P.J. Ryder's face breaks into a grin as he recounts how a touring musician who had played at the Lager House years ago was, on a recent visit, blown away by the updates to the venue. "He told me, 'To be honest, when I found out we were playing the Lager House, I was grumbling about it... But this is nice!' He couldn't stop talking about how different it was." Indeed, music fans and Corktown neighbors who may remember the sticky floors, dank atmosphere and grimy bathrooms of a few years ago are now greeted by a cheerful neon green interior, refinished hardwood floors, and a spiffy new bar with a collection of guitar picks laminated into its surface.
On a visit one recent Sunday for dinner, the transformation is complete. In place of the thick clouds of smoke that once choked the air, the ethereal voice of singer Kate Hinote floats above the room as she performs an acoustic set with her band the Blueflowers. The tables are covered in white linen and spruced up with candles and fresh flowers. We're here to check out P.J.'s Sunday Acoustic Dinner Series, where P.J. himself cooks up a special menu of his own creation each week. In keeping with the bar's primary function as a live music venue, local songstress Jennie Knaggs books talent to provide an unplugged soundtrack to the dining experience.
The former incarnation of the Lager House (now re-christened P.J.'s Lager House
) is, to put it mildly, not a place we ever would have cared to eat. According to Ryder, the bar had a reputation back in the 1960s as a place to get a great meal, but like so many businesses in the city, suffered a slow decline. By the time Ryder purchased the business in 2007, the kitchen had been mothballed for years. After settling into his new role as a bar owner, and encouraged by his wife, Donna Terek, Ryder decided it was time to clear away the cobwebs and fire up the grill. Knowing Ryder's penchant for whipping up simple, fresh meals for themselves and friends, Terek prodded him onward. "You've had a kitchen for four months, when are you going to use it?"
Ryder soon found that the process of opening a kitchen was more than he bargained for. "Open a bar? Eh, whatever. Open a music venue? No big deal. Open a restaurant kitchen?" He pauses for effect: "BIG deal!" After the inevitable hoop-jumping with permits and inspectors, he put together a basic menu with the usual items like burgers, nachos, chicken fingers and a corned beef sandwich (a requisite item, says Ryder, for a Corktown bar). What sets this bar food apart is Ryder's commitment to using fresh ingredients whenever possible, even if it's more work. A quick glance through the menu is enough to confirm this. Salad dressings are all made from scratch; the veggie burger is made in-house. Instead of the pre-battered and frozen chicken strips you'd expect from a bar, the chicken is bought fresh and cut and battered by the staff, as are the onion rings, a point of pride.
Ryder goes out of his way to let me know that his staff is very much involved in developing the menu, contributing ideas and making sure they are delivering a quality product. "They may be a bunch of musicians and misfits, but they care," he says. This dedication is rewarded by feedback from enthusiastic patrons, one of whom recently called after picking up a carry-out order to proclaim that he had just consumed "the best chicken sandwich of his life."
"There's not much better satisfaction than a happy customer," Ryder says. To this end, his rule of thumb is that he won't serve anything to a customer that he wouldn't serve to a friend in his home. And that's exactly how we felt when dining there: the small space and limited number of tables lend an intimacy to the setting, making you feel more like a guest than a customer. At one point during our meal, Ryder comes out for a break in his apron, joining the table next to ours for a bit of conversation. Adding to the convivial atmosphere are his two dogs, who roam about the bar "applauding" the band between songs with sharp woofs of appreciation.
Much like most of the rock musicians who grace the Lager's stage, Ryder is a self-taught improviser in the kitchen. Many of the specials are influenced by his numerous trips to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival over the years -- gumbo, voodoo shrimp, and po' boys all make regular appearances. The gumbo was such an instant hit that he's been making it every week since its debut. Knowing it was a specialty of the house, we had to try it. And it didn't disappoint, with just the right amount of heat, dominant flavors of black pepper and bay, and satisfying chunks of chicken and sausage to sink your teeth into. We also ordered a vegetarian soup of puréed squash, whose pleasing chipotle burn would soothe any itchy winter throat.
For dinner, we tried the barbecue shrimp and an order of lamb chops. Both came with a killer salad with perfectly dressed leafy greens, blueberries, almonds, and shavings of cheese. The shrimp was not coated in a sweet gloppy sauce as the name might suggest, but sautéed with copious amounts of garlic and olive oil, and served over roasted potatoes. The lamb chops were grilled and garnished with a Mediterranean-influenced "salsa" of tomatoes, feta, Kalamata olives and basil, also accompanied by roasted potatoes. Budget-conscious diners should note that nothing on the specials menu was over $14.95, and the gumbo, at $6.95, could have been a meal in itself.
Ryder is still getting used to wearing the hat of restaurateur/chef in addition to bar owner, but the challenge seems to suit him -- throughout our conversation, he is upbeat, excited and smiling from ear to ear as he talks about his ventures in the kitchen, including an updated menu for April.
You can sample his home cooking on Sundays from 6 p.m.-midnight; the regular menu is also available Monday-Friday 11 a.m.-midnight; Saturday 5 p.m.; midnight and Sunday 6 p.m.-midnight.
Noelle Lothamer blogs about food, recipes and life at Simmer Down! She will be busy in the month ahead, covering Detroit Restaurant Week for Model D.
All photographs © Marvin Shaouni Photography
Contact Marvin here.