The Old Town
Then & Now
by M.B. Lewis
From the July, 2016 issue
Probably because I feel sentimental about the fortieth anniversary of the Observer, telling a then-and-now story of a local restaurant seems important. Revisiting the July 1976 inaugural issue, however, I found mostly ghosts of eateries flitting through the yellowed pages-the Whiffletree, the Cracked Crab, the Round Table, the Del Rio.
Suddenly, my subject revealed itself: a tall gutter ad shouted "Old Town" in Wild West typography. The ad even included a period menu of the quintessential townie hangout, with descriptions and prices intact.
Approaching the corner of W. Liberty and Ashley on a summery evening, one constant was instantly evident: no sidewalk tables. Without that curbside tableau beckoning, people have to really want to head up the steps and into the dark interior of the Old Town. Many do, and the tin-ceilinged room fills as the night wears on.
The 1976 menu listed a soup, an appetizer, a salad, and half a dozen sandwiches, including a house hamburger. The modern version is still sandwich-centric, now deeper and more varied, plus southwestern options. I found several items resembling their advertised forebears of four decades ago. The top-billed house salad still has tomatoes and romaine, but spring greens have replaced the "crisp head" lettuce. Also gone are sliced eggs, croutons, cheese chunks, and black olives; replaced by red pepper, carrots, and cukes, it's now a vegan option. But wait: there are now three more salad options to choose from (Greek, Caesar, and southwestern); you'll find the missing cheese and croutons there (no egg, however).
House-made dressings arrive on the side. My Greek salad was very fresh and piled with enough feta, beets, olives, banana peppers, red onion, and good tomatoes to warrant its $9.25 price tag. Two sizes of house salad are an even better deal, at $4.25 and $7.25. You now can add chicken breast, salmon, tuna salad, grilled steak, or tempeh to make a meal of any salad.
Today's grilled cheese sandwich, on pumpernickel with gooey Swiss and thinly sliced tomatoes,
could have stepped straight out of that 1976 ad, with just one difference: mushrooms are now standard, perhaps in the spirit of the intriguing pot of hot sautéed mushrooms with sherry and garlic you could have ordered for ninety cents then. Bacon is now optional.
The good-quality seven-ounce Knight's beef burger can be customized with a long list of tempting toppings. Reuben sandwiches still come in options too, although Polish sausage is replaced by turkey and tempeh (which has fine flavor but lacks the hearty texture of pastrami or even the turkey). Least enticing were the ribs; their over-baked grainy texture doesn't compete well in this era of good barbecue.
I don't expect the Old Town to fully inhabit the current era, because it preserves so many others. A saloon called "the Bismark" opened on this site in 1898, and some of the present bric-a-brac dates back a full century. A 1914 photo by the bar is not to be missed, with black-suited men in derbies lifting their beers in salute.
The 1970s fern bar era also gets representation in the philodendrons suspended by knotted twine over the high-backed booths, and the photo of smiling, long-haired servers in bell-bottoms by the door is a classic. Sunday evening live music recently started with Dylan and Joni Mitchell covers ("they paved paradise and put up a parking lot") beneath the stained-glass lamps.
Though the Old Town hasn't jumped on the artisanal cocktail trend, it is aboard for the craft beer revolution. A recent rotating Michigan tap was Dark Horse Brewery's "Smells Like a Safety Meeting," whose name and hoppy taste evoke marijuana (there's no actual hemp in the brew). I couldn't help thinking that those bell-bottomed 1970s staffers would be smiling even wider to see it.
Old Town Tavern
122 W. Liberty St.
Mon.-Tue. 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.; Wed.-Fri. 11:30 a.m.-2 a.m.; Sat. 4 p.m.-2 a.m.; Sun. 4-11 p.m.
Starters $3.95-$10.95, salads and soup $3.50-$9.25, dinners $12.95-$18.95.
[Originally published in July, 2016.]
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