before, whether it was ham or brisket, he’d put with an olive, pickle, tomato or piece of cheese as a garnish on top. And it was always a masterpiece-looking sort of thing and not so much just a drink. It was almost a meal.”
Dunlay’s grandmother, the late Gert Kernan, loved her husband, but could do without the freshly grated horseradish he always added to her favorite drink. She didn’t complain about that, though.
“She was a beer distributor, so there was always beer in the house,” Dunlay said. “So, [she] would always chase her Bloody Mary with a little beer sidecar. So, that’s why we serve ours with a barbecue brisket garnish and a tiny Miller or a 6-ounce glass of whatever beer you're drinking.”
Now, the Dunlay family tradition has become a staple at Smoke Daddy, 1804 W. Division St. On any given Sunday, bartenders mix more than 250 brisket-topped “bloodies” during brunch and more than a few customers take home a bottle of “Smokin’ Mary” to create their own variation on the Dunlay tradition.
“We have a very festive Irish family, good Irish Catholics. We’d go to church, then brunch, and the first thing we did before brunch was have a bloody mary,” Dunlay said. “More weekends than not were that way.”
After years of making the mix from scratch and risking running out, Dunlay and his partners took their recipe to a food lab and whipped up a version to bottle for the restaurant and customers who want to make their own version of Gert and Frank’s bloody mary at home.
“Since were already bottling our sauces, it was natural that we’d bottle the bloody mary mix,” Dunlay said. “It’s for people who love a good bloody mary. You know, people like us.”