Let's not confuse the namesake of the new Jack Gage American Tavern at 50th Street and Main with an American Jack Gage, such as the late film and TV director of the 1940s and '50s or the boyish-looking New York-based writer for forbes.com. No, restaurateur Blair Hurst named his clubby pub after the British Jack Gage, a scrappy fight promoter — a carny, really — who set up a traveling "stadium" at English fairgrounds in the days before and after World War II. Hurst doesn't know very much about Gage, but he does own a fine piece of memorabilia.
The owners of the House of Blues chain bought the stadium troupe's backdrop, long after this kind of entertainment fell out of favor. Later, when they auctioned it off, Hurst bought it, intending to use the artwork for a British-pub concept. When his restaurant turned into an American joint, the hand-painted Jack Gage tableau — rendered in the same spirit as those arresting freak-show illustrations of the early 20th century — still made an excellent, offbeat backdrop for the bar. Not that anyone who steps into the 82-year-old, two-story brick building at 50th and Main is going to give a tinker's damn about Jack Gage anyway, even when one of the cheery servers runs over bearing a handful of vintage photos of the Jack Gage boxing stadium in all of its 1940s glory.
The real celebrities at Jack Gage American Tavern are alive and working: veteran restaurant manager Joe Wilcox (best known for his long tenure at Plaza III) and Richard McPeake, the chef who created the menus for the Gilbert-Robinson restaurant empire in its heyday. Hiring these two pros may be the smartest thing that Hurst has ever done because they've elevated Jack Gage American Tavern to a real contender. The extensive bill of fare (which McPeake created with input from both Hurst and Hurst's Mississippi-born wife, Jean) is a good combination of traditional dishes and contemporary creations. And in a nod to the classic diner, the kitchen puts out breakfast all day.
The place also serves a more expanded breakfast menu on Saturday and Sunday mornings. I stopped in on the morning after Christmas with a couple of friends, but we didn't stay because the dining room was having an unexpected technical issue: It smelled — only temporarily, I'm happy to say — like the last tenant, the dreaded Double Dragon Chinese Restaurant.
Maybe it was the ghost of Christmas past, because Hurst had the place completely gutted, right down to the studs, and then spent more than two years renovating the building, which opened in 1928 as Country Club Cleaners. That's why there's a massive steel vault in the center of the first floor — not for bank deposits, as people have assumed over the years, but for storing fur.
There's also a more playful (and less smelly) poltergeist roaming the building; several employees have felt his or her presence. God only knows who it is because, after that dry cleaner, this building has been home to a pasta palace, a nightclub, the glummest gay bar ever, a jazz joint and, finally, that Chinese buffet (which had an aggressively pungent aroma in the dining room that I suspect had nothing to do with General Tso's chicken or beef lo mein).
"You won't believe what Blair has done with the space," said my friend Nancy, who works down the street. "It's exactly what this neighborhood needed."
This stretch of Main Street has some first-rate dining spots, and what it needed was a restaurant that didn't serve pizza or spaghetti. It already boasts Minsky's, Osteria il Centro, Accurso's and Spin. Hurst's tavern has a lot of TV monitors scattered around the bar and dining rooms but, contrary to rumor, is not a sports bar. Instead, it serves pub fare: burgers, salads, steaks, barbecued ribs, rotisserie chicken and fried shrimp, along with that smattering of soul food — Southern dishes that are better than you might expect in a part of town where grits rarely show up on a menu.
I had recently eaten the chicken and waffles at the new Niecie's Restaurant over on Troost, so I thought it was only fair that I sample McPeake's version. Niecie's serves fried wings, while McPeake tops his soft waffle with two gorgeously crunchy buttermilk-battered boneless breasts and douses the whole thing with a sensational pecan-maple glaze cooked up with a shot of Kentucky bourbon. Damn good! My Southern-born pal Truman, meanwhile, had the spicy cheese grits, topped with shrimp sautéed in wine and studded with bacon, mushrooms, garlic and fresh lemon juice. "Just like my mama used to make," Truman said, before wiping his brow. "But a hell of a lot hotter!"
Carol Ann was so enamored of another signature dish that she let me have only a tiny taste of her macaroni and cheese made with real crabmeat and a nine-cheese sauce. We goaded every server in the place to tell us all nine cheeses, but no one knew; finally, McPeake came out of the kitchen to rattle them off: smoked Gouda, white Cheddar, yellow Cheddar, Asiago, Provolone, Fontina, Romano, Mozzarella and Swiss. I grabbed another big spoonful and agreed that it may be the best in town.
That was the night that Truman went gaga over one of McPeake's Southern-inspired desserts: banana raisin-bread pudding drizzled with a devilish rum-and-banana liqueur "Foster" sauce (without the flame). I had the itsy-bitsy "world's smallest chocolate sundae," which was cute but as boring as chocolate-sauce sundaes of any other size.
I returned one afternoon for lunch at the bar and dug greedily into the open-faced Kentucky Hot Brown sandwich, which might be the most decadent variation on this fattening concoction I've ever tasted. McPeake cooks his pit ham and turkey on the big rotisserie in the kitchen and then blankets the meat in a Swiss-cheese glaze.
My friend Bob was so overwhelmed by all the dishes on the menu that he almost couldn't decide what to eat. We shared a few starters, including a sumptuous tower of green-tomato slices, flash-fried and layered with crabmeat, smoked Gouda and a kicky sweet-mustard aïoli. I love the new trend of making fries from healthy vegetables — in this case, slices of meaty portobello mushroom dusted in evanescent fry flour, quick-fried and served with a chili-seasoned "Come Back Sauce," which McPeake described as "Southern pink sauce" before adding that "everyone loves it." I won't argue; the pink sauce was even better than the gravy on the fine fried chicken livers.
We wanted a cup of the chef's chicken and Spaetzle soup, but the Tavern offered only bowls, so our thoughtful waiter brought us each a ramekin that had a spoonful of the fragrant broth but not one of the little dumplings. (I had a full bowl on a later visit, and the soup was very good.) Bob's trio of stylish Tavern Sliders consisted of an Angus burger, a tiny sandwich with a piece of fried chicken dripping with bacon-onion sour cream, and a Maryland crab cake that Bob insists is the old Bristol crab-cake recipe. (Why not — McPeake helped create it.)
That was the night I had the plump, air-fried but fabulously juicy rotisserie chicken basted in a honey-cumin glaze and a side of sour-cream mashers. I ate so much, in fact, that I was tempted to snuggle down into one of the 100-year-old booths and take a tiny little nap. But I suddenly felt a kick under the table. Bob insisted it wasn't he.
Maybe it was the ghost of Jack Gage.