The best way to enjoy the barbecue at Smokin’ Woody’s is to sit at the chef’s table. Woody advertises this unique experience on his menu as “Meticulous Dining Adventures With Woody.” The table itself is a roving institution. “You sit at whatever table’s open,” Woody says, “and I join you.”
One night a few weeks ago, some friends and I went to the restaurant, at the corner of Lincoln and Berteau. Woody was outside smoking a cigarette, leaning on a kelly green Cadillac convertible that he was selling for $7,500. He was unshaved and wore a white undershirt and a pair of filthy jeans.
“Whaddya want, Charlie Trotter?” he said. “I know Charlie Trotter. Charlie Trotter’s got more money than God.”
The chef’s table, Woody promised, would include nine courses. The first one was a Woody Salad: lettuce, strawberries, Italian dressing, and crunchy noodles. Course number two was a basket of bread soaked in butter. No one touched it. Course three was an enormous platter of meat slathered in barbecue sauce and sprinkled with parsley.
“What is this?” I asked.
“You got chicken, you got turkey, you got pork, you got beef,” Woody said. “Now shaddup and eat!”
It was delicious.
Woody didn’t join us, though at one point he did walk by and ask, “Are ya bustin’ a gut?” Meanwhile he sat and chatted with every customer in the place.
The meal never reached course number nine, though it could be argued that the meat platter comprised several courses itself. I pointed out the discrepancy to Woody. “Are you gonna argue with me?” he asked. “Did you have a good meal? Then quit complaining!”
Our bill came to $45 for four, a reasonable sum. As far as I could tell, it had been chosen at random.
Woody, whose real name is Michael Boucher, has spent his entire life in the restaurant business. His father, Wayne Boucher, was a chef and entrepreneur who ran several Chicago establishments, as well as a corporation that owned a lot of food concessions. As a teenager Woody won a scholarship to the hospitality school at the University of Denver. Summers were spent at a cooking school in Germany, learning from European masters. He’s still traumatized by the experience. “I was handled like a piece of dirt,” he says. “I couldn’t speak. I had to do what I was told. And if I didn’t do what I was told, I’d wind up gettin’ whacked. These people were very temperamental.”
In 1968 Woody embarked on his career. He worked as an executive chef and a corporate food and beverage director. He supervised numerous restaurants in the Sears Tower and with some partners established a microbrewery, which quickly failed. He grew tired of white tablecloths and mise en place. He longed for a place of his own.
Barbecue provided the perfect outlet. There are few perishables involved, and the whole operation rests on smoking meats, a skill Woody claims he perfected long ago. He opened his restaurant on Southport near Roscoe in 1993. A few years later he bought the building on Lincoln, decorating it with items related to his various enthusiasms, which include vintage cars, motorcycles, the Shriners, Elvis, and roadside ads. Nobody tells him how to behave.
“A barbecue restaurant has got to have its own personality,” he says. “What makes it is the quality of the food that’s being served and the quality of the person serving it. If you wanna be an asshole that day, you can be an asshole. If you wanna be a nice guy, you can be a nice guy. People have to learn to accept it.
“This is the menu. There are no substitutions, and that’s the way it is. Come and eat. I’m not gonna wine and dine ya. I’m gonna feed ya and send ya on your way. If you want to sit around and talk to your friends, that’s fine too, but you’re here for one reason. I’m not running an entertainment complex.”
When Woody lived in Oak Park in the 80s, he shared his love of barbecue with a next-door neighbor, Charlie Robinson. They both entered the first Mike Royko Ribfest in 1982. Robinson won. Now Robinson’s Ribs is a popular chain, and Woody remains a loyal customer.
“He’s there on the south side, and I’m here on the north side,” he said the other day when I stopped by the restaurant. “We’re like brothers. I got a hot line. See?”
He picked up the phone, dialed, and handed it to me. Then I was speaking to Cordell Robinson, Charlie’s son. “Oh, man, Smokin’ Woody’s been there since day one with my dad,” Cordell Robinson said. “He actually taught Charlie a few tricks and stuff. I won’t say anyone’s better than dad, but Smokin’ Woody comes close.”
“Now I’m building a new operation in Michigan, outside of New Buffalo, which is gonna be probably one of the busiest drive-ins, or cruise spots, in the world,” Woody says. “It’s gonna be barbecue, ice cream, and the finest cheeseburgers ya ever ate in your life. It will happen. I cannot be denied.”
Woody will host the first annual North Center Rib Festival & Cookoff Sunday from noon to 8 on Damen at Irving Park, featuring the recipes of up to 100 backyard barbecuers and music from C.J. Chenier and Paul Cebar & the Milwaukeeans. Smokin’ Woody’s is at 4160 N. Lincoln. Call 773-880-1100. –Neal Pollack
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Dan Machnik.