Sidetrack Bar and Grill
Author: Ted Badgerow
“Now that the train is stopping here again, I think you’ll see a resurgence of Depot Town.” – Linda French, owner of the Sidetrack Bar and Grill.
One of the movie industry’s highly touted new forays into Michigan recently brought film stars Hilary Swank and Minnie Driver into one of Ypsilanti’s historic buildings, the home of one of its oldest restaurants: the Sidetrack Bar and Grill. It’s the perfect location for a fictional Irish pub. An honest bar and grill, the Sidetrack has served up good food and drink for decades. And it’s likely to do so for decades to come, judging by the restaurant’s steady popularity and the numerous culinary plaudits from GQ, USA Today, the Oprah Winfrey Show, and local diners.
If there’s a better way to pass a summer eve- ning than watching Depot Town fill up with antique cars in the company of good friends and a pint of fresh local ale, I have yet to find it. I make no claim to be a disinterested observer, having been a patron of the establishment since its establishment. Back in the early ‘80s, when I was head brew master and assistant bottle washer of the Real Ale Company in Chelsea, I supplied fresh bottled ales to the Sidetrack. A few years ago I installed the tile and marble work at Linda’s renovated home on Huron Street, within walking distance of the bar. And at her behest, I play and sing holiday requests at the Sidetrack every December whenever I please.
This historic edifice at the intersection of Cross Street and the railroad is built of bricks fired before the Civil War, when Michigan’s 14th and 27th Infantry Regiments occupied the barracks across the tracks. It has contained a saloon since at least 1894, owned and operated by Nicholas Max, Joseph Hack, and George Christos, among others. Through the years it has housed a blacksmith shop, a drug store, a barber shop, a candy store, and a photo and publishing business. Perhaps the most famous, or infamous, venture was the Lewis Horse Exchange, where about 70 Detroit sporting men gathered daily to play the ponies in a setting that conjures up images of Robert Redford and Paul Newman in The Sting. From 1900 until 1911 Warren Lewis ran a notorious and successful operation, calling horse races off the telegraph wires with a “peculiarly penetrating and exciting quality.” When, against prevailing public sentiment, the gambling house was shut down by a prosecu- tor, Mr. Lewis posted a sign across the door: “Closed, sixteen people out of Work here.”
The building underwent an instantaneous renovation in January of 1929, when the 12th car of an 85-car freight train, hauling lumber, left the track and crashed into what quickly became the former Caldwell Building. The owner, who lived upstairs, had stepped out briefly. The restaurant operators, Bert Ollett and his wife, were alone in the restaurant. Pedestrian Laura Kelsey, 17, was struck and knocked unconscious. Scott Sturtevant, a motorist, backed his car out of d anger just in time. Miraculously, no one died.
An historic epicenter of river and railroad, Depot Town has seen its busts and booms, hard times and good times. Next year, after a hiatus of some twenty years, passengers will once again board and disembark from the original freight house. With the announcement of a sizeable federal stimulus grant for the project, portents are favorable for the continuing revitalization of Ypsi’s old junction. Will we see the revival of past glories such as Mr. John Laidlaw’s internationally fa- mous Michigan Central Railroad landscaped gardens? Will pretty young girls once again present nosegays to ladies on the train? We can only hope. Ribbon-cutting is projected for autumn of next year.
A local spearhead for Depot Town renewal, Linda French came to Ypsilanti from Northville to attend Eastern Michigan University. As a young businesswoman she jumped into this ancient center of commerce with an antiques shop, now Frenchie’s. In 1979 she bought the old Central Bar next door and transformed it into the Sidetrack. As a local resident and business owner, Linda has long been, as she puts it, “vested in the area.” Her mother, Nancy Jane French, has worked at the Sidetrack “since day one,” and daughter Jessica, a Kalamazoo College graduate, is learning the ropes of the business.
In March we sat down for a chat in her small brick office at the restaurant. A woman who obviously loves what she does, Linda French has no slow gear. She’s articulate, passionate, and as those who know her will affirm, voluble. Here’s what she has to say about the bar, the building, and her role as caretaker: “My role in life has been to preserve the Sidetrack, and to carry it on to the next generation.”
The following interview with Linda was conducted on March 12, 2009.
What are your earliest memories of the Sidetrack? It was a workingman’s bar, it still had a canopy. The whole front was a 1940’s aluminum, and it had an aluminum white door and a small window. If you went inside it had a beautiful tin ceiling and an old antique back bar to die for.
How old are the oldest bricks in this building? 1850’s. When we tore out a staircase we found little shoes from, like, 1870. And it’s such a cool thing because you can see your place in time, because four generations earlier there was some- body else who sat here. I’m sitting here right now, and in a hundred years there’ll be someone else sit- ting here. This was a railroad town. It was rough. From the Depression on, it was a blue-collar area, and this was a blue-collar bar. If you were near the railroad, it was considered to be “blue-collar”. People didn’t want to live on the other side of the tracks. Now they’re cleaner, safer railroads. They don’t have the dirt and the grime.
How about the boom and bust periods in Depot Town? It rises and falls with the railroad, so now that the train is stopping here again, I think you’ll see a resurgence of Depot Town. I think you’ll see more than just a few entrepreneurs who’ve picked up historic buildings, a new wave of entrepreneurship in the area that’s much more substantial because of the train stopping here. The train hasn’t stopped here in twenty years. They’ll be stopping here again in October of 2010. Now you’ll see a resurrection, an economic boom in the area, that’ll cement Depot Town in.
How do you feel about being a caretaker for this beautiful old historic building? I feel fortunate. In time, I’m just a person who’s taking care of this place. It’s my turn, and my job is to preserve it for the next generation. The old owners have come through with their relatives, people from back then, ‘way back before it was the Central Bar, and actually started crying. They remember it from when they were little and are so glad that it’s the Sidetrack now, and that it’s being carried forth. I’m now the caretaker, and I have to carry the torch. All the karma that’s been laid out here is being carried on, this is a bar filled with good karma. I lucked out, and I’m fortunate in time to be the person in this generation to take care of the Sidetrack. I didn’t let it go to hell. I really believe that if you take individual people who are willing to put their labor into it, and build a sense of community… it takes people who own the building who have businesses inside of them, and not just landlords. Historically, the person who owned the building always was the caretaker of the Sidetrack. That’s really the key to all that.
It’s been really easy to work with, because it’s so sound – three bricks deep. And everything you do, you do for the future. From the fireplace down to every window that we’ve installed, it’s a fifty-year plan, as permanent as we can make it – so that the next person who gets it, if it’s my daughter or whoever, in the future whatever they go to work on, it’ll be that way – permanent. Not much has changed here. There’s really not a lot of stuff you can do to this place. We have a lot of room for expansion here too…we have nothing upstairs, it’s all open, brick wall to brick wall. We haven’t developed it…right now we’re just so busy doing what we do that we don’t have time to do more. The whole building is still evolv- ing, and I want to keep something for the next generation. It won’t be my dream, it may be my daughter’s dream – not something I want to do, but something she wants to do.
We work really hard at what we do, and we re- ally love what we do here. So everybody takes a personal interest – we’re a bunch of foodies, and we all love our beer, so we try to serve the things that we like.
You’ve always had the best selection of beers in town. How many do you have on draft? Sixteen taps. We do Michigan beers and micros, and we have some great imports. We take our beer real seriously. We sell great beer at reasonable prices; we’re the workingman’s bar that has good taste. You can afford to eat here. Handcrafted food, handcrafted beer – that’s what we do here. We know our beer and we know our food.
What’s your best seller? Bell’s Oberon. It has been forever. We sell fifteen kegs a week – that’s a lot of beer.
What’s your bestselling food? Burgers. We have our own formula. We buy as local as we can – 75% of our suppliers are local. And they have been since ‘way before local became popu- lar. I know the suppliers, and we handpick our supplies. If you do it long enough, you learn who’s good and who isn’t. You can tell by the taste.
Do you have any favorite patrons? We have a huge amount of regulars. Most of our customers are regulars. It’s a cast of characters that come in here.
What idiosyncrasies does the old building have? We have one stool that vibrates, at the end of the bar. It’s right above the beer cooler. The generator kicks on and there’s so much concrete it just vibrates. What are your favorite memories of the Sidetrack? I have great memories of some of the personal weddings that have been in here, when the place is closed down. And the wakes – some of the very touching things are when a customer has called me when they’re dying and asked if I will do their wake for them – a celebration of their life. I’ve gone to the hospital and talked with them and planned the wake together. I’ve had some wakes that will bring you to your knees, and I’m very fortunate to have a place that people love that much. They said they couldn’t think of anywhere else they would do it but here. No matter what was going on, I would make sure that we’d clear the joint out and have their wake. There are some things you just have to do. It means a lot – that as a bar we have touched that many people’s lives. Do you have any “worst” moments? One winter a pipe froze and exploded upstairs. The ceiling started to bulge. The customers were all seated in here, and it started to drip, and we ran for our umbrellas, and the tin ceiling started to bow, and we had to take an awl and popped it, and the water gushed down…it was an insurance claim. Another time, last summer, the whole place was packed on all the patios, with a private party next door in Frenchie’s,and a car pulls up on the sidewalk of the front patio, on fire. The woman gets out and starts to run because she thinks it’s going to explode. Meanwhile, everybody’s having their dinner, the flaming car’s on the sidewalk, and then they’re all fleeing the building. Oh yeah, all my customers thought it was going to explode. My staff called me, screaming. They grabbed the fire extinguish- ers and rushed out and kept it under control until the fire department got here and hosed down the whole patio – it was wild! Sounds like a scene in a movie.
How big is your staff? Fifty-five, sixty-five. We have three generations, my mother works here too, and she’s worked here from day one. I have one daughter, Jessica, who graduated from Kalamazoo College, and is here working to see if she likes it. It’s a test of time, to see if the place will be passed on through future generations. At the core beginning of the Sidetrack, everything was done over a beer and a napkin. We were sitting in the old Central Bar here when we thought of the name “Sidetrack.” It’s been here for 160 years. And I hope it’s here for another 160 years."
So the next time you’re sitting on the patio by the tracks, enjoying your handcrafted burger and fresh local brew, please note the curious angle of the building and imagine twenty tons of timber hurtling straight at you. The place still shakes as the Amtrak comes through, but nobody raises an eyebrow or lifts a glass. After all, they’ve rumbled by for a hundred fifty years.
Perhaps some hazy day sixty years from now a patron will see a faded photograph on the wall of the Sidetrack. “Who are those hot ladies in the old-fashioned dresses? Hilary Swank? Minnie Driver? I never heard of them. I think they were actresses. Remember when they used to have movies in theaters? I hear they shot scenes right here at the Sidetrack, ‘way back before Michigan became the film capital of the world…” Some things change - and some things just stay the same…
The curious are well advised to read Tom Dodd’s and James Thomas Mann’s excellent history of the depot district, titled “Down by the Depot in Ypsilanti.”
(Ted Badgerow is a local businessman, a musician involved with a number of local and area musical groups, and a frequent visitor to the Sidetrack.)
Photo 1: Linda French (owner of the Sidetrack) and daughter Jessica welcome guests to the Sidetrack.
Photo 2: Linda French (left) and Marilyn Collins] in March of 1979 when the old Central Bar was restored and renamed the “Sidetrack.”
Photo 3: A front view of the Sidetrack showing patrons dining outside in the area demolished by the 1929 train wreck.