Steak and Fake Lobster

breaking bread with my family supper club style

Mike Paulus, illustrated by Ian Kloster

Poor man’s lobster. It’s more than a great name for a funk band. Poor man’s lobster is what my mom usually ordered when dad took the whole family out to eat on a Friday night, back in the day. This is a seafood dish that usually comes with its own little saucer of “drawn” butter, placed atop a special little candle holder, the flickering flame keeping the butter hot and melted. When I was a kid, this was the coolest food on the planet.

Because it came with a side of fire.

Dad usually got some kind of steak, but on occasion he’d order liver. Or more precisely, a plate of livers. This isn’t science fiction. People actually used to eat large quantities of an animal’s liver as a main course. I’ve heard rumors that some people still do, but I don’t believe them.

By the time I got to high school, eating out with my parents was less of an event and more an epically cruel chore they forced upon me. I can’t believe how heartless they were, driving me to a nice restaurant, telling me I could order anything off the menu, and then paying for it. Jerks.

I have no idea how often Mom and Dad took my sister and I out for a nice dinner, but through my brain’s Nostalgia Filter 5000TM, it seems like we went out every Friday night and most Saturdays. That’s a lot of poor man’s lobster and steak. I think we actually only went out on special occasions, but those meals really stand out to me.

They used to love Wally’s Chalet up on Clairemont Avenue, with its supper club atmosphere and Brandy Alexanders for desert, its little red candle holders and the heavy cloth napkins. They made us dress up a little, and we got to order pretty much whatever we wanted. Wally’s later became Tailgates Sports Bar & Grill, and now it’s ... empty. But when Wally’s was in full swing, it was my parents’ go-to eatery for fancy dinners. They had a salad bar and everything.

Food was a big deal for me when I was a kid, more so than it should have been, judging by my performance on the kickball diamond. But I loved going out with my parents. It was an event. I totally took for granted the money it cost or why it was important to my parents to spend it, but it made me feel safe and happy.

And I’d like to officially apologize for any tantrums I threw because I couldn’t play with Mom’s fire butter.

By the time I got to high school, eating out with my parents was less of an event and more an epically cruel chore they forced upon me. I can’t believe how heartless they were, driving me to a nice restaurant, telling me I could order anything off the menu, and then paying for it. Jerks. Why no one called child protective services and the local news is beyond me. Seriously, my rented VHS copy of Star Trek VI – The Undiscovered Country wasn’t going to flop onto the couch with a bag of burnt microwave popcorn and watch itself. For the 11th time.

But really, what a spectacular thing. What a gift to have those rare moments with my family, enjoying special food. If nothing else, it was at Wally’s with my mom and dad when I first experienced the joy that is eating a hunk of seared meat wrapped in bacon – a curious wonder I’d hitherto not consumed.

Going out to eat at a place like Wally’s – which wasn’t even the priciest game in town – isn’t something most families can do very often, if at all. I was very lucky. The older I get, the more I realize how important those Friday nights were. These are the things about my childhood that stand out most to me, more so than anything that happened at school or any of the toys I had. And that’s saying something because I had the original Optimus Prime.*

I miss those times. I’ve been lucky enough to recreate the experience with my own family, though none of the meals have come with fire on the side or a plate of livers. The closest we’ve come is a wood-fired pizza in Menomonie. And it was close enough.


* I also had the original Castle Grayskull, but I’m not here to brag.