Jan 31, 2014

The ‘R’ Bar: It’s their place again (they hope it’ll be yours), and they’re back to doing the old two-step

"Cigarettes only" in the smoking hut
The hairy guy’s report:

When you get into a conversation while sitting at a bar, you don't think much about the bar itself. At least we didn't until we were talking one day with a guy at the Empire Room on Washington downtown.

Most bars – we mean here the actual bar counters to sit or stand at, not the barrooms -- are straight-line constructions. But the Empire's is in two semi-circles, like a big letter B on its side. As our guy pointed out, it’s much better for conversation; you can see the person two seats down, or even farther away, without having to lean forward or back.

Then we started paying more attention. Some bars have a wide angled front, which makes it tough to eat a slobbery bar burger without making a mess. Some have stools that swivel, so you can turn to the person next to you.

Of course, if you don’t want to talk to anyone or eat a good burger, none of this matters. And some people evidently spend too much time thinking about it.

But then we went to the “R” Bar & Grill, farther down Washington almost across from the Bay County Historical Museum. It was a bitterly cold day, maybe fodder for a good conversation about global warming.

We didn't find that, but we did find a mix of happy patrons – and a bar unlike any we’ve seen.

It’s sunken -- two steps down in back -- so the bartenders are below floor level. It means customers can sit at regular chairs instead of high stools. On the other hand, it’s not much good
Two steps down behind the bar
for standing at the bar, or leaning on it, since you’d tower over it.

The only possible explanation for the design comes from Gregory Hayward, who runs the place with his daughter, Tina. He said a previous owner was aiming for “more of a lounge atmosphere.” Today, the “R” has a pool table, dartboard, lottery machine, the usual assortment of beer signs and a couple of big-screen TVs. It’s a bar worth a visit, for sure, but you wouldn’t call it a lounge.

According to city directories, a bar has operated at that location for decades. In 1893 and 1900, one was run there by John Schindehette. It was the Sportsmen’s Bar in 1950 and 1960, the Four Hundred Lounge (must be that lounge) in 1970 and 1980, Madame Shelley’s in 1990, JD Cove at some point and Kook’s until a few months ago -- when Greg’s family, which ran Shelley’s, got it back (and briefly had a cute sign on the outside wall saying “under old management”).

Greg said the family considered resurrecting Shelley’s name but decided it was time for a change. They finally settled on "R" Bar (yes, they use quote marks in the name), as in Our Bar. T-shirts for sale at the bar say "Make R Bar your bar" (yes, they left off the quote marks).

We showed up one day at lunchtime back before Christmas and found a good crowd. There’s a full bar menu of burgers, nachos, wraps, ciabattas (which the hairy guy had to look up) and other sandwiches. The soups and good chili are made in house. Daily specials are posted.

Bud Light, Miller Lite, Busch Light and Killian’s are on tap. Frosty mugs are $1.25 till 7 p.m., $1.50 later. A glass is $1. Some canned beers are $1. The bar is fully stocked and Becky, a great bartender with a good memory, made the hairy guy a fine Manhattan (two, actually).
Greg Hayward
Jello shots, if you’re interested, are $1.

The “R” had been doing karaoke nights, then tried live bands but, Greg said, weren’t bringing in enough business. So karaoke is back.

In looking for what’s strange or unique, we didn’t find anything at the “R” beyond that sunken bar. It’s just an all-around good place.

One warning: Whoever spent all that time designing the bar might have spent a bit more time thinking about the men’s room. It’s clean and functional but when you walk in, you’ll bang the door into anyone standing at the sink. (Sorry, we can’t report on the women’s room.)

A shelter made of plastic sheeting was added in back for winter smokers. The bar’s Facebook page specifies that it’s for “cigarettes only.”

Despite our letdown at not being able to smoke other things out back, any bar that can build our vocabulary is more than worth its weight in crossword puzzles. Besides making us look up ciabatta (we’ll save you the trouble: It’s a squat Italian loaf of bread with a chewy crust), Greg made clear that the bar’s earlier name, Madame Shelley’s, was madame, meaning a married woman, rather than madam, a woman who runs a brothel. We checked; he’s right.

  The particulars
  “R” Bar & Grill
  400 Washington

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