Feature Stories

Our Best Bars

By Connie Haas Zuber
Trion Tavern offers a Bourbon Flight for connoisseurs and the adventurous. The challenge is settling on only five from Trion’s impressive selection. (PHOTO BY NEAL BRUNS)
Tony Henry at home in the Deer Park. The deer’s name is Bucky, and you can be sure there’s a story behind everything on the wall. Just keep asking around until you find the person who remembers it. (PHOTO BY NEAL BRUNS)
Calhoun Street Soups, Salads, and Spirits makes bar food special with a newly enlarged selection of draft beers, including Stella Artois, served here with a BBQ Cheddar and Bacon Burger on the signature pretzel bun. (PHOTO BY NEAL BRUNS)
takes bar food up a notch with its Hot Pepper Cheese Bites, foreground, and the aptly named “Call Me A DoctoR,”  marinated chicken tenderloins wrapped in bacon, coated in a signature breading and deep fried before being served with ranch dip. (PHOTO BY NEAL BRUNS)
It’s the fun, easy atmosphere. It’s the food. And most of all it’s the friends and friendliness that make a bar a favorite.

According to Fort Wayne Monthly readers, a good selection of craft beers or whiskeys helps a lot, too.

After a month of voting, we tallied the results and saw some hunches confirmed, plus a surprise or two. Out of the 87 different bars that received at least one vote, a Top 10 clearly stood apart from the rest. We are going to salute that Top 10 by adding a Readers Favorite badge to their listing in our A Taste section every month for a year, and we thank the readers whose many votes make this honor a desirable one for the city’s bars.

The biggest news from the results is a personality factor — as in how a city’s bars are an especially revealing indicator of its personality. Our readers’ votes depict a populace that values the small, the personal, the unique, the quirky characteristics that homegrown businesses do best. The long list of watering holes that received votes from our readers includes less than a handful affiliated with any national or even regional chain or franchise operation. In Fort Wayne, apparently, bars more than restaurants come into being and survive as largely homegrown businesses.

So what our readers/voters are expressing is their appreciation for these places where we entertain ourselves, celebrate together, provide havens of relaxation for each other and find homey places and friends beyond home and family.

Bars are, for these reasons, fascinating, and people watching becomes an art there. Bars inspire loyalty. Our readers’ Top 10 bars list is a nuanced peek into their lives and a demonstration of how they represent the wide diversity of lifestyles that living in Fort Wayne now encompasses. There is, indeed, a bar for everyone. Cheers!


No. 1
Deer Park Irish Pub
1530 Leesburg Road
www.facebook.com/DeerParkIrishPub

Deer Park, thanks to its genial and jolly proprietor Tony Henry, is huge in spirit, thereby rendering its small physical size unimportant. Get a sense of that spirit by checking out its Facebook page and pay special attention to the recommendations and recent posts sections. Deer Park just clicks for a lot of people.

For what it’s worth: Many people follow Tony’s lead and refer to the place as the Deer Park, not just Deer Park.

Music and dancing pump up the energy at Deer Park regularly. Bands (a good example is Good Night Gracie) get people dancing at Deer Park, and Tony Henry’s inspired creation that he calls Dancioke (a dancing version of karaoke) is a continuing hit.

Serious beer drinkers appreciate the big and well-chosen selection of beers on tap, and the even bigger variety stashed in the cooler in bottles. Food (unless there’s a special celebration) doesn’t get any more complicated than the occasional Taco Tuesdays, but those tacos are tasty. The Deer Park scored an impressive first at its End of Prohibition bash last year to celebrate the end of road construction at its intersection with Spring Street by somehow getting Coney Island to agree to cater the party. Coney Island does not ordinarily do that.

On St. Patrick’s Day, you’ll get to enjoy Deer Park at its Deer Parkiest. The famous “world’s shortest parade” will stroll around the block behind the statue of St. Patrick, rain or shine, and music and Irish food and fun will fill the day and into the night.

It’s a special place, and Gene Donnelly III, one of the many who voted for Deer Park, says it well.

“The Deer Park Lodge is a tiny magic world where Tony ‘Baloney’ Henry is the Magical Wizard of Beer. All are welcome, and everyone leaves with a smile. There’s no place like the Park.”


No. 2
J K O’Donnell’s Irish Ale House
121 W. Wayne St.
jkodonnells.com

Yes, there’s a theme here. Fort Wayne Monthly readers love the Irish pub vibe, and J K’s does it in spades. Centered on a lovely wooden bar imported from Castlebar, County Mayo, Ireland, J K’s prides itself on a very impressive beer and whiskey selection and the authenticity of its Irish food. Bangers and mash, indeed.

In addition, J K’s is the place to go to watch European soccer, international rugby and other global sports. Should you have questions, it’s a sure bet that someone sitting near you will be able to explain what’s going on.

It’s especially nice to be sitting at J K’s and realize the people at the table next to you are in town for a convention at the nearby Grand Wayne Center. Start a conversation by welcoming them to the city, and you get to bask in their praise for our fair city!

J K’s plays its part proudly in the revitalization of downtown Fort Wayne, contributing greatly to activity on its block of West Wayne Street with its outdoor seating and being the place a lot of people visit before and after events at the Embassy Theatre and Parkview Field in addition to convention breaks.

It lacks the history of some of the other Top 10 spots, but it is building its own story with lots of loyal customers. It’s impressive that people will drive a considerable distance to visit J K’s, as reader/voter Joshua Fitzgerald explains.

“I like J K O’Donnell’s because of its excellent drink selection and authentic, delicious Irish food. You can’t go wrong with anything on the menu, and they have a variety of craft beers from around the world on tap and in bottles. The atmosphere is great for a lunchtime meeting or a night out. I no longer live in Fort Wayne, but I make sure to visit J K’s whenever I’m in town.”


No. 3
Henry’s Restaurant
536 W. Main St.
www.facebook.com/pages/Henrys-Restaurant

Henry’s is where the word “venerable” can enter the discussion. Henry’s has history and a lot of memorable evenings have been spent there. Long a favorite of theatre and newspaper people (and the downtown crowd in general) and gay-friendly, Henry’s knows how to be a homey haven that’s more fun than home because you’ll see so many people you know and probably meet some new folks.

As its kitchen has become more and more expert and important to the business, though, Henry’s really deserves the title “restaurant.” The Facebook page announces daily delights like Meatloaf Monday and really glamorous looking chicken pot pies, along with prime rib and a lovely raw bar. A Midnight Menu welcomes the late crowd.

Henry’s is the kind of place you either discover or are introduced to by a kind friend. Then you find yourself going back and back and back.

“When my husband and I first moved to Fort Wayne over 12 years ago,” said reader/voter Amber Recker, “we rented an apartment in West Central and Henry’s quickly became ‘our’ place. The bartenders and wait staff became like family. It’s Fort Wayne’s Cheers … where everybody knows your name. On top of that, the ambiance is great: antique wooden bar, cozy booths. And the food is pretty good, too. The raw bar on the weekends has been a favorite for years, as well as the Friday night prime rib special. Whether a birthday celebration, New Year’s or simply a Monday night, Henry’s is the place to go.”


No. 4
Club Soda
235 E. Superior St.
www.clubsodafortwayne.com

Club Soda soars at the high end of the urban vibe with Rat Pack elegance, jazz music and an in-your-face steakhouse (with great seafood!) menu. You can get a kick-ass classic gin martini while the lightweights go for pretty colors and vodka.

So. Attitude is a virtue at Club Soda, which in no way limits its welcome to everyone who comes for the food, the music, the expert bartenders or the people watching. It’s all good at Club Soda, and everyone is cozy and cool inside the exposed brick walls or expansive and bright in the enclosed, two-level garden space it has recently added. The place is as elegant as the vibe. 

Its clientele may tend toward grownups, most likely because the prices match the high quality, but it’s a place younger adults seem to graduate to.
And there’s no better place to try your first martini.


No. 5
Mitchell’s Sports Bar & Grill
5607 St. Joe Road
www.facebook.com/MitchellsSportsBar

Mitchell’s quickly pulled ahead of other sports bars in our readers poll voting, most likely because it has so many strong points. Not just sports, though sports is key to its fans. Not just food, though its food is consistently ranked as better than other sports bars’ food. It’s the look and feel of the place that appears to make the difference.

Any bar with 27 televisions is a pretty big space, but Mitchell’s combines its classier look with a friendly vibe so people feel comfortable there. They feel so comfortable, in fact, that chatter on its Facebook page includes people lobbying for their particular event to be onscreen, in addition to raves about the food and thanks to the staff for good service.

A sports bar has a lot of competitors in this day and age, and Mitchell’s appears to be a winner, as reader/voter Landon Nichols explained.

“Mitchell’s has a laid-back, upscale feel to it. I often feel like I am at a friend’s house watching a game and socializing with good friends. Jerseys and nostalgic pictures hang on the walls, which is very different from your typical ‘Sports Bar’ here in Fort Wayne. The menu has lots of options, not just your typical bar food like wings and fried food. The salad options are all very different, but all very good. I like going to Mitchell’s because I feel comfortable, like I’m at home. Great staff, great food and an awesome atmosphere.”


No. 6
The Brass Rail
1121 Broadway
www.brassrailfw.com

If you love live rock ‘n’ roll — leaning toward punk and hard rock — you already know about the Rail and probably follow its Twitter feed. But, then again, the sight of the Bravas food truck outside and the big buzz about Bravas Burger night might have been what got you there, too.

The Brass Rail is both the same as it’s always been and something new and different. It is still the neighborhood bar it’s been for decades, and the live music that got a foothold during a past owner’s tenure has become a big theme for the current owners.

“We specialize in pairing great original local music with touring bands,” the website explains.

It’s an interesting place. It sells more Pabst beer than any other place in Indiana, and its website brags about crafting frozen drinks, Bloody Marys and mojitos, too. Local artists and photographers create amazing show posters and photographs at shows. And the bicycle rack out front is actually used.

But the Rail speaks for itself.

“Identity” is a headline on the home page. Following is the assertion: “There are many Brass Rail bars throughout the world, we have no affiliation with any of them. We are Ft. Wayne’s #1 Dive Bar.” And a little red tag proclaims “FACT.”


No. 7
Calhoun Street Soups Salads & Spirits
1915 S. Calhoun St.
calhouncs3.com

The name is a mouthful, so it’s a blessing that this great spot on South Calhoun Street has a perfect nickname: CS3. Perhaps more blessings are involved, too, because CS3 has a lot going for it.

During the day, it’s a popular lunch spot serving food that maybe you might make for yourself, but probably not with the clever touches. CS3 has a BLT, for example. Very doable at home. But a touch of genius is revealed with the addition of just the right amount of creamy egg salad to the bacon, lettuce and tomato. Similarly, CS3 has a variety of burgers, which you can also cook at home. But using a pretzel bun? Genius, again.

And it is a genuine bar at night. Its ability to offer more beers on tap just expanded with new plumbing to a basement keg facility, and its back room has been named The Tiger Room (tip of the hat to fans of “The Office” who will know why that name is pretty funny) by the touring bands that like the place so much they actually ask to play there and recommend it to their friends touring with other bands.

Finally, it’s a lovely old building, furnished with a sense of humor and obvious respect for the style of the building. Both the bar side and the dining room side are stylish but not fancy, comfortable and welcoming. Its outdoor patio is a hidden gem, too. Bonus: It’s part of a spark of activity that has people in the know calling the neighborhood SoCal. Nicknames seem to work there.


No. 8
Mad Anthony Brewing Co.
1109 Taylor St.
www.madbrew.com

Something special happened in 1999 when what had been the Munchie Emporium for a good 20 years became Mad Anthony’s. Not only did Fort Wayne finally get a brew pub, but all the best stuff from the Munchie era just came along for the ride. Nothing lost, and plenty gained. We continue on with Scooby snacks and Unwraps on the table beside some really good pizzas — only now there’s beer brewed on site in the pints. And it’s award-winning beer.

Even more than food and beer draws its fans to Mad Anthony’s, of course. Top local bands routinely play there on weekends, and a well-thought-out marketing plan offers not only a Mug Club but also frequent special deals and also T-shirts, jackets and hats to devotees.


No. 9
The Deck at Hall’s Gas House
305 E. Superior St.
www.donhalls.com

It’s almost unkind (to you, our readers, not to the bar itself) to honor The Deck in March. None of us will be able to go there until the weather gets reliably warm because The Deck perches atop the bank of the St. Marys River across the parking lot from The Gas House itself. It has roofs but not walls.

And it was beloved from the day it opened. Fort Wayne was apparently pining for a great outdoor bar, and The Deck delivers.

For a lot of people, The Deck is the best thing about the Gas House’s recent and well-received renovation. You can order your favorite sandwich, steak or snack off the now-impressive Gas House menu while watching traffic (not much, but there is actual boat traffic there) on the river with a cocktail in hand. The always busy bartenders mix up a cheerful Fruity Drink as expertly as anything, with more serious libations also available. But The Deck is for fun, and there’s no better place to enjoy a Fruity Drink. And all the rest. 

 

(OK! We have a tie, and it's actually pretty cool to have a Top 11.)

No. 10
Trion Tavern
503 Broadway St., New Haven
www.triontavern.com

and

Flashback on The Landing
118 W. Columbia St.
www.Facebook.com/pages/Flashback-On-The-Landing

Diversity is the theme here, and it’s a great one. Flashback is a weekends-only dance club, and Trion Tavern has been a New Haven bar for decades — only it has reinvented itself with free WiFi and what may be the most impressive selection of craft beers and bourbons around. Both have loyal fans who gave them enough votes to push them into the Top 10.

Flashback’s dance action is impressive from outside the big windows as the night goes on and, obviously, a lot of fun inside.

Trion’s website will make you thirsty, on its interactive beer and bourbon lists, and then hungry when you browse the menu pages. Maybe you’ll spend your time at the lovely old mahogany bar. Maybe you’ve got the family with you and the bright and airy family room is your destination with Trion’s famous Pot Roast your goal. A nice patio awaits you when the weather’s nice, too. Trion was most recently part of the buzz when they tapped their first keg of the season to begin serving Bell’s popular Hopslam this year.

Both places have a sense of fun, and sooner or later all of us need what they offer. Who doesn’t need to dance, relax in mahogany surroundings, enjoy a meal with the family or try a new beer?

 

Editor’s note: Fort Wayne Monthly presents this readers poll well aware that not everyone drinks alcohol and recognizing that alcohol has had very bad and tragic effects in so many lives. We wish to express our respect for those who choose to abstain and for those who have suffered great loss. Our fervent hope is that a visit to any one of our city’s bars will be a manageable and life-affirming experience, and we offers our thanks to everyone who has ever helped anyone who should not have driven home get home safely some other way. Designated drivers are the coolest people around.

Posted: Mon, 03/25/2013 - 11:48 am
Last updated: Wed, 05/01/2013 - 11:31 am