Aug 1, 2013

Mort's Northern Bar, where the beer and talk flow easy, and there's a nice shotgun but no cherries

Great place but it's no Manhattan
The hairy guy's report:

A Manhattan is one of the more common mixed drinks. Nothing too complicated -- whiskey, sweet vermouth, a dash or two of bitters and a Maraschino cherry. And some ice. Recipes vary on the proportions, so it's hard for anyone to say you threw in too much or two little of something. If you forget the bitters, nobody's likely to notice.

At Mort's Northern Bar, the friendly crowd one afternoon was sticking to beer. But there's a full bar, so the hairy guy had in mind (after a beer) to try his favorite drink.

Sure, said Holly the bartender, who had just started working there a few days earlier. Turned out it wasn't so easy. They had whiskey, of course, and ice cubes. But no vermouth, no bitters and no cherries.

If this happened at some places, we'd think epic fail, to use modern lingo. But at the Northern Bar, it turned out that it didn't much matter. We just got another beer instead and kept having a good time.

How good a time? For starters, when we walked in and checked the spigots to see what was on tap, we saw Bud Light and Crown Royal. Had we discovered the greatest shot-and-a-beer place of all time? 

Not really. There are two taps; turns out that both have Bud Light, but one of the handles was covered with a velvet Crown Royal bag. It did look impressive, though.

And having just one beer on tap isn't much of a problem. A draft is $1 till 6 p.m., but so are various canned beers. (The prices go up a bit later.)

Part of the backbar
If the Northern was just a beer joint, asking for a Manhattan would be unfair. But this place gets a younger crowd at night, and they drink all sorts of stuff. For instance, a bottle of Dr. McGillicuddy's (just ask for a "doctor's" if you're in Wisconsin) has a prime spot on the back bar. And a sign behind the cash register says a Shirley Temple (Squirt and grenadine) is $1.25. So they must get a really younger crowd. But a Shirley Temple usually comes with a Maraschino cherry. Oh, well.

None of that matters, though, when you're having a good time. Some bars in the afternoon have a handful of customers staring into their beers (or into a TV or outer space). That's fine; you go to the bar, you can stare at yourself in the mirror if you want.

The Northern wasn't like that at all; it had a bunch of happy folks sitting at the bar all talking and yukking it up. Nobody knew us, but we were quickly accepted. One guy gets his special blend of pipe tobacco from a place in Saginaw. Another guy, with a perpetual smile and a dapper hat, drives a vintage ca
r Cadillac (which looked quite impressive parked out front). Ed, who lives in Banks, talked about the old days there and on Midland St. Another guy was happy to trade a steady stream of bar jokes with us. Nobody monopolized the conversation. Nobody ranted. And only one of the jokes (at least that I heard) was the kind you couldn't tell your mother. 

Oddly, the TV was tuned to CNBC. It was obvious that nobody in the place cared about the stock market. Then again, it meant the TV wasn't going to get in the way of the conversation.

The afternoon retirees started drifting out as an after-work crowd started drifting in. They likely start wandering out as the night crowd bops in. And we'd guess everyone leaves happy.

The Northern is a bit past Castaways, a big place right along the Kawkawlin River. We
A shotgun, with provenance
presume the Northern was named for its location north of the city, but it also has a decided up-north look, both inside and out. An old shotgun is even mounted on one wall, with a letter from the NRA explaining that it was made by the Crescent Firearms Co. of Norwich, Conn., and was moderately priced.

Another wall has a large detailed 1890 street map of Bay City. The hairy guy, whose east side house was supposedly built in 1900, now wonders if it's actually even older.

A pool table (which could use some new sticks) is in the front room, a foosball table and dartboards are in the back room (which also has a stage for bands); a lottery ticket dispenser and ATM are somewhere in the middle. Food is served till 1 a.m., but it's all deep-fried stuff. The men's room is better than most.

And one small warning: Watch for the step as you enter the front door.
But if you stub your toe, just consider it a conversation starter.

The bald guy's report:  Searching for
what makes a bar truly "northern"

"Yes, we have no Manhattans, we have no Manhattans today."  Imagine cute little music notes dancing around that sentence.  They're probably in those Wingding fonts but it's too much like work to find 'em.  Besides, too much computering, they say, ain't good for you -- doesn't exercise the imagination enough.

Thus, it turns out, I'm doing us both a huge favor, one that will reap benefits later when Al comes a-callin'.  Al who?  Al Z. Heimer  Imagine also, to make sense of any of this, you're old enough to recognize the phrasing  and music from the 1923 #1 hit, "Yes, We Have No Bananas."  (There's a boss Spike Jones version on YouTube.)  

At any rate, imagine me, Doc and Harry at Mort's Northern Bar to answer the age-old question:  Who is Mort and what makes a bar "Northern"?  These and other questions will be answered anon.  (No, not the guy who writes all those poems, Anon, with a capital "A", no, "anon"  with a small "a," a  Shakespeare  word for "shortly." Hey!  I paid a lot of money  to learn that, so by God I'm gonna use it when I can.  Call it ROI (Return On Investment).  Consider it another favor, your  word for the day.

And as is the bearded one's wont, imagine he orders a Manhattan. Holly, the bartender,
Holly the bartender
knew the four standard ingredients but couldn't make it.  She  scoured the place high and low but no matter where she looked, no sweet vermouth.  She could fix up a rum and Coke, a  Jack and Coke, Red Bull and Jagermeister, plenty of dollar beer but no Manhattans.  From this we deduce at the Northern there's a two-ingredient maximum or Mort's is not a Manhattan-type joint.

Turns out Mort is a guy named Karen.  According to Jim, a regular, 17 years ago Karen Somebody bought  the place when it was just "Northern" bar and she added  "Mort," supposedly because she was a big fan of Mort Neff, (or as my old neighbor used to call him, saying it fast so it sounded like one word, "Morf Neff").  Neff,  the original "Michigan Outdoors" guy on TV, was known as much for his drinking with the boys as his outdoor prowess.  In fact, it was consensus at my end of the bar that Howard Shelley carried the load for the TV show and Neff got all the fame.  Kinda like St. Joseph.  Jim, a contractor, said his Dad and Mort were old drinking buddies from way back.  He didn't say where but didn't need to.  It was corroboration enough for  "Morf's" legend.

Mort's was more of a social club than any of the other bars we've visited.  When we walked in (after glomming some delish Coneys at BJ's down the street) there were about 10 guys around the bar in twosomes and three-somes enjoined in knots of lively conversation and we were quickly engaged.  Holly herself was lively and quick (and I knew in a moment she warn't no St. Nick -- I  know, I know,  but the way it came out begged for that ending.)  Jim and Mike (another regular) and Doc and I traded raunchy jokes at the bar while Harry did what he did -- reportage.  Later on, Doc, who grew up with a pool table in his basement (he must've been rich), beat Harry and me at 8-ball. Other than pool, in the back room there was a foosball game and a dartboard and a jukebox in the room opposite the bar.  I wouldn't be surprised if Doc had had those too.

Judging from the size of the back room, Mort's Northern Bar enjoys a good crowd for
The back room at the Northern Bar
dancing and karaoke on Fridays.  The decor there is anything but northern, the major feature being two LED palm trees.  This was corroborated by Jim, who says the weekend nighttime crowd gets the place  hopping, often spearheaded by a DJ named Dougie Dore who patrons say is the greatest.

So we know what makes the bar "Mort's," but what makes it "Northern"?  The decor?  Could be.  I imagine it could be the grapevine moose.  A moose is a northern animal and grapevine a viable art form up north.

The hundred-year old cork linoleum floor?  I really don't know how old it was, but it looked real old -- however, although I lived up north, I never saw this there, but maybe it was used before my time.  Aside from that, in a former life I was responsible for floorcare and although
Wall art: A moose head made of grapevines
the floor showed the cracks of a million footsteps (again, a guess) the luster of this material was amazing, even in the high-traffic area of the pool table.  And the cork backing made it very foot-friendly. I'll be real bummed if one of our readers writes in that it's all of what I said except only three years old.

Is it the eclectic building materials throughout the place that shows it grew like Topsy, adding things here and there as time passed? Well, yeah, you see a lot of that up north.  But you also see a lot of that anywhere.  No clear tell there.

Is it the use of knotty pine in the men's bathroom?  Very up-northlike and yet, unlike some of the up north rest rooms I've visited, Mort's had a very clean, very fresh-smelling men's room.  Why is that noteworthy?  I once attended a seminar by the teaching chef at Oakland Community College who himself had a thriving restaurant in mid-Michigan and he said about restaurants and public places in general that in order to survive (new restaurants have a 50% failure rate) a place has to pass two basic tests:  The "bathroom test" and the "damn test".  If the bathroom is clean and smells good, it gives the patron confidence in the cleanliness of the kitchen and attention to detail.  The "damn" test?  Here's how he said it (regarding food and beverages):  "Hot?  Damn hot.  Cold?  Damn cold."  I can't vouch for the food at Mort's Northern Bar but it certainly passed the bathroom test.

Is it the predominance of country music on the jukebox, a staple of up north bars?  Certainly didn't hurt but you'll find the same stuff in places in Detroit.

Well, putting all that together certainly helps gives it a sense of "northernness."  I imagine also that at one time, situated where it is on State Park Drive, it was the northernmost bar in Bay City and also, before there was an I-75, it was on one of the primary roads to Bay City State Park, keeping in mind that for many downstaters, Bay City IS '"up north."

What I think eventually caps its "northernness" is the attitude of the people in there, customers and  help alike.  Because "up north" is so dependent upon tourism, over the years an ethos has evolved that views people with friendliness and openness, an acceptance not just as a potential customer but as a fellow human traveler.

Speaking for myself,  although Doc and me and our new buddies at the bar, Jim and Mike, didn't solve any of the world's problems, not poverty nor immigration reform, not jobs and the economy,  didn't cure cancer, baldness or the heartbreak of psoriasis, I just had a good time with fellow members of my species and for that day, that time,
that's enough.

Imagine that!

   The particulars:
  Mort's Northern Bar
  353 State Park Drive
Northern Bar on Citysearch

1 comment:

rmtalaga said...

The Northern is a great place with a great owner Karen, Also great bartenders with great service! It's not all about the cherry's