There’s nothing like finding yourself staring into the beady eye of a huge stuffed buffalo head just as you’re about to bite into a buffalo burger. It reminded me of Spy magazine’s recent “Bunny BurgerTM” prank, in which PR and marketing firms vied for the chance to market ground rabbit on buns in little boxes with pink Styrofoam bunny ears.

In their zeal to create a north-woods- type combination sports bar and restaurant, the owners of Grizzly’s Lodge have festooned the walls with stuffed animal heads and pelts. Although they didn’t actually go out and shoot the animals–these are antiques–the idea may put some people off their feed.

Foodwise, the place is a hunter’s paradise. It may be a sports bar, but there’s more game on the menu than on the gazillion TVs–elk steak, venison, rabbit, and the buffalo, which seems to be most popular because of its low fat content. Grizzly’s Lodge serves about 100 pounds of buffalo a week, from a farm right here in Illinois. I guess a lot of people are desperate for some kind of meat; if poor Rover turned out to be low in cholesterol we’d probably be seeing hot dogs made from the real thing.

Back to the TVs. There are 17, including the obligatory giant screen. You can watch six different sports events at once. Some tables even have their own sets. A sincere attempt to satisfy customers’ sports mania, or crass exploitation of our inability to program our VCRs? If Grizzly’s Lodge was only a sports bar, I could understand all those sets, but there’s a special kiddies’ menu for children under ten, “healthy choices” that include calorie listings, a Sunday champagne brunch, New Orleans-style dinners (New Orleans is in the north woods?), and cappuccino! Perhaps if the owners are sincerely interested in having something for everyone, they might consider including a nice upscale boutique for me.

When it came to decor, these guys really ran with their concept. A giant, brightly colored mural of three bears with food in their mouths hightailing it out the window of a hunting lodge is painted on the outside of the building. The sign consists of a giant hand with its index finger pointing to the front door. Colored Christmas-tree lights are all over the place, indoors and out. Once inside there’s a real live tree strung with fairy lights, walls full of hunting-related artifacts brought in from northern Wisconsin, and even a little log cabin built into the back. Between the lights, the TVs, and the animal eyes staring at you, it’s optical overload time.

My grandkids love this place not just for the visuals, but also because Grizzly’s Lodge caters to them with booster seats and high chairs, and with the special menu: hamburger with fries, spaghetti and salad, chicken for dippin’ with fries (all $3.95 each), plus a child’s portion of chocolate “moose” ($1.75). And let’s not forget those electronic baby-sitters.

The kitchen isn’t up to some of the items on its ambitious menu, so grown-ups should concentrate on the sensational soups, Lumber Jack sandwiches, and major desserts. The rich, creamy New England clam chowder (cup $2.50/crock $3.25) is my favorite. Of their soups du jour (cup $1.50/crock $2), the hearty minestrone, beef barley, and thick potato leek soup are all standouts. The Wisconsin cheese soup is too cheesy.

A side order of chicken wings with a blue cheese and/or ranch dressing ($4.50) comes hot or mild. The Chef Aurelio salad ($6.25), marinated grilled chicken breast mixed with veggies and romaine in a crisp bread shell with ranch dressing, is delicious and filling. The Italian beef sandwich ($5.25) is served with roasted peppers and melted mozzarella cheese; the Reuben ($5.45) is loaded with corned beef. Other sandwiches include fried eggs and roasted peppers with cheddar cheese ($5.25), grilled chicken breast ($4.95), and New York strip steak ($7.75). They’re better choices than the buffalo burger ($5.75), which tastes exactly like the regular hamburger ($4.95). Both are a little on the dry side, as are the fries.

Entrees are a disappointment. Pork chops Vesuvio ($8.95) are too peppery. Crab cake and quail with pasta and dijon/dill sauce ($12.95) is underseasoned. Chicken pot pie ($8.95), although covered with a deliciously flaky crust, seems to be made from the same base as the potato leek soup, with a few pieces of chicken thrown in.

Desserts are baked daily on the premises. An enormous portion of dense chocolate “moose” ($3.50) is topped with whipped cream and a cherry. Yukon Jack bread pudding ($2.50) comes with a wonderful caramel sauce. Other selections vary, but there are always a lot to choose from: key lime, apple, and rhubarb pies, flourless chocolate cake (all $3.75). We clogged our arteries with a great caramel pecan cheesecake ($3.75) and, best of all, Oregon chocolate pie ($3.75), an incredible fudgy Belgian semisweet chocolate and whipped cream creation that explains why people in Portland don’t get the blues when it rains.

Grizzly’s Lodge, located at 3832 N. Lincoln, is open 11 AM to midnight daily. Bar open to 2 AM. For more information call 281-5112.

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