Man Bites Dog 

My father worked in the booze business and spent a lot of time in bars. He used to say that there were certain saloon names you could find in almost every town, like the Dew Drop Inn or the Y'all Come Back Tavern. His college hangout in Indianapolis, the Bulldog Lounge, was named after the football team at nearby Butler University, but there were also Bulldog bars in New Orleans, Detroit and Mason City, Iowa. The fictional Boston Bulldog Bar was the setting for a short-lived 1998 Fox sitcom starring comedienne Sue Costello.

There's also a tourist destination in Amsterdam called the Bulldog Lounge, a coffeehouse that offers cappuccino, Internet access and marijuana. That's the one that inspired Doug Hartmann and his partners, Bill Stoler and Dick Snow, to name their Crossroads District restaurant Bulldog. "The only argument we ever had was trying to decide on a name," Hartmann says. "One day it was just decided. Bulldog."

Not the Bulldog Bar & Grille, despite published reports to the contrary, Hartmann says. The three-month-old establishment is simply Bulldog, a sturdy name with some bite to it -- and a more sophisticated menu and décor than the low-key exterior and the neon beer signs in the front windows might suggest. This dog is no dive, though its urban neighborhood (the Bulldog is next door to the Pitch offices, by the way) hasn't been gentrified to the point where customers don't encounter the occasional downtown panhandler. A particularly aggressive drifter tried to coax a few coins out of my friends Bob and Jennifer on a Monday night after we had finished dinner. I didn't have a dime on me, of course. "I wish you took MasterCard," I whispered to the panhandler.

Bulldog does, thank goodness. On my first dinner there, Bob, Melissa and Pat insisted that we sit on the bar side of the restaurant so they could smoke cigarettes and guzzle a few expensive cocktails with their dinners. (Pat pulled out a cigar that was nearly as thick as my arm.) I was happy to have the plastic when our server, a dizzy Britney Spears look-alike, finally brought the bill, which was nearly a car payment.

By downtown standards, the dinner prices at Bulldog are fairly reasonable. A nice hunk of seared salmon goes for $17, and that includes a salad and rolls. And on my first visit, the place was offering a two-for-one special on mini cheeseburgers. (Typically, it's eight bucks for a plate of four.) Unlike a certain Plaza restaurant's bone-dry version of this same appetizer, the Bulldog's baby burgers are juicy and flavorful, served on soft, fresh rolls -- all the better with a few sweet pickle slices thrown between the buns.

While Melissa, Bob and Pat swilled and gabbed, I watched the bar side fill up with an interesting collection of white-collar types relaxing after work, lots of well-dressed metrosexuals (Melissa and Bob insisted they were gay until their possessive girlfriends showed up), and a few over-forty scenesters.

On the other side of the dividing wall, the more formal, nonsmoking "restaurant" side stayed empty until nearly 7 p.m., when a quartet of women in crisp suits walked in. They gave a disapproving sniff to the cigarette fumes and general raucousness on our half of the space and insisted on sitting in the more genteel area, where the tables are cloaked with white linens and sheaths of butcher paper.

Melissa, who was not in a genteel mood, eyed those women suspiciously. "This is clearly the more fun side," she said as she plucked a coconut-fried shrimp from an appetizer plate we were sharing. I might have had more fun if the shrimp hadn't been so teeth-jarringly sweet. It was as if the batter had been shot through with sugary coconut cream.

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