Mar 23, 2019

At Old City Hall: A katsu sando (?), imported cherries and more wines than beers. (Nope, this isn't a dive bar)

Old City Hall front
Old City Hall: It really was

This is our 50th bar report. We're not done yet!

The hairy guy’s report:

Merriam-Webster, our favorite dictionary, defines a dive as “a shabby and disreputable establishment (such as a bar or nightclub).” It also lists “divekeeper,” a sadly underused term for “a keeper of a dive.”

But some places consider it hip to be considered a dive. One bar that opened in an up north town not long back described itself as “an upscale dive bar” – an unwelcome oxymoron if ever there was one. If you’re going for shabby and disreputable, you at least expect cheap drinks. That place didn’t stay in business long.

To help clarify things, one news service offered a list of signs that a dive bar isn’t really a dive bar. Among them:
  • The wine selection includes more options than “red” or “white.”
  • At least one person is wearing a bowtie.
  • Your feet aren’t sticking to the floor.
  • They serve food that isn’t fried, pickled or a bowl full of mixed nuts.
And so we feel confident in saying that Old City Hall, downtown on Saginaw Street, is not a dive bar even though it has a bit of a disreputable past.

The space that occupies Old City Hall actually was the city hall back in the years around 1890 and had a police lockup in the basement. (Whether you consider the long-ago city officials or the
Old City Hall side dining room
Side dining room at Old City Hall
miscreants as disreputable is up to you.) And by 1925, after the cops moved out, the space was rented by an animal trainer, Dolores (Dolly) Vallecita Hill, who met a bloody end there when a leopard ripped up her throat.

These days, a wall’s worth of wines includes more than most of us care about, the food leans to the fancy side and a bowtie wouldn’t be out of place. The bar offers all sorts of high-end liquor and the brick walls include artwork by Tom Larson, the local artist and salvage mogul.

Our standard bar test is to ask for a Manhattan and see what happens. In a fancy place, the bartender will know how to make one, will have the ingredients and will ask if you want it with whiskey or bourbon.

Ginger, behind the bar one afternoon at Old City Hall, did one better -- dispensing entirely with the plebeian whiskey option and asking: “What kind of bourbon do you want?” We went for Jim Beam. The drink cost $8.50; we don’t want to know what it could have cost with other bourbons.

Of course, the maraschino cherries figure into the bar’s cost. Lots of places get an industrial-size jar from Gordon Food Service, so maybe it’s no big deal. But here, you get Luxardo cherries,
Old City Hall Mark and Ginger
Mark and Ginger behind the bar
made in Italy. And they come speared onto a tiny stick that looks like a straw but isn’t one (as you discover the hard way when you try to sip through it).

But this was lunchtime, which calls for something solid. A house hamburger is $11. We decided to try something different -- a katsu sando, ($12.49), which is a sandwich with pork cutlets, cabbage and a Japanese sauce on toast.

First we'd heard of it. But the katsu sando turns out to be all the rage in trendy food circles though no big deal back home ("Essentially, it is Japan’s answer to the bologna sandwich," says a writer for Bon Appetit.) The version at OCH was good, though the accompanying seasoned fries were overly salty. And you can chalk one up for the accidental trendy guy.

Other food offerings include assorted appetizers, sandwiches (including vegetarian options), salads and entrees. A rib eye dinner (with blue cheese hash browns) is $38. There’s a kids’ menu.

The wine list (with everything from albarino to zinfandel) is a lot longer than the beer list, which includes about 20 beer taps and some bottled beers. A 16-ounce draft of PBR is $2.25. Solid Gold, a $5 lager from Founders Brewing of Grand Rapids, went well with the sando.

After the Manhattan, the sando and the crafty beer, we got to studying the high-end booze behind the bar. Abottle of Benedictine, our favorite Christmas drink, caught our eye. (For
Old City Hall Tom Larson art
Original Tom Larson artwork
some party fun, pass around a bottle of Benedictine in a brown paper bag. The surprised faces from people who take a swig are great.) A pour costs $7.50.

Ginger the bartender, a proud graduate of Vassar High School, has been at OCH for going on eight months. Mark, another server, recently returned after a stint at what he describes as a snowmobile bar up north. Both were friendly and helpful.

Three TVs at Old City Hall show sports. No pool table or other games. A large aquarium in the side room includes a couple of good-sized fish that could turn up on the menu one night. The men’s room (the one with the "M" on the door, which might require a moment's thought if you've had some drinks) is large, clean and well tiled. We think the stools at the bar are a bit too low, but maybe we're just feeling cranky from having to make sure we got the right restroom.

Hours are 11:30 a.m. – 9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m. - 10 p.m. Friday-Saturday and 3-9 p.m. Sunday.

And if you’re still yearning for a dive bar, you might want to join the Dive Bar Shirt Club, They’ll send you a T-shirt each month from a different dive bar somewhere. Don’t expect one from Old City Hall.

See Doc's report on Old City Hall: Charming, polished and professional

  The particulars:
  Old City Hall
  814 Saginaw St.

No comments: