Savor

How to drink like a local

History, rivalry, funky features and ways to explore Kalamazoo’s bar scene
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The infamous Little Brother sign Louie’s staff posted at rival Green Top Tavern. Courtesy photo.

Kalamazoo has long been known for its craft beer culture, thanks to the presence of Bell’s Brewery and its Eccentric Cafe.

The city also has a slew of other breweries and craft beer bars — the Kalamazoo Beer Exchange, Shakespeare’s Pub and Central City Tap House, to name a few — inside some quirky buildings boasting some interesting history. Here’s a quick glimpse at how you can experience Kalamazoo’s local bars (once they reopen, of course) and with the knowledge of a local:

‘Rivalry’ between oldest bars

Under the cover of darkness, at around 4 a.m. on St. Patrick’s Day two years ago, an employee of Louie’s Trophy House Grill hung a banner over the front door of the Green Top Tavern.

The banner contained Louie’s logo and the year the Kalamazoo bar was established: 1918. Below the antler-adorned logo, the sign read, “Little Brother,” with an arrow pointing to the Green Top’s entrance. It remained there for several hours during one of the busiest drinking days of the year, until the staff at the Green Top noticed and removed it.

It marked one of the latest shots fired in the “friendly rivalry” between downtown Kalamazoo’s oldest bars, says Louie’s Operations Manager Joe Wolf.

The Green Top originally opened as a cigar shop in 1924, during Prohibition, and became a bar when Prohibition ended.

Louie’s operated as a deli and convenience store during Prohibition, although its basement served as a speakeasy (an illicit establishment selling alcohol), Wolf says. In the basement today, which is not open to the public, the stairwell and the low doorframe leading to the former speakeasy are still visible.

The bar and restaurant area of Louie’s is filled with animal taxidermy. It’s known for its thin-crust pizza, burgers and the “shotski,” a vintage wooden ski with four holes cut in it to hold a series of shot glasses for group consumption.

After decades of being owned by one family, Green Top Tavern was purchased by Randy Newby in 2018. Louie’s Wolf says he’s worked with the Newby family for years and they are close friends. Not long after taking ownership of the Green Top,

Wolf says, Newby dropped by Louie’s wearing a T-shirt saying the Green Top was established in 1917, a false, but good-humored jab at its longtime rival.

The musical lineage at Louie’s remains notable. Its proximity to the original Gibson Guitar building, on Parsons Street, made it a natural pit stop for famous musicians traveling to Kalamazoo to research or purchase guitars. Warner Bros. country artist Frankie Ballard cut his teeth playing weekly jam sessions at Louie’s prior to signing his record contract with Reprise Records/Warner Records Inc. in 2010 and moving to Nashville.

More recently, Grammy Award-winning musician Jack White, a Detroit native who purchased a restored George Nelson-designed home in Kalamazoo in 2017, paid a visit to Louie’s. Wolf says a bartender recognized White and mentioned it to him.

“I was like, ‘Shut up,’” Wolf says. “I looked out and I was like, ‘Holy s---, that is him.’”

The bartender eventually snapped a photo with the famed rocker, who grabbed lunch one more time there after his initial 2016 visit.

Wolf says he expects to see the back-and-forth between Louie’s and the Green Top Tavern continue, including a collaborative event at some point.

Tornado Ale

In late spring or early summer, Olde Peninsula Brewpub, in downtown Kalamazoo, releases a specialty seasonal IPA (India Pale Ale) using citra hops. The beer, produced by the brewpub’s longtime head brewer, Dan Kiplinger, is called Tornado Ale, a reference to the F3 tornado that ripped through downtown Kalamazoo shortly after 4 p.m. on May 13, 1980. The devastating tornado killed five people and caused an estimated $50 million in damage.

The brewpub is currently redesigning its original, cartoonish logo for the beer, which over the years has been featured on pint glasses and T-shirts. There’s also a framed version of the logo over one of the booths in the dining area.

If you missed the seasonal release of this small-batch beer, perhaps you can snag a pint of Olde Peninsula’s popular Pumpkin Ale in the fall.

Shakespeare’s alluring history

One of downtown Kalamazoo’s oldest buildings is also home to one of its longest-running bars, Shakespeare’s Pub. The bar and restaurant opened on July 19, 2003, and quickly became known for its lengthy list of craft beers. Its recognizable name stems from the building’s early occupant, the Shakespeare Co., which was founded in 1897 by William Shakespeare Jr. and became one of the leading manufacturers of fishing equipment, especially lures.

The bar at Shakespeare’s Pub showcases several old advertisements from the Shakespeare Co. Another fun fact: Pub co-owner Ted Vadella collects tap handles from the various beers he’s carried during the pub’s 16 years in operation and hangs them from the ceiling. There are more than 1,080 handles on display.

O’Duffy’s Pub’s historic bar

If you’re looking for a hidden gem and cozy neighborhood bar, O’Duffy’s Pub will hit the spot. This Irish pub, owned by Jamie Kavanaugh, opened in the summer of 1999.

A hulking wooden backbar dominates the room. At 12 feet tall and 24 feet long, it perfectly fits in the pub, leaving about 4 inches of clearance between the top of the backbar and the ceiling. Kavanaugh says it was built around 1905 by Brunswick — known more for its bowling and billiards work than bars. It produced bars only between 1890 and 1915.

Kavanaugh says the backbar was made in Cedar Springs, Iowa, and occupied the Spaulding Hotel in Michigan City, Indiana, before antique collector William John Upjohn brought it to Kalamazoo. The quarter sawn oak fixture sat in storage for more than 30 years before Kavanaugh bought it in 1995 from the Heritage Company, a Kalamazoo salvage company. It came in 15 pieces and didn’t include assembly instructions when he installed it.

“I won’t tell anyone what I paid for it,” he says. “All I’ll say is it’s the biggest and most complicated jigsaw puzzle I’ve ever put together."

“It smelled like it was stored in a horse barn. It actually smelled like that for years in the pub.”

To this day, Kavanaugh says, he doesn’t allow any technology to sit on it, out of “reverence” and to “maintain its integrity.”

Principle’s dumb waiter

One of the more entertaining local venues at which to grab a cocktail is in the lower level of Principle, a restaurant on the Kalamazoo Mall. The basement lounge features a spiral staircase, original brick walls and a plethora of vintage touches.

"It’s rustic and cozy. It’s meant to be kind of like a speakeasy, leather-sofa vibe. Dim lighting,” explains Principle Assistant Manager Emma Balliet.

This Michigan basement room also features a dumb waiter, now used as a cocktail lift between the resturant and the lounge. To save the frustration of accidently dumping drinks while navigating the tricky stairway, Principle’s staff cut a hole in the floor to allow the dumb waiter to operate. The mechanism for it comes from an old garage door, says Balliet.

“It’s pretty creaky, but it’s super easy to transport drinks so servers don’t spill drinks everywhere … (Customers) love it,” she says. Balliet said the lift works fine for all drinks, but it tends to perform best when carrying the restaurant’s most popular beverage, smoked sazerac.

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Other Tidbits on Kalamazoo’s Bars

Kalamazoo County voted to go dry in April 1915, five years before Prohibition began. On May 1, 1915, 65 businesses closed their doors, including 34 of the city’s saloons.

Bell’s Brewery is the seventh largest craft brewery in the United States, based on 2019 sales volume.
When ordering at Bell’s Eccentric Cafe, be sure to try something that is made only on-site. The taproom features several brews that are available only there, not distributed. The adjacent Bell’s General Store carries tons of packaged beer of the more popular staples or specialty releases.

• The Kalamazoo Beer Exchange’s craft beer menu operates like a stock market, with fluctuating prices displayed on TV screens. The bar and restaurant’s owner is also planning a new location for the east side of the state.

• Kalamazoo is home to two distilleries: Green Door Distilling and the Kalamazoo Stillhouse, both in downtown Kalamazoo.

• If you’re one for kitschy touches and decorative eye candy, take a peek at Old Dog Tavern. Amy and Sean Smith, owners and longtime Kalamazoo residents, display a variety of fascinating objects — hand-painted signs, wooden fish, a giant moose head, vintage beer cans and much more. You should also make a point to venture out to the tavern’s beer garden and outdoor stage.

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