Friday, February 17, 2012

[EID Preview] Clubhouse BFD: It's a BFD

All photos by Nicole Rupersburg.

There are beer bars. And then there are beer shrines. Clubhouse BFD in Rochester is not just a beer bar; it is a juried gallery exhibit of the brewing arts.

Owner Scott LePage grew up in the restaurant industry. His parents are long-time area restaurateurs, at one point operating over two dozen different restaurants. (Currently they own Big Rock Chophouse in Birmingham, and will be opening a brewpub called Griffin Claw Brewing Company later this year ... Scott jokes it was all his mom's ploy to keep his dad, a 74-year-old with the energy of a hyperactive teenager, occupied and out of trouble.) Scott currently owns East Side Mario's, a chain of hearty Italian-American restaurants with locations in Rochester Hills and Livonia.

Next to the Rochester Hills location, a building sat empty for a long time. Scott owned the land but after he lost his previous tenant, every prospective tenant wanted half a million dollars for a build-out before signing a lease. "If I'm going to spend that kind of money, we might as well do it ourselves," Scott says. Thus the seed of Clubhouse BFD - which, to be clear, stands for "Beer Food Drink" - was planted.

The concept evolved from a sports bar to brewery (they considered moving Big Rock's brewing operations over) and then ultimately landed on craft beer bar. But not just any beer bar. "I don't want to have the same shit everyone else has," Scott states. The thing is, if you want to have a robust beer list it's pretty easy to come by. Most of the big-name local breweries have a handful of year-round beers in wide distribution so right there you can easily get a list of 50 pretty quickly, then pad it with the usual Belgian, English and French imports. And yes, an awesome beer list it makes, enough to keep even the most discriminating of connoisseurs happy (even if they've had the majority of beers on that list before).

But Clubhouse aims to be competitive not just with the best beer bars in Michigan, but the best beer bars in the country - the kind of places that get ranked by DRAFT Magazine and RateBeer in the top 100 across the nation. So Scott brought local beer guru Jason Peltier on board.

This is a beer nerd's beer bar; where most places carry Founders Porter, they carry Founders Imperial Stout. They've got the sole Michigan allotments of extremely limited releases, like Mikkeller/Three Flloyds Boogoop (they've got the only kegs in the state) and bottles of Goose Island's Kind Henry (they got four of eight available in Michigan). As a beer nerd myself, I was reduced to the vocabulary of a four-year-old watching Cars as I perused their tap handles, coolers and back inventory (there are 40 taps and over 150 bottles, plus a few off-list "goodies" for the really good customers). All I could utter was a breathless "Oh WOW!" repeatedly. After years in the industry, Jason and his team (who have worked together at places like Big Rock and Kuhnhenn) know how to properly court their distributors to get the best products. "Every night in here with the beer distributors was like the Last Supper," Scott jokes, miming them all sitting in a line at the bar studiously sampling beer. "One night we tried 97 beers!"

When Scott decided to move forward full-force with this concept, he put together a team of the area's best to make it happen. For the design, he hired Ron and Roman, a Birmingham-based design firm that has recently become the darlings of Detroit's architectural and interior design after some of Ron Rea's recent work has made him the new restaurant "It" guy (including Joe Meur Seafood in Detroit, Luxe in Birmingham, and a handful of other spots about to open including John D in Ferndale and Roadside Bar and Grill in Bloomfield Hills). Rea gave Clubhouse an open feel, incorporating design elements - and items of interest - that would be befitting of an adult man's ideal clubhouse. Stuffed deer, Rock-em Sock-em Robots, airline seats, mounted Cadillac seats, genuine WWI silk parachutes ... the kind of things a guy might want to have in his home if his wife would ever let him (but she won't). You could look around for hours and still catch new details you missed before, but at the same time it still manages to be a relatively minimalist, rustic design - sturdy wood tables, exposed brick. The sound design, with the speakers in the ceiling tiles, is equally as impressive though less likely to get noticed.

The concept of the Clubhouse evolved over the year and a half that they worked on it; in fact, that wasn't even going to be the name but as people kept calling it that, ultimately it just seemed to fit. And that is exactly what it is: a clubhouse for beer lovers. Like, REAL beer lovers. The kind who need a clubhouse. But if you're concerned that there may be too much beer snobbery, don't be - they'll have your Bud and Miller available in 16-oz. cans ... served in a brown paper bag.

There will be buckets of Little Kings bottles (a cream ale so named because the bottles are indeed little) for $9, and you can also mix your own six pack to go. There is also a small but excellent wine list with some eclectic labels (Michigan's own Left Foot Charley; Kung Fu Girl) as well as a respectable selection of brown liquors for serious consumption.

The menu at Clubhouse is going through its final adjustments, but will be a casual menu of polished bar food. Because of Scott's long background in restaurants, he is extremely particular when it comes to the food he serves and will just as soon test out 15 different versions of a dish and still not include it until he feels it's perfect. They'll have a simply Ploughman's platter (meat, cheese, bread: good), giant buffalo shrimp, mussels, Greek wings (in a lemon oregano marinade), burgers, shaved prime rib sandwiches, grilled cheese, fish and chips, etc. They'll also have something called "The Jersey Shore," modeled after the New Jersey-based Taylor Pork Roll which Scott describes as "the equal to our Coney" and "the ultimate late-night belly bomb and hangover cure." This pork roll is covered in American cheese and served with a fried egg on toasted brioche.

The same exceptionally high standards applied to the concept, design and product were also applied to the service staff. "They're all very polished servers," Jason says. "I'd say 15-25% of them were bar managers before this, but came here because they love craft beer and they love the concept." Upon hiring they were all given copies of the book Tasting Beer by Randy Mosher, and are required to have completed the Master Brewer's Association Beer 101 course within 90 days of hire; already four of them have gone the extra step by becoming Certified Beer Servers (a step below Cicerone). 

Clubhouse BFD is now open Tuesday through Thursday 3 p.m. to 12 a.m., Friday 3 p.m. to 2 a.m., Saturday 12 p.m. to 2 a.m., and Sunday 12 p.m. to 10 p.m. They also have free WiFi.

Want to see more? Check out the Flickr set here.