Apr 11, 2018

At J&R's (or is it JR’s?): Farmers in the morning, Road Burgers at lunch and fine (maybe) art on Center Road

J&R's, despite what the awning says
The hairy guy's report:

The only problem with being retired is that even if you like to stay busy, you get to sit around and eat more. And you gain weight. So occasionally, you think about living healthier, drinking less and all that.

The urge usually passes. But for those moments, someone has come up with allegedly healthy cocktails -- things such as a Grape-Kombucha Sipper, which sounds as appealing as a shot of Old Tennis Shoe on the rocks.

When you tire of kale smoothies and you can again fit into your pants, a celebratory stop is in order at J&R's Center Road Bar. There, you can make up for lost time with one item.

Thoughts on life (and a victorious pool game) at J&R’s

Kelly, the bar manager at J&R's
Doc’s Report:

I pass by J&R’s on Center Road twice a day, five days a week, on my way to and from work. You have to be careful on that stretch of Center, just east of Essexville, in Hampton Township. I’ve had a lot of close calls; you have to drive defensively.

Last month, I was coming home from work and saw the police cleaning up a horrendous car crash.  I read in the paper that a driver blew through the stop sign at Jones and Center and was struck by a Metro bus. The bus driver and the five passengers were uninjured; but from the looks of the car, I was surprised its driver survived.

Feb 28, 2018

JT's Pub: An old place with a new name, a great burger, fancy fries, a nameless drink and a useful ladies' room

JT's: Around the corner from Midland Street
The hairy guy's report:

Midland Street isn't as hopping as it once was. 

O'Hare's, one of the stalwart bars of the entertainment strip, has closed, with little notice as best we could tell. (We peeked in the front window and found the upside-down Christmas tree still on the ceiling, fully decorated.) The River Rock is open but actively for sale. A couple of recent stops at VNO down the street (including a Saturday night) found it far from packed.

Maybe nighttime rowdiness has led people to look elsewhere, such as newer restaurant/bars across the river. A serious street reconstruction project last year likely didn't help.

The street work did widen the sidewalks, cutting parking but adding space for outdoor tables -- though we wonder how many there'll be. (Maybe Unclaimed Freight, the big hardware store, could set up nice seating to serve nuts and bolts. At Cops and Doughnuts, where workers wear "inmate" shirts, those considered low flight risks could serve coffee and doughnuts out front.) 

So it was a surprise to notice last fall that a new place, JT's Pub, had opened around the corner.

10 things (mostly) about JT's: Inventive drinks, great food, college football history, good hosts and more

Holly behind the bar at JT's
Doc's report:

A recent question at bar trivia asked: "Which of these drinks does not belong with the others?":
    a. Tanqueray and tonic
    b. Jack and Coke
    c. Cranberry juice and vodka
    d. 7 and 7

The answer is "c," a cosmopolitan. The other three are call drinks, so named because the waitress "calls" a specific brand of spirits, like Jack Daniel's. One of the 7s in a 7 and 7 is Seagram's 7 Crown.

Holly, our bartender on a recent trip to JT's Pub, knew that. Like Harry and me, Holly is an alum of SVSU, and, like my mother, of Reese High School. With that pedigree, you'd expect her to have the competence and personality that will serve her well in a coming job in sales.

Dec 29, 2017

The Sabre Room, a cocktail lounge with all you'll need (fried cheesecake, anyone?) to stay out of the gutter

Sabre Room: A place to play
The hairy guy’s report:

Everybody likes to act like a big wheel once in a while, doing things like buying a round for the bar. So one afternoon, after a profitable night of poker, the hairy guy, feeling (pardon the pun) flush, turned on his barstool in the Sabre Room and, with a flourish, shouted: “A round on me!”

Of course, the bar, a large space inside Bay Lanes on North Euclid, was empty – which shows the importance of timing. The magnanimous gesture cost not a cent.

If he’d have waited longer, the evening bowling league – filling 30 of the alley’s 32 lanes, the bartender said – would have turned up, and Harry the Big Wheel might have been stuck buying pitchers of craft beer for hordes of strike-bound keglers.

Shakespeare and Sisyphus turn up at the Sabre Room, helping us uncover the true meaning of shuffleboard

Doc’s report:

On a table in Tap Alley, a new craft bar complementing the larger Sabre Room at Bay Lanes, stands a 30-inch-high, 48-piece Jenga game. Players take turns removing one wooden piece at a time until the entire structure collapses. Then the tower is rebuilt, one piece at a time, until the structure rises again, only to be destroyed again. The game goes on, as in most games, as long as two people are willing to play.

Seems like a modern version of the myth of Sisyphus, cursed forever to roll a boulder up a steep hill in Hades, only to watch it roll back down again.

“It’s like bowling,” I thought, on a recent visit to Bay Lanes with Harry and the G-man. “You knock down the pins, set them back up, and knock them down again. What’s the point?” 

Nov 3, 2017

Tubby’s: A longtime South End joint for beer, burgers and games galore, including Schmier (just for mom)

Tubby's: Drab on the outside, warmer inside
The hairy guy’s report:

A posting from earlier this year on Tubby’s Facebook page shows a nice note received by the owner: “We were in Tubby’s last Thursday as it’s our night out with my 80 yr old mother. We have been trying different places each week. Just wanted you to know that so far Tubby’s was voted mom’s favorite.”

Maybe we shouldn’t have been surprised, then, to walk in on a Wednesday afternoon and find the place packed with retirees playing cards.

If they’d been playing poker, Harry would have thought he’d walked into a dream. But no such luck. They were playing Schmier.

Tubby’s: Friendship and poetry (!?) on Kosciuszko

Doc’s report:

To paraphrase Woody Allen: Now that I’m 68, I know that my life is easily a third over.

Indeed, it is the autumn of my life. And it is autumn here in our beautiful and historic city by the bay. Keats nailed that combination of ripening maturity and nostalgic wistfulness, in our lives and in the season, when he addressed autumn as the “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.”      

So it was with a certain sense of urgency to share the latest products of my maturing imagination that I met Harry and the G-man on a recent Wednesday afternoon at Tubby’s. But before you could say “Watch this,” a bear, a monkey, and a platypus walked in.

Sep 19, 2017

At the Black Pearl: It was a Dark N Stormy afternoon, when even non-pirates can shoot pool, drink and eat

Black Pearl: More than what the sign says

UPDATE: This place has gone out of business.

The hairy guy’s report: 

The world is full of bar lists -- 10 this, 10 that -- but the ultimate must be one from liquor.com -- The 263 Bars That Matter Most. Among them is Black Pearl, which might be the one on Water Street downtown across the street from the antique mall and the St. Laurent nut house.

But it's not. The one on the list is in Fitzroy, Australia, a Melbourne suburb, and it's said to have "a vibe that feels like a 1970s bachelor pad in the best possible way."

The Black Pearl in Bay City does have touches of bachelor pad. A foosball table, for instance, which might be out of place at a rum bar with a pirate motif. But even old pirates must have liked to relax with a friendly game after a tough day of plundering on the high seas.

Even better, there’s a pool table (along with a pinball machine, a dartboard and a bar-top electronic console). You might not think of a rum bar if you’re looking for a good place to shoot pool downtown. But you should.

Black Pearl has it all (and maybe even a bit too much)

Racheal (yes, that's her name) at the bar
Doc's report:

I took my senior prom date to dinner at the Blackhawk restaurant at Third Street and Water after the dance. Several owners, name changes, and a half-century later, the eponymous black hawk is still there, stuffed and encased in glass above the hostess stand, as you enter the venue’s current iteration, the Black Pearl.

The year-old Caribbean-themed “Rok Grille and Rum Bar” shares its name, of course, with the pirate ship in the Disney franchise “Pirates of the Caribbean.” I’ll watch any movie in which the father of the sex symbol hero (Johnny Depp) is played by Keith Richards. Indeed, as Harry and I entered the cavernous and otherwise deserted restaurant on a recent Thursday mid-afternoon, "Gimme Shelter," the lead track on the Stones’ “Let It Bleed” album, was playing on the excellent sound system -- but so loud as to inhibit conversation.

Jun 22, 2017

At the Public House, the walls are white, the eggs are bright, the ice is cool and you can feel like a socialite

Public House: Minimalist
The hairy guy's report:

Harry has a 91-year-old neighbor who is prone to insightful homespun observations. The weather, he said the other day, was "hotter than a two-peckered billy goat."

Nobody would call Bob trendy, which is surely fine with him.

In contrast, the new Public House, in a downtown storefront on Adams, is as trendy as all get-out, with a clean white interior, craft cocktails, designer ice cubes and lots of buzz.

About a week after it opened to a packed house, the Public House debuted its also-trendy food menu, with kale salad, mushroom tartine and the like. But one item caught our eye, a treat that Bob might enjoy: pickled eggs.

The Public House: So simple, clean, new and just fine

Emily behind the bar
Doc’s Report:

I grew up in dark, loud, crowded, hot smoky bars like the Four Aces and Bishop’s, where tired and happy factory workers swilled Stroh’s and ate cheeseburgers after bowling or softball with their neighbors, making racist jokes and sexual puns.

The Public House isn’t like those bars. It’s as bright, still, quiet, clean and cool as its logo: a white square with a pencil-thin black border displaying an all-caps “P” in sans serifs bold and a lower case script italic “h” separated by a simple forward slash.

May 10, 2017

Bier Garten: Not much of Germany, but a brick from a break-in, a burger with olives and a bell with a past

Bier Garten
The hairy guy’s report:

The hairy guy, who lived in Germany for a time, once walked into a biergarten with an American friend. We sat at a long table filled with people and laughter amid a buzz of friendly, animated conversation. It was truly like being in a movie scene. But neither of us could figure out how to get a beer (or bier, in this case) and we eventually left.

Heading to the Bier Garten, on State Park Drive just north of Wilder, Harry tried to curtail his anticipation. After all, it was a Monday afternoon, not the likeliest time to find a boisterous crowd even at an Oktoberfest. And inside, the place was deserted, except for a couple of employees.

But we did find a healthy dose of gemütlichkeit in the form of the owner’s mother, a delightful woman who lit the place up all by herself, even as she was polishing brass handrails.

An evening at the Bier Garten, the latest stop on the city's bar trivia circuit: Foiled (again) by millennials

Doc’s report:

In the year and a half since our report on Coonan’s Irish Hub, in which we noted the growing trend of bar trivia, I’ve played trivia on every night of the week, at Coonan’s, the Rathskeller, Bell Bar, Jake’s Corner Lounge, the Spinning Wheel, Tri-City Brewing, Scotty’s Sandbar, Tavern 101, Bottomz Up and Chet’s Corner Bar.

I’ve won often enough to keep me in business, and I’ve lost often enough to keep me humble.

In the process, I’ve learned a lot about bars, their patrons and games -- and, as usual, absolutely nothing about myself.

Mar 14, 2017

Riverfront Lounge: A barroom with a view, a murky drink and a fine burger (but not with pommes frites!)

Riverfront Lounge is inside to the right
The hairy guy's report:

Walking into the downtown Doubletree hotel, it's as if we'd entered a bubble. Hotels are like that. You leave your surroundings behind and enter a warm place that, except for maybe the view out a window, could be anywhere.

Looking over a list of house drinks in the hotel bar, which is called the Riverfront Lounge, one caught our eye to remind us where we really were.

The $8.95 drink, called the Saginaw Bay Refresher, consists of Chambord, Midori, Malibu coconut rum, Bacardi rum, orange juice and pineapple juice. Because nothing says Saginaw Bay like Chambord and Midori.

Lounge in the Doubletree fits the bill for a hotel bar

Audrey behind the bar at the Riverfront Lounge
Doc's report:

One of the funniest scenes in the movie “The Graduate” comes near the beginning, when Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) agrees to meet Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) at a hotel bar to begin their affair. Hilarity ensues as Benjamin’s incompetence in getting a room and ordering drinks foreshadows a greater incompetence when they get up to the room.

The hotel bar is one of the most romantic settings imaginable, as it combines two essential elements of romance: drinking and bedrooms, both under one roof. Indeed, some of my favorite hotel bars are nearly as famous as the hotel: the Top of the Mark at San Francisco’s Mark Hopkins, the Algonquin Room with its famous Round Table at Manhattan’s Algonquin, the Pump Room at Chicago’s Ambassador East.

Jan 21, 2017

River Rock: Beer, food, pool and rock-and-roll history starting at 7 a.m., complete with a car bomb anytime

River Rock: A cozy corner bar
The hairy guy's report:

It's the middle of winter. The hairy guy is doing his best to look ahead to warmer days.

Mrs. Hairy Guy has been lobbying for a trip to Florida. Harry has been studying the Burpee plant catalog that came in the mail, with its flowery prose. A hardy fig tree, for instance, is said to "bestow a luscious cavalcade of golf ball-sized deep-purple figs." Figs and golf, together at last.

on a snowy weekday afternoon, everything was going well at the welcoming River Rock Cafe on Midland Street -- until those warm thoughts were blown away by an Irish Car Bomb.

Harry has to admit that he asked for it. But it was staring out at him from the menu. And after some beer, it sounded, well, intriguing.

At River Rock Cafe, the history of rock is on the walls (with thoughts of a Virgin Mary and Marilyn Monroe)

Henry at the bar
Doc’s report:

Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, who owns the Kwik-E-Mart on “The Simpsons,” venerates an icon of Ganesh, which he keeps on the store’s roof. He shows Bart Simpson the secret passage to the roof through the beer cooler, behind the non-alcoholic beer.

Bart: “But what if someone wants a non-alcoholic beer?”

Apu: “You know, it never comes up.”

Indeed, if, whether by responsible choice or medical necessity, you say goodbye to a half-century of alcohol abuse, the frigid and seductive mistress of non-alcoholic beer may well be your first stop. And your last.

Dec 2, 2016

Jimmy's Four Aces: A none-dare-call-it-trendy bar with pool, shuffleboard and Blatz but nada on draft

Jimmy's Four Aces: Craft beer? Not here
The hairy guy's report:

You walk into a bar these days and there's no telling what you'll find.

In San Francisco, it might be a crowd reading books in silence. In London, it could be people sipping cocktails in the nude. And due west across Michigan, in Hesperia, a cathouse gets heavy use behind a bar called Angelo's and Riccardo's; you wouldn't expect such a thing, but there it is.

Meanwhile, someone is always figuring out another beer gimmick.

There's Chocolate Fudge Bumpy Cake Double Brown Ale. Beer made from water that was sucked from a cloud. And Mr. Twit's Odious Ale, which includes yeast swabbed from the wood of Roald Dahl's writing chair. Which makes peanut-flavored beers (and there are plenty of them) sound almost normal. 

Where does it all end? At the corner of Farragut and 15th, it turns out -- at Jimmy's Four Aces, a no-frills corner bar that stands as a humble bulwark against the insidious forces of progress.

There, you'll find almost everything you need and not much else. "You can get Bud Light in a real pretty glass," explains Jessica, who tends bar by day.

Spades, hearts, diamonds, clubs: Ah, the good old days

Jessica on the job at Jimmy's Four Aces
Doc's report:

The memory of happiness brings its own kind of redoubled and nostalgic happiness.

Forty-six years ago, I used to go to the Four Aces, at Farragut and 15th, after my third-shift work at Bay City Chevrolet ended, on Friday morning, when the UAW’s weekend began. 

A burger with fried onions, Stroh’s, and a game of schmier at 7 a.m. About 40 of us. All honest, tired, hard-working, dirty Polish men.

Can you imagine? Drunk, dirty, and laughing at 7 a.m. on a frigid Michigan February morning? It was a blast. I was as happy as I’ve ever been.

Oct 6, 2016

American Kitchen: A burger with egg, absinthe with laughter (but no hallucinations) and malts with booze

American Kitchen, downtown on Center
The hairy guy's report:

Among the 24 taps at American Kitchen downtown on Center is one for Stella Artois, the Belgian pilsner. Harry decided to skip it, like almost everyone in Belgium does ("Belgians Have a Term for People Who Drink Stella Artois — Tourists," the Wall Street Journal reported recently).

He also skipped Vander Mill Totally Roasted, a hard cider. "The medley of cinnamon, pecan and vanilla will dance on your palate," the description says. Harry got a bad mental image from that one.

He settled on Arcadia Jaw-Jacker, described as a celebration of autumn that doesn't include pumpkin. That sounded good on an autumnal afternoon. And it was.

But what finally caught the hairy guy's eye was a squat bottle of absinthe beckoning from the end of the bar.

At American Kitchen, a bartender with the right stuff

Pete on the job at American Kitchen
Doc's report:

I see on the newswire that one Jennifer Le Nechet has been crowned the world's best bartender at a competition in Miami. In a hopeful preview of our national election, Jennifer is the first woman to claim the title.

Nearly 10,000 bartenders from around the world entered the competition, with an elite group of six making it to the final round, where they were judged on technique, personality, spirits knowledge and how well they perform under pressure.

Based on those criteria, Pete, our bartender at a recent visit to American Kitchen, would have won by a furlong. His personality is sweeter than the cargo on sugar beet trucks struggling down Kosciuszko in autumn. Like every young person I meet, Pete wants to make movies.

Aug 24, 2016

Bemo’s by day: A quiet corner bar with game shows, Liquid Marijuana and a reminder that disco still sucks

Bemo's: Live music at night, quietude by day
The hairy guy’s report:

A few weeks back, Harry found himself in the Old Miami, a bar in Detroit’s Cass Corridor. By day, it’s a mild-mannered place long known as a hangout for Vietnam vets. At night, the music brings a different crowd.

Harry, showing up for an old friend’s evening retirement party, asked for a PBR and got a curt lecture about hipsters. He ended up instead with a can of Carling Black Label (once brewed in Frankenmuth), which he’d have happily asked for if he’d known it was available.

Back in Bay City on a Friday night soon afterward, Mrs. Hairy Guy wanted to see a poet who was reading at Bemo’s on south Madison. In the interest of marital bliss, Harry agreed.

The poet, Marc Beaudin, is a local guy now living in Montana who was in town for a high school reunion. He talked of “trout and transcendence” and “the erotic pull of gravity,” among other things. The mostly full house listened without talking, applauded at appropriate moments, and nobody left when the music started. It was good, though not Bemo’s usual nightly music fare.

And it got Harry to wondering about Bemo’s by day.

Bemo’s: It's where the bands come to play (but later)

Judy at home behind the bar at Bemo's
Doc’s report:

It was Harry’s idea, not mine, to visit Bay City’s premier music venue on an enervatingly humid mid-August Wednesday afternoon. And a good idea it was, because it gave us the time, space and the quiet to reflect on bars, music, the impending election, the Bay City Cooperative Market, and so forth with our only companion, Bemo’s delightful daytime bartender Judy.

You don’t have to ask Judy twice what her customers like:

  • “PBR has made a comeback. Kids drink it like water.”
  • Throw-back drinks called tooters. Judy shared her encyclopedic knowledge of such concoctions as the delightfully-named Slippery Nipple (butterscotch schnapps and Bailey’s), Johnny Vegas, the Superman (amaretto, Blue Curacao and Irish cream), Liquid Marijuana (melon schnapps, pineapple juice, triple sec, and -- you could knock me over with a feather -- Blue Curacao); and -- brace yourself, Bridget ... 
  • Jameson’s Irish Whiskey with a pickleback, or pickle juice chaser, for which Judy always keeps a jar of pickles handy. (I have already adopted this practice in my cuisine.)

Jun 30, 2016

Scotty's Sandbar on the Middlegrounds: A sunny spot along the river; no sand or Manhattan, but who cares?

Scotty's Sandbar from the parking lot
The hairy guy's report:

Three summers ago, we set out to find a beach bar in town. The closest we got was Malickey's Pub on south Madison, which has since closed but was rumored to have the best Sex on the Beach -- not what we had in mind.

This year, on a nice summer afternoon, we did much better. One hump over the Lafayette Bridge, onto the Middlegrounds, past the new Michigan Sugar Trails and down a driveway across the road from a Superfund landfill site, we found it: the old Sand Bar, all cleaned up and recently reincarnated as Scotty's Sandbar.

We even found Scotty, who seems like such an easygoing, sensible guy that you wonder why he went through all the hassle of fixing up a long-abandoned bar that had smashed-in windows and a caved-in roof.

"It gives me something to do other than going up and down the river," he said.

You won’t stumble upon Scotty’s Sandbar by accident

Nancy, behind the bar before she flees the country
Doc’s report:

Every bar we’ve covered in the three-plus years of this blog is within a block or two of a Metro bus route -- until now.

Exactly 0.79 miles south on the twisting and narrow Evergreen Drive on Middlegrounds Island you’ll find Scotty’s Sandbar. Or maybe you won’t. I didn’t, until I backtracked, which is why that 0.79 miles will come in handy. It’s right across from the landfill. And well worth the trip. 

May 17, 2016

At the Spinning Wheel, the pool tables are clean and the clientele isn't square but - aha! - it's a T-square!

Spinning Wheel: the sign, we're told, doesn't spin
The hairy guy's report:

On a trip up north awhile back, the hairy guy found himself turkey hunting with a shotgun-toting friend. Harry's job was to pretend to be a female turkey, the goal being to lure a horny tom out of the woods to his doom. This is not done by dancing provocatively in a short skirt but by making squeaky sounds with a small wooden box. Some guys apparently like that.

Harry was a failure. No gobbles. You might say he was acting like a total turkey, but evidently the real turkeys didn't think so. And you can only imagine what a blow to the ego it is when even a turkey doesn't find you appealing.

Of course, we humans have more civilized places to handle the mating dance. We have bars.

Like the Spinning Wheel, which might be a good place on a weekend night to see if you can arouse any interest from a hen or tom. Or sometimes both, it turns out.

Going up (and down), and the lowdown on Red Bull

Angel behind the bar at the Spinning Wheel
Doc's report:

Baby boomers will remember the 1968 hit of the group Blood, Sweat & Tears, "Spinning Wheel," and its first line: "What goes up must come down."

The line was apropos in more than one sense on a recent visit to the South End bar of the same name. When asked, our bartender Angel, who continues a line of expert and welcoming hostesses we've met over the three-year run of this blog, explained the popularity of Red Bull drinks among millennials: "It's an upper and a downer."

Red Bull, marketed as an energy drink, is the stimulant; alcohol is the universal depressant. What goes up -- your heart rate and cognition -- must come down, along with your mood and relationships. (In my day, it was Irish coffee: caffeine for up, Southern Comfort for down.)

Apr 10, 2016

The Silver Palace: It's not silver or a palace, but the popcorn is free and you can get Kinky anytime for $3

The Silver Palace, or maybe just the Palace
The hairy guy's report:

A bar's name can leave you full of anticipation, or not.

For instance, at the downtown bar called Jake's, you might expect to find a guy called Jake. You probably won't, because he sold the place. But you really should stop in, if you haven't recently, to see the large new windows looking out over Third Street. Tearing down wood panels to restore what must have been the building's original look gives the place an entirely different feeling.

But that's not why we're here, except to note that naming the bar Jake's makes it sound like a friendlier place than it would if the then-owner had used his actual name -- Jacobs, which sounds a lot more formal.

And if you come across a bar called the Silver Palace, you might expect something grand. Maybe dark wood paneling. White tablecloths. Hefty silverware. You'd wonder if you'll need a dinner jacket, or if you should at least tuck in your shirt.   

History and cuisine carry on at the Silver Palace

Carrie behind the bar at the Silver Palace
Doc's report:

The commute northeast on Woodside from my apartment to my job has taken me past the Silver Palace in Essexville several times a week for almost two years. I hang out at Coonan’s, so I wasn't impressed enough by the Palace's unassuming exterior to stop in after work, until recently.

But like so many facets of Bay County -- its unsung bars, its history, its people -- all you have to do is look a little closer to uncover some authentic treasures.

Feb 12, 2016

Lucky's Pub on Midland Street, where you can get a Train Wreck, foosball or some kind of screwdriver

Lucky's and the Westown
The hairy guy's report:

A neighbor tells about moving to town awhile back. She and her then-husband unloaded stuff, then went to Midland Street for the sort of thing people do there.

Eventually driving home from Lucky's Pub, an officer pulled her over, somehow sensing a DUI. After checking her out-of-state driver's license, he announced, while snapping on the cuffs: "Welcome to Bay City!" 

Just recently, Harry had a fine afternoon at Lucky's, meeting a bunch of friends for a feast of chicken wings and beer before heading to a poker game. He had no run-ins with the law. But he did have a lousy night at cards. Meanwhile, the friends went off to play trivia at another local bar -- and they lost.

There seems to be a pattern here, raising an ominous question: Is a visit to a place called Lucky's pushing your luck?

It's a great bartender who makes a bar great, as one shows again in a visit to Lucky's and the Westown

Amber behind the bar at Lucky's
Doc’s Report:

A recurring observation of this blog, now in its third year, is the importance of a good bartender.

Nothing else -- not location, atmosphere, food, entertainment, culture, the make-up of the crowd -- is as decisive to the bar experience as the bartender’s competence and personality.

So Harry and I were the lucky ones when we visited Lucky’s Pub on a recent weekday afternoon --  thanks to Amber, a veteran of bars from Bay City to Port Huron. Along with a pleasant insurance sales rep, we had Amber’s undivided attention for two hours.

Jan 1, 2016

Coonan's Irish Hub: Trivia on Mondays, nothing on Sundays, Guinness anytime and politics by request

Coonan's Irish Hub on North Johnson
The hairy guy's report:
An online directory of Irish bars in Michigan lists places with names like Bailey's, Dooley's, Kelly's, McThis, O'That and Paddy's Whatever. Local bars (or do we have to call them pubs?) on the list are O'Hare's, Paddy's Green Hut, Washington Street Irish Pub and Coonan's Irish Hub.

A disclaimer warns, in part: "It is up for you to decide whether or not there is any similarity to an actual Public House in Ireland."

The hairy guy has never been to Ireland, so he can't say. But Mrs. Hairy Guy, who has been there, says Coonan's is more like a restaurant because it's bright inside.

It does beg the question of what makes a bar an Irish bar.

Coonan’s: Camaraderie and high spirits drive trivia on Monday nights at a Johnson Street social anchor

Trivia night crowd at Coonan's
Doc's report:

Do you know the name of Harry Potter’s owl, or two of the three kids in “The Middle”? Well, it’s Hedwig, and Brick, Sue and Axl. So where were you at Coonan’s last Monday for trivia when I needed you?

Let me say up front that Coonan’s Irish Hub is my favorite bar and grill in Bay City. When people visit from out of town, it’s the first place I take them, and they ask to go back on their return visit. Local friends ask me to meet them at Coonan’s for the loaded chili, olive burger, Guinness stew or Rueben.

Nov 12, 2015

Jake's South Inn, a bar where the great outdoors is in, complete with knotty pine, Westerns and fishhooks

Jake's South Inn: A past of many names
The hairy guy's report:

A movie version was recently released of "A Walk in the Woods," about two unprepared guys who set out to hike the Appalachian Trail. Harry has been reading the book. And on a bright autumn day, he was at a chapter in which the guys got stuck in a roaring snowstorm and barely made it to a modest shelter for the night.

Visions of snow were enough to make Harry think he should get out of the house and do something grand amid the last of the fall colors -- see a bit of the great outdoors, hear the wind rustling past his hearing aid, feel the sun warming his receding hairline.

It wasn't enough to actually make him do that. It was enough, though, to get him out to explore another bar -- where he got his fix of nature by admiring knotty-pine walls and watching TV reruns of Westerns. And he got to see a friendly, familiar face, someone he'd met in his earliest days on the trail of local bars.

Both hospitality and history at Jake’s South Inn

Joni behind the bar at Jake's South Inn
Doc’s report:

Within the square mile defined by St. Stan’s traditional parish, from 18th to 28th and Madison/Michigan to Lincoln, St. Stan’s is the only church of any denomination. I say “traditional,” because St. Stan’s is now incorporated, with St. Hyacinth Church, in the larger South End as Our Lady of Czestochowa Parish, due to a grant from the National Spelling Bee.

But in that square half-mile are nine bars (if you count the PLAV hall). That nine-to-one bars-to-churches ratio seems about right.

Sep 28, 2015

Tavern 101: A record-breaking Delirium Tremens and a tall, cold Sock Monkey. But no luck with a Dead Guy

Tavern 101: Indoor and out
The hairy guy's report:

Back in the summer, about a week after Tavern 101 opened on the ground floor of the new Mill End Lofts building downtown, the hairy guy went in with his wife and some friends. A menu listed the available 50-some drafts but had no prices.

Well, he figured, this isn't the kind of place to go for cheap beers. But how much can a beer cost, anyway? So for lack of any other criteria and aiming to try something new, he chose one for its name: Delirium Tremens, from Belgium. Harry was prepared for a case of the shakes, perhaps a view of Wenonah Park across the street in paisley.

What he got instead was something less than a pint, in a sort of brandy snifter glass. The beer was fine (owing perhaps in part to its 8.5% alcohol content). He experienced no delirium, which was good, and was thinking he could drink one again sometime, until the bill showed up. It weighed in at $9.95.

Tavern 101, an anchor of Bay City’s renaissance

Meagan behind the bar at Tavern 101
Doc's report:

An apt symbol of Bay City’s cultural and economic revival is the Mill End Lofts. Where once stood “The World’s Most Unusual Store” -– and thank God for “unusual” -– we now have a glistening and vibrant commercial and residential space.

A bright red all-caps sign accents the night skyline as you cross bridges from the west, complementing the view of our brightly-lit and renovated City Hall tower clock. It’s as though Hell’s Half Mile has become God’s Little Acre.

Anchoring the southwest corner of the lofts building, where historic Center Avenue meets Water Street at Wenonah Park along the river, is Tavern 101.

When I was a boy here, there was no place like it. Until this year, there still wasn’t.

Jul 22, 2015

Bell Bar: It's back from the dead, complete with cheap pints, doughnuts, sloe gin and (maybe) nurses

The Bell: No graffiti so far
The hairy guy's report:

The website for the local band Drift Lifted talks about "gritty, beer-caked bars" and "graffiti’d bathrooms." But the bar where we found the band's vocalist one afternoon wasn't gritty or beer-caked at all and was sorely lacking in bathroom graffiti.

"It's my parents' bar, not mine," he explained.

The bar is the Bell,
a classic corner bar with big windows looking out over Columbus and Lincoln. It recently rose from the dead after closing abruptly Dec. 31. Austin Woods, the rock singer, tends bar there (but doesn't sing) during the day.

A neighbor recently reminisced to us that the Bell, which
had been in business since at least just after Prohibition, had long been a hangout for her uncles. "I'm sure all their ghosts are still in the same seats," she said.

We sensed no ghosts but we did sense a good bar that never should have closed, if only briefly. 

Everything old rings true again at the Bell Bar

Co-owner Gina Woods, with bell behind her
Doc's report:

When I was a student and professor in Ann Arbor in the '70s, the Village Bell and Pretzel Bell -- or “V-Bell” and “P-Bell” -- were the places to hang out: the V-Bell for faculty, the P-Bell for students.

Both have since closed or moved, but there is something about the clear, loud, reassuring dong of a bell that beckons everyone of good will. “We have heard the chimes at midnight,” so to speak (Henry IV, Part II). Wikipedia tells us about Bell Bar, a hamlet in  Hertfordshire, England, named after the ancient Bell Inn, with its petrol station, a few garden centres, a restaurant and, of course, a pub.

And so I was as happy as anyone when the Bell Bar at Lincoln and Columbus re-opened under new owners after a brief (six months and five days) hiatus. I cherish the past more with each passing year, and had known the previous owners, the Borkowskis, through a mutual friend.

May 26, 2015

Jim's: A longtime quiet South End corner bar has all the basics covered, along with gum and a squeak

Jim's Bar: None of that craft beer stuff
The hairy guy's report:

The promise of the neighborhood bar is that, as the old "Cheers" TV show theme says, it's "Where everybody knows your name, and they're always glad you came."   

Of course, any bar could fit that description. If you become one of the regulars, everyone will know your name, unless you just sit in a corner and never talk. And they'll always be glad you came, unless you get rowdy and never tip.

For instance, when the Bay City Times last year went looking for the best neighborhood bar around town, the finalists included the Stein Haus downtown -- a great bar, but not what we'd think of as a neighborhood joint.

Jim's Bar, deep in the South End, wasn't even on the list. It's our idea of a classic neighborhood bar. It sits on a residential corner. It's been around awhile. It's friendly and comfortable, but nothing fancy. You can imagine people walking there from home.

Thesaurus.com lists synonyms for "neighborhood bar," including "pub" and "rathskeller." But it's a safe bet that nobody has ever called Jim's a pub or a rathskeller. It's a bar.

Jim's, the place to go after a thirsty ride on route 3

Jim Premo, the Jim in Jim's Bar
Doc's report:

If you want to take a bus to a bar on the east side on a weekday afternoon, you have four choices. (The buses stop running at 5:15.)

Routes 2, 10 and 11 go east to west. You'll pass five bars on the 11, four on the 10, and none on the 2. It makes you wonder why they have a route 2.

On the north to south route 3, leaving from the terminal on the north end of town across from Striker’s at Washington and Second, you'll pass 11 bars going south -- not restaurants with a bar, but just bars or bars that serve food. You'll go south down Washington to Madison to Michigan, and see such places as Madame Shelley's, Chet's Corner Bar and Barney’s.

Coming back north, you might visit Trix's, the Spinning Wheel, Tubby's and Bishop's, as the route 3 makes its way up Broadway and Kosciuszko to Farragut.

Apr 21, 2015

Hooligan's, where a BLT knows how to stick up for itself and the whole place gets fishy on weekends

Hooligan's: More restaurant than bar
The hairy guy's report:
Last weekend, the hairy guy saw the 1960 film "The Little Shop of Horrors," which was showing at the old Masonic Temple downtown. In the movie (which includes a young Jack Nicholson in its cast), a strange potted plant lives off human flesh and blood, and whines "Feed me!" in a deep voice when it's hungry.

By coincidence, we'd stopped in a couple days earlier at Hooligan's, up on Water Street near the Independence Bridge. Looking over the menu, Harry noticed that the description for a BLT says only: "It speaks for itself."

Even before seeing a movie about a talking plant, a talking sandwich sounded ominous.

Mar 24, 2015

After 2 years of blogging, we take a retrospective tour of the beer, food, games and great people we've met

It's been two years since we began touring local bars. We've seen beers for $8 and beers for 75 cents. We've seen free popcorn and free steak tartare. We've consumed drinks with names like Big Ass and Grapes of Wrath (actually, we tried but just couldn't drink that one). And we have yet to find a place we'd never go back to.

Life marches on, of course. The Bell Bar on Columbus (which we never got to write about) has closed. So has Malickey's Pub on South Farragut. And the downtown Empire Room has closed again. But Tavern 101 plans to open this summer in the new Mill End building downtown, according to signs there, with 50 beers on tap; sounds confusing, but we'll see. And the Public House, expected to specialize in craft cocktails, is in the works at the north end of downtown.

We decided it was a good time to revisit all the places we've been to see what's changed and what hasn't. It took us three grueling afternoons. Here's what we found, starting with the first place we wrote about.

Feb 20, 2015

Bay View Bar & Grill: The ice is just a short walk away but the menu is long and the hash browns are cheesy

Bay View: Actually a view of the bay
The hairy guy's report:

A couple weeks back, the hairy guy finally walked across the Saginaw River. He'd been wanting to do that. Ice fishermen along the way paid him no mind, which is just as well.

But it got him to thinking that a warm bar would be welcome after hours of fishing on ice.

Where we were, out near the Independence Bridge (some call it "the new new new bridge"), the Circle Bar is the closest prospect on the east side, and it would be a hike in the cold.

On the Banks side, there's nothing. Once upon a time, the Last Chance Saloon was right nearby, but it was wiped out when the bridge was built. That's progress for you. (The Last Chance is, however, survived by a song.) Maybe the USS Edson (a.k.a. the Saginaw Valley Naval Ship Museum, which is docked there, should open an on-board bar.

There must be a good place, somewhere near fishing water and not too fancy, where a guy all bundled up could park his bait next to his bar stool and down a shot of whiskey or blackberry brandy while waiting for some good food.

We found it, a bit north of the city, right off the bay.