|The 85-year-old Wonderbar Steakhouse in Madison was a mob|
hangout for many years. It was built by Roger "The Terrible"
Touhy and run by his brother Eddie, who disappeared in
the 1950s. Photo:
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Oct 31, 2014 In the late 1920s, Chicago gangster and Al Capone rival Roger "The Terrible" Touhy was making bucket loads of money from his bootlegging and gambling operations on the northwest side of Chicago. Some sources say he was making an impressive $1 million a year by 1926.
To help out his bartender brother, Eddie, as well as launder illicit earnings and get booze into Wisconsin, the Irish-American mob boss and his sibling built a small, castle-like restaurant — complete with turrets — on a dirt road on the outskirts of Madison.
They dubbed the place on E. Olin Ave. Eddie's Wonder Bar, and it gained a reputation as a gangster hangout that served good meals and drinks. In addition to locals, it also entertained the likes of John Dillinger, Capone, Baby Face Nelson and other gangsters. In the '70s, it was a gathering place for politicians and University of Wisconsin-Madison heavyweights such as football hero and former athletic director Elroy "Crazylegs" Hirsch.
The Wonder Bar Steakhouse continues to serve patrons today. And while the area has grown up around it, the ivy clad brick building — complete with the original back bar — looks much as it did in the 1930s. Moreover, it serves steaks popular 80 years ago, including porterhouse, sirloin and T-bone cuts. (The latter two sold for $1 and 75 cents respectively, according to a 1934 menu.)
Better still, for those who believe in such things, the restaurant is said to have ghosts.
Shawn Bortz, Wonder Bar chef for the past six years, said the restaurant has had other names in years past, including the Cigar Box, M.O.B. and The Bar Next Door. In the old days, it was often under surveillance by the FBI and had removable sections in the turrets through which the mobsters could poke their Tommy guns. No shootouts were recorded at the place.
"The gangsters came here to escape the 'heat' on their way up north and to stash money," he said. "They also gambled and did other things, both legal and illegal. And while no one was ever said to be killed here, the story is that Eddie, who disappeared in the 1950s, may be buried behind the second-floor fireplace. We also think some nasty stuff might have taken place in the basement — 'corrections' and that sort of thing."
Bortz said the Wonder Bar also had a tunnel that ran toward Lake Monona that was used to smuggle booze and help the racketeers escape from "G-men and other cops who were on their tail." The Touhy brothers were the sons of an honest Chicago cop who had six boys, Bortz said. Many of them became involved in organized crime, and some were killed by Capone hit-men.
The 93-seat restaurant has dark paneling, which manager Rick Shuffle said may be original. A portrait of a voluptuous and scantily clad redhead hangs over the downstairs fireplace, perhaps a niece of the Touhy brothers, Shuffle said.
The painting is 60 years old, and the young woman, who looks to be about 25, is said to haunt the restaurant.
Equally popular is the 1938 police booking photograph of a young Frank Sinatra. It was taken in his hometown of Hoboken, N.J. The ticket shows he was arrested for "seduction," which means he was busted while having an affair with a married woman, Shuffle said.
Bar manager Jason Kiley said the specter of a man wearing a 1930s-era Fedora hat and a trenchcoat has been seen standing at the top of the stairs, as well as a young girl. They're not certain about her connection to the place.
Bortz said he's heard the young girl laugh. And once, when he was alone in the basement, he said, he heard a heavy door slam near him, causing him to flee upstairs.
Bortz said his menu focuses on steaks and seafood. His favorite meal is the cowboy steak, a 23-ounce cut with the bone in it. Another popular dish is the Chilean sea bass with a banana curry served with sweet potato shoestrings. In season, he said, the halibut served with a garlic panko crust is a winner.
Cooking at the Wonder Bar is something of a family affair, too, Bortz said. His mother, Elizabeth Bortz, prepares all of the restaurant's desserts. Bortz said she makes a mean cheesecake, chocolate torte and creme brulee.
Though Eddie disappeared in the mid-1950s, Roger lived until 1959. He was convicted — wrongly, Kiley said — of kidnapping John "Jake the Barber" Factor, a sibling of cosmetics mogul Max Factor. Roger was sentenced to 99 years in prison in 1934 but escaped from the Stateville Correctional Center in 1942. He was arrested by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover several months later in Chicago after robbing an armored car of $14,000. He was sentenced to an additional 199 years at Stateville for the escape and robbery.
He was finally released on parole in 1959, 25 years after he was first incarcerated. It's not known if he ever made it back to the Wonder Bar. He was shot and killed 22 days after he got out of prison on the doorstep of his sister's Windy City home.
Though Capone had been dead for 12 years, his "associates" were blamed for the hit. On his way to a hospital, the dying man told a reporter from a Chicago newspaper: "I've been expecting it. The bastards never forget!"
Getting there: The Wonder Bar Steakhouse is at 222 E. Olin Ave. off John Nolen Blvd. near the Alliant Energy Center. Madison is roughly 80 miles west of Milwaukee via Interstate 94 and Highway 12.
For the scoop on other things to see and do in and around the capital city, see the Greater Madison Convention & Visitors Bureau at visitmadison.com.
Brian E. Clark is a Madison writer and photographer.