Back in the days when cholesterol was just another unpronounceable word, Chicago was the steak center of the world–mainly because those foul-smelling south-side stockyards provided our restaurants with the best of the beef, riddled with saturated fat and absolutely ambrosial in flavor. Even the second-tier steakhouses were great, and places such as Barney’s Market Club, Gene & Georgetti’s, and the Stock Yard Inn became national shrines.

When the stockyards closed as part of the city’s ongoing deindustrialization program more than two decades ago, we lost out to Omaha in the beefsteak sweepstakes, and some of the old-line spots closed down. But the town’s reputation for prime sirloin was upheld by a newer breed that included Morton’s, Billy Siegel’s That Steak Joynt, and, more recently, the Chicago Chop House and Gibsons. Gene & Georgetti’s still serves a good meal if they know you. Otherwise quality and service can be a crapshoot.

Barney’s Market Club, situated in the heart of the old Randolph Street market area, lumbered on long after the death of founder Barney Kessel. In its heyday it was a mecca for many crowds, including politicians, fans of other sports that took place at the Chicago Stadium, and, of course, the omnipresent conventioneers.

Kessel (no relation to the guitar great of the same name), who founded his eatery more than 70 years ago, allegedly had a bad memory for names, so he called everyone “senator,” which was amusing back in those days before Rich Melman shtick. Later owners kept the gimmick, but were hard-pressed to maintain the food quality.

Then came the days when we all got to know our cholesterol counts better than our social-security numbers and things got a little slow up at Randolph and Halsted. The shrine was kept alive for a while by Bulls and Blackhawks fans who clustered at the bar and gobbled their beef before game time, but ultimately this crowd wasn’t enough, and a year ago the owners shut Barney’s down, seemingly closing another chapter of local restaurant history. That is, until an unlikely pair of local politicians bought the place and repoened it last November.

Both Sam Panayotovich and Joe Berrios did time in the state legislature. Berrios is paroled to the Board of Tax Appeals; Panayotovich followed his leader, Ed Vrdolyak, from the Democratic Party to the Republican and–like his leader–began losing elections, most recently a real squeaker in a south-suburban congressional primary.

I am no fan of their politics, but they did win my vote with their food. It’s fine, basic Chicago eating, augmented by the public service of revitalizing a piece of history in a newly gentrified neighborhood (Shelter and Vivo are just up the street).

Panayotovich, it turns out, spent much of his prelegislative career running family restaurants in his old far-south-side neighborhood. In Springfield he opened Play It Again Sam’s, which quickly became a favorite watering hole for players on both sides of the aisle, and which he recently sold.

His restaurant experience pays off at Barney’s, where they still call you “senator,” tiresome as it may be the fifth or sixth time around.

Barney’s spacious rooms have a clubby feel, with handsome, deep-grained dark-wood paneling and ceiling beams brightened by rows of lights tracing the pilasters. The big bar area at the entrance often features live piano music, which drifts into the dining area. But beware: the location remains popular with Bulls and Blackhawks fans who take shuttle buses to the stadium after pregame dinners.

Said dinners are hearty: the menu offers a half dozen fine, aged steaks, roast beef, and baby back ribs, as well as hefty pork, veal, and lamb chops. Even the excellent assemblage of seafare gets more attention here than at most steak houses.

The quality shines through right from the beginning, especially with a starter set of tender clams casino ($5.95), done the right way, with a fine mincing of aromatic vegetables and a snippet of bacon garnish.

Shrimp also get first-class treatment. The cocktail features big, fresh, perfectly cooked specimens with just the right amount of crunch and sweetness ($7.95). And I haven’t tasted a better batch of french-fried shrimp in ages ($17.95 entree; also included on a $7.95 mixed appetizer platter). Their coating was light, crisp, and greaseless.

Among the other starters, buffalo wings ($4.95) are truly hot, the way they’re supposed to be, and the blue-cheese dressing is properly pungent. Calamari ($5.95) and thin-sliced onion rings ($3.25) are skillfully fried.

A steaklike slab of grilled salmon came drenched in lemon butter and marked with lovely crisscross char lines, but it was beautifully rare inside, just as ordered ($19.95). You couldn’t have asked for a fresher, more succulent fillet.

The salmon and the lamb chops were the evening’s high points. The chops were thick, trimmed virtually fat free, and exceptionally well-flavored ($26.95). They too revealed a rosy center. Which is not to gainsay the veal chop, which weighed in at a full 14 ounces, cut from the loin and grilled to the lightest crust on the outside while keeping a moist medium rare within–again, trimmed out and fat free ($24.95).

And, yes, the steak. I often try to grab a piece of both tenderloin and sirloin by ordering a porterhouse. Our table was presented with a fine specimen of immense proportions, the tenderloin segment especially large ($29.95). Tender but not mushy, the rare center had the tartness of top beef.

Barney’s Market Club, 741 W. Randolph (372-6466), is open Monday through Friday 11 AM to midnight and Saturday and Sunday 4 to midnight.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Kathy Richland.