Sep 29, 2013

The Empire Room: A swanky bar you can't miss (it's between the ribs and alleys) that's open when it is

Empire Room: Not an obvious place
The hairy guy's report:

One afternoon a couple weeks back, the hairy guy was on the west side, about to drive over the Liberty Bridge, when barbecued ribs came to mind. It happens. He crossed the river, rounded the turn onto Washington and,  (pardon the pun) right on cue, saw a sign for BBQ at the Rusty Saw Smokehouse adjoining Washington Lanes.

Harry walked into the closest door -- next to a sign for the Rusty Saw -- which put him not into the restaurant but into the Empire Room bar.

Weekday afternoons aren't the biggest time for bar business, for sure, but the bar was dark and deserted, without even a bartender -- which was intriguing but had nothing to do with ribs. And walking through the bar into the Rusty Saw was well worth it. The decor is vintage 1965 but it all looks brand new, like a set for "Mad Men." The ribs were great and the side of baked beans would have been a meal itself.

But later, on a full stomach, the totally empty bar, which has a lounge feel and a blues motif, seemed worth investigating. Would we be left singing the blues in the dark by ourselves? Not at all, it turned out.

On Friday the 13th, maybe not the best day to be looking for a good time, the weather was downright autumnal. As if that all wasn't ominous enough, Baldo wanted help with his wine-making hobby before heading to the bar.

He wasn't looking for help bottling cabernet or tasting Riesling. He wanted help picking tiny wild grapes (the ones the birds and squirrels have passed over) that grow along the side of the road. Perhaps the other weeds and the passing vehicle exhaust will help impart a fine bouquet to the end product.

The scene inside
At last, it was off to the Empire Room, which has a vintage look that brings back words you haven't used in years, like swanky, snazzy and hotsy-totsy. It long was known as Art Narlock's Empire Show Bar.   At one point, it was a popular 1960s stop for the Chessmen, according to a history of Michigan rock and roll.

Inside, Steve the owner was huddling with another guy over plans for the place, and Kate the bartender was lining up beer bottles all neat in a cooler. Not exactly a crowd, but both are gregarious types who make up for it.

Turns out the Empire Room keeps odd hours -- opening at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday-Friday, 4 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday. It closes at 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday. It's open till "at least midnight" Friday and Saturday and closes at 10 p.m. Sunday. Got that? Didn't think so. It's confusing but probably explains why the place was dark and deserted during
John Lee Hooker gazing out a window
that first visit: The place is closed Monday and Tuesday (but might open Tuesdays starting in November, according to Kate). The hairy guy later stopped in (or tried to) at 7:15 p.m. on a Wednesday and found the place locked up tight. Bottom line is that maybe it's open, maybe it's not.

The outdoor signs don't help. Outside the bar's door, they say "Rusty Saw," "Washington Lanes" and "pin setters" -- that last one great in a bowling alley but not so much in a bar.

But if you find the bar and it's open, you'll find a classy place. If it's closed, it's worth trying another time. "We have great food, great beer and great people here," says Kate. And Steve is clearly bullish on improving the place.

Food is available from the adjoining Rusty Saw (which once was the Empire Steak House). The bar has a free pork burger buffet during happy hour on Wednesday and Thursday. Live blues music is in the works, says  Steve. In the meantime, there's a great jukebox. "Booze Blues & BBQ," says a wall mural, summing up the place, which has framed pics of blues legends on the walls along with some vintage blues LPs (including a Janis Joplin). If you get antsy, there's always the bowling alley (with lots of coin-operated games) through another inside door.

Eight craft beers (actually seven and one hard cider) are on tap (and four more taps are en
Infused vodkas on display
route). A large draft is $4.50 ($1 less for happy hour, 3-6 p.m.) There's an assortment of Michigan-made spirits and four kinds of infused vodkas. The house special is the hard cider and cinnamon/honey/pear infused vodka. Harry asked for a Manhattan and it came with Maker's Mark and one giant ice cube (a nice touch, since it doesn't water down the drink as much); it's $6, or $5 during happy hour. If you're looking for a place to keep knocking back $1 Miller Lites, this isn't it.

Before leaving, our comrade Doc asked Kate, the experienced bartender, about her best and worst customers.

The best one, she said is "someone I can talk to." The worst? "Someone who doesn't bathe."

Was she dropping a hint about the guys who'd earlier been out picking grapes by the side of the road? Nah, couldn't be.

The bald guy’s report: The new Empire
brings some needed rhythm to town,
along with memories of the old Empire

I was out on the deck late the other night listening to the Tigers' incredible comeback win over Chicago, down 6-0 bottom of the ninth to win 7-6 in the 12th, when I felt it again.  On my ear and cheek.  Unmistakable.  That tang in the air -- the start of another Midwest cold season. 

True, it’s sometimes cold in the summer, but a benign cold, with a tender element promising you re-warmth soon.  This is different.  This is like the old Catholic confirmation ritual where the bishop gave each confirmant  a small slap on the cheek as symbol of the hardship he/she will face in their Christian life.  This tang has an Arctic bite telling you the hardship of another Michigan winter.  And whereas a confirmation slap gave one the grace needed to draw on to overcome the hardships, this “slap” tells you, “Buddy, yer screwed.  Dress warm.” 

And yet, at times, there’s a poetic beauty to winter that only us hardy get to see.  Like when you wake up to a fluffy white snow blanketing everything, making the world look like it’s covered in cotton candy.  Or when the hoarfrost paints your interior windows with delicate scrollwork.  There’s even something captivating in the wild beauty of a full-blown blizzard.  Of course, then you’ve got to go out in it and the poetry disappears into thin air.  In all of this, there’s a sweet side and a bitter side. 

The sweet is moreso because of the bitter, and that’s the essence of the blues.  So what does this have to do with the Empire Room? I’ll tell you, but in order to do that I’ve first
Inside the Empire Room
got to tell you about the old Empire and then the new, so bear with me.  I’m wrting this after de-stemming tiny, little wild fox grapes for over 16 hours now and I’m a little punchy.

When I was a kid, I loved the hustle and bustle of Saginaw.  Shops galore, pink people dressed to-the-nines galore,  brown people dressed to the nines galore, and buses, buses, buses speeding everywhere. Glitz and glamour but more than that,  rhythm -- a pulse, a beat, that said “Things are happening here.”  And of course at night, to a kid, the mesmerizing and nightmarish pyrotechnics of the Grey Iron Foundry’s Bessemer converters  belching hell-fire and carcinogens as they seared the Stygian sky spewing Silent Death over the city.

(Back then, I didn’t know that was the price of prosperity.  Now, when the wind blows right and the sugar factory blankets my world with that crappy, putrid, gaggy, foul, noxious stench as they squeeze the last little bit out of the beet -- Madonna was right; it can be a smelly little town -- I feel like that Colonel character Robert Duvall played in “Apocalypse Now”  who, standing erect under intense fire, says, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning.  It's a sign we're winning."  I walk out onto my back deck, where I’m almost knocked to my knees by the near-palpable odor and intone, “I love the smell of rotting sugar beet corpses in the morning.  It’s a sign of good jobs.”  But I digress.) 

Bay City was OK, I guess.  We had stuff -- we had buses, the leisurely Balcer Bros’ line ...and in the front display window of Levine’s Department Store (on Water Street someplace around the Antique Mall), their “Laughing Santa.”  Nobody had that.  It was early animatronics and was like a giant 6-foot Santa sock-puppet.  No hands, just rounded appendages painted yellow to resemble mittens and a painted-on-face frozen in a wide-eyed,  tooth-showing smile.  He sat in a gilded chair surrounded by toys for every stripe of nipper.  Back and forth and up and down he bobbed while a record, an actual record, played advertising dialogue through tinny little speakers punctuated by a lot of “Ho, ho ho’s.”

When the record reached its end and became silent, the giant sock puppet continued bobbing up and down as the record re-set.  These “convulsions,”  as my buzz-killing  mother pointed out with an uncharacteristic giggle, made him look like he was gasping for breath, as indeed he did, and after that it was hard to take him serious. So we had that.  But nothing really exciting.  No rhythm. 

And then, down at the po’ end of town, a guy named Art Narlock turned a dream into reality  [Cue the harps and doves]:  Behold!  The Empire! 

It was new, modern,  glittering and gleaming and reflecting like something from Las Vegas.  It took up an entire city block and another for the motel.  I remember its grand
The B-shaped bar at the Empire Room
opening -- big arc searchlights, one at each corner, piercing the night sky like war-time London looking for Jerry bombers.  My dad packed us all in the purple ’47 Plymouth Humpmobile and drove downtown just to see them.  Like its namesake, the Empire State Building,  the tallest building in the world at that time, there was nothing around Bay City that could beat it in terms of grandeur or mystique.

Mystique because there was an element of danger.  Art built it in the First Ward, the ward with the town’s richest and poorest people. Unfortunately, he built in the poorest part.  The Chicken Shack was there, at First and Madison, a seedy restaurant reputed to also be a place you could find a “working girl.”  Across the street was a bar where, if there was such a guy, you’d find Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.  All within a few blocks from the Empire.  Perfect for a shiny new post-war mega-complex, right? 

As it turned out, yeah.  The police cleaned the area up enough for people to flock to the Empire to bowl, drink, attend first-run movies, co-mingle at the Empire Room and eat at the Empire Steak House, one of the premier steak houses in town (there were others, Rex’s and Revette’s come to mind. Bay City has had a long tradition of excellent dining choices). 
Wall mural
All the judges and swells in town ate there (and got drunk there, so the rumors went).  And end the night in a swanky room at the Empire Motel. where all the business travelers stayed.

But there’s a price for all this je ne sais quoi.  You could bowl in the South End (Pulaski Hall or Broadway Lanes) three games for what two cost at the Empire.  You could catch a movie and  buy a box of tooth-rotting, fillings-pulling Jujubes at the Washington or Center Theater for the price of a movie only at the Empire.  Nonetheless, for the people who could afford it, it was stellar and a good vibe for the city.  BC finally got a little rhythm. 

Fast-forward warp speed: Buncha wars. Empire sold in decline. “Great” Recession. Today. 

Today , I sense another tang in the air, the winds of change blowing in the city, and it’s exciting.  When I was growing up, the mantra was, “Bay City sux. There’s nothing to do,” a recently overheard remark in the checkout lane at Meijer’s (some things never change).  And now I think, “You’re just not looking hard enough.”  Seems to me there’s tons of stuff for kids that weren’t there when I was growing up.  All the events going on at the Wenonah bandshell, most of it free, a community swimming pool -- we had the BAB (Bare Ass Beach) a.k.a. the river -- stuff going on at the Wirt Library,  Delta Planetarium, etc. But that’s probably what my parents thought and told me, so what do I know?  I don’t know exactly what’s out there for today’s kids;  it seems like a lot,  but if you’re over 21 and working and think there’s nothing to do in Bay City, you are definitely not looking hard enough. 

Emblematic of the change is the new Empire Room and its cohort the Rusty Saw Smokehouse restaurant.  As a sign on their wall says, “Booze, Blues & BBQ.”  Kinda like a holy trinity -- they all go together.  Talk about one, you have to talk about the other.  The Rusty Saw has the barbeque and the Empire Room the rest. 

After pickin’ grapes, we spent the rest of an afternoon there with Steve (co-owner) and Kate (bartender) answering our many questions. Tammy, the other co-owner and Steve’s spouse, was equally  gracious but busy with administrative tasks so we didn’t get a chance to do much talk. 

I don’t know if you ever saw the old Empire complex in its heyday but the new Empire is equally impressive.  There’s glitz and gleam in 'er yet.  Walking through the place from the old marquee at the Prime Event Center (a different operator but top-notch in its own right) to Strikers Lounge to the Rusty Saw through the Empire Room, the place looks good, clean, well-taken care of.  The lanes (also a different operator) look good as ever, especially updated with modern lighting effects.  Allow me to digress here but the lobby in the lanes has
Bowling alley gumball machine
an assortment of the weirdest vending machines I’ve ever seen, along with what at first looked like the world's largest gumball machine.  However, no gumballs inside, just little plastic eggs stuffed with more Chinese crap, I mean with old-style Cracker Jack trinkets.

Strikers Lounge is managed by Tammy and Steve, but the “Saw” and “The Room” they both operate and own.  

Doc, Harry and I were sitting at the top B loop in the bar -- the bar itself is like a big letter B on its side with the well in between the loops -- and Steve was at the other loop now and then, conducting business with Kate and with another guy in between answering our questions. And I can’t remember what triggered it, maybe a song on Bluesville, maybe mention of the artwork, but somehow the song, “Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom”  by the Outhere Brothers came up and Steve got a rib-lickin’ grin on his face and said he wanted to name the place the Boom-Boom Room and left it at that.  He didn’t say how he got shot down but there was no rancor in his tone; he was obviously OK with it.  Probably just as well, though I can see some merit in his view, descriptive yet with an inside joke insofar as hundreds of comics have talked about working the “Boom-Boom Room” and as it pertains to the song.  Like blues music, ya gotta look for the inner meaning.  But “Empire Room” has name-recognition and I’ll admit, is a little, I mean a lot, classier.

The Rusty Saw is new and shiny but as Harry sez, the decor gives it a '60’s atmosphere .  I already knew what their food was like, having eaten at their old place on Bay Road so I didn’t need to sample the cuisine but I did give the restaurant and the bar a  test taught me by a very savvy, very successful restaurateur and culinary instructor at Oakland Community
The adjoining Rusty Saw Smokehouse
College.  In a previous blog posting, I explained his “damn test” so critical to an eating establishment’s success in a field with a 50% failure rate.  (“Hot?  Damn hot!  Cold? Damn cold!”) and the other equally-technical test our sage professor touted was the “bathroom test.”  “A lotta people go the bathroom during their visit and a lot of them soon after sitting down, especially women.  If your bathroom’s not clean, they’ll think the same of your kitchen and you lose a lot of business that way.”  The men's room, at least, passed with flying colors so I assume the women's would do equally well.  And by extension, the kitchen also. (Disclaimer:  This method is not infallible.

But back to the Empire Room.  Like Art Narlock, Steve and Tammy are creative and I saw several “cool” things there we haven’t as yet seen in our previous outings.  Of course,
Co-owner Steve
we’re comparing apples and oranges here because they’re focusing on a previously-unserved niche in the area in making the Empire Room a blues venue.  Anyway, you walk in and there’s muted lighting enough to see but not enough to be a mood-killer, B.B. King’s Bluesville on Sirius/XM playing in the background at just the right volume to hold a pleasant  conversation and yet hear the music, light gray walls with a large black mural of a sax player in silhouette covering the south wall, for added mood charcoal portraits around the room of blues legends  B.B King, Stevie Ray Vaughn and John Lee Hooker all done by a local artist who Steve says goes by “the Kid”
Bartender Kate
and didn’t know his last name (he has a shop on Columbus near Jenny’s) -- there’s something bluesy in that -- an out-of-the-ordinary lack of the mirrors, posters and beer signs screaming visual advertising at you and comfortable booths in black (probably) Naugahyde that seat four (there’s one 5-seater) lining  the room opposite the bar.

That’s important information because In November, along with the great BBQ at their Rusty Saw, they’re bringing in a little home-cookin’ in the form of our own nationally-known blues-man, Larry McCray.  And you can get VIP seating in the booths.  And following him in December is Detroit’s Thornetta Davis, voted the Detroit Music Awards Outstanding Blues Artist in 2004 and 2006 and Outstanding Blues/R&B Vocalist in 2004, 2006, 2010 and 2011.

Two other things I hadn’t seen before were one, the back bar has indirect lighting from underneath, lending itself beautifully for highlighting all the bottles but also for highlighting the second thing that was new to me -- four large glass jars holding infused vodka. The impression I got was they take vodka and fuse it with other flavors, in some cases by actually putting those objects in there. The coffee bean, for instance, was a dark brown from the actual beans in there.  The other one I can remember was honey-pear, though I didn’t actually see any pear in there; I think they run it through a filter.  At any rate, it was honey-colored.  Steve offered samples. I tried the honey-pear.  It was like “canny” (my youngest granddaughter’s early version of “candy”).  Steve says they use them as a base for various mixed drinks.  Coffee bean, for example, makes a boss Mudslide.

If you’re a craft beer lover, you’ll love what’s on tap.  Recently, MLive tapped Shorts Brewing Co. in Bellaire (30 miles north of Traverse City) as the top brewery in Michigan, and the Empire Room has one of its flagship beers on tap, Humalupalicious (IPA).  I’m
B.B. King and Lucille on the wall
going to order one of these next time I come.  Others are Angry Orchard’s Crisp Apple (hard apple cider ABV 5%), New Holland’s Sundog (amber ale, ABV 6%, IBU 33), Perrin’s Black Ale, Arcadia Ale's Hopmouth (double IPA, ABV 8.1% IBU 55) and Cereal Killer Barleywine (English-style barley wine, ABV 10% IBU 60) and Tri-City Brewing’s Hell’s Half Mile.  On the mirror over the backbar, they have a map drawn with fluorescent crayons showing where each comes from.  I have no idea what all those ciphers mean but I got that from one of their placards and offer it for the real beer buffs out there.  Of course, these beers are subject to change because some are seasonal.  I think the only domestic beer they have on tap is Bud Light but they have others available in bottles.

Of course, there’s a price for all this je ne sais quois (where have I heard that before?)  Craft beers are $4 (Harry said $4.50?) but it’s a nice, big, cold glass, 14 or 16 oz., I’d guess.  A buck less during happy hour, making it the most expensive bar we’ve been to so far. But I believe if you always buy just on price, you’re going to be disappointed a lot.  Factor in value, and you’ve got a better chance. I’d say I got what I paid for with not a whit of disappointment.  But on Wednesdays, I believe they said, they have or are going to have a free burger bar.  Pork burgers, whatever those are.  When I come to try that Humalupalicious, I'll make it on Pig Meat Wednesday.

As engaging as Steve and Tammy are, it’s no wonder the same goes for Kate, the affable and hardworking bartender.  She answered every question we had but never really stopped her
Bottles all lined up
chores.  She was a blur of motion  -- wiping, cleaning, polishing, talking, organizing. I watched her fill the cooler and noted she lined up all the bottle labels facing forward.  Very neat.  And there’s a bonus in that, besides not having to look for what she needs when needed:  It looks good.  And that’s marketing.  I always say, “Marketing is everything and everything is marketing.” At least I did when I was in marketing. But it’s true.  The more visually pleasant a surrounding, the more easy it is to relax. 
Feng shui, baby.  (Chinese idea -- trying to arrange as much as you can in life for greatest piece of mind.)

Kate gave us a quick bio and it’s a story tailor-made for her place of employ.  Originally from Ithaca but made her way to Bay City via stints in Mt. Pleasant and Lansing.  The rest of the story was reminiscent of an Aretha Franklin interview I once heard on NPR's “Fresh Air.”  For every song the interviewer brought up -- “Respect”, ”Think”, “Chain of Fools,” for example --  the interviewer was looking for some deep philosophical, human rights struggle meaning to her songs and for every song brought up it was about the aftermath of being in a bad relationship, presently being in a bad relationship or, in the case of “Chain of Fools,” a history of bad relationships. Kate’s journey to our shores was likewise through a series of less-than-successful relationships. Tell me that story’s not bluesworthy.

Anyway, I’m glad she’s in Bay City, welcome, and I hope she’s done singin’ the blues except happily along with the background music.  In fact, her move here may yet turn out to be a Jungian event of synchronicity, which is -- ah, never mind.

Well, the day wore on and I had grapes to de-stem so we bade farewell to Steve, Tammy, Kate and the Empire Room.  Rest assured, I’ll be back.

In 2004, then Gov. Jennifer Granholm bestowed the distinguished Cool City award on Bay City.  At first I thought it was some hokey marketing tactic executives are always dreaming up. But now, with all the things going on around and in Bay City since then, I’m a believer. Bay City really is a cool city.

The fireworks, River Roar, Wenonah Park, Tall Ships,  riverboat cruises, the downtown condos almost filled,  Mill End development in full swing, Uptown at River’s Edge growing each day, the new Y, thousands flocking here from outside to partake of the myriad weekend and weekday activities -- I could go on and on but not only is Bay City now cool, I would say  it's a happening place, with a pulse, a beat,  Rhythm with a capital "R" and, thanks to the folks at the Empire Room, the Blues to boot.

  The particulars:
  Empire Room
  Washington at First
  989-893-1000 332-2948

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