When reality TV comes to town, we play by its rules. That's what it takes to make what viewers expect from major networks like Viacom-owned Spike TV and from celebrity consultant vehicles like Bar Rescue. And that's what happened this summer when that show came to the Triple Nickel Tavern and Garrison Tavern (formerly the Brickhouse Bar & Grill).
Owner Jon Nicholls informed the theme change for the Garrison — he's a member of the National Guard and a fisherman besides. The tavern now bears a military name and outdoorsy images behind the bar. Beyond minor aesthetic renovations and a rebranding, the bar got a new menu, new cocktails and new eight-tap system, with handles from locals like Smiling Toad Brewery. All told, the process wasn't a cure-all, but it was a good step away from the venue's biker bar past and towards something new.
The Triple Nickel didn't have as smooth an experience. Drawing on the building's history as a garage, the show applied an automotive/garage theme to the place, from a diamond-plate texture under the menu to an imposing car grille on the wall. They also made a truly baffling blunder and put truck bed liner on the bar. The rough surface is unpleasant to rest a forearm on, to say nothing of utility. Rumor has it that the renovations even blocked off part of the glycol rig that cools the tavern's beer, ultimately spoiling several gallons of product.
Bar Rescue's contract prevents owner JJ Grueter from talking to the press until after the episode airs, but I notice that they've already removed many of the show's changes. When I visit, they've already sanded the bar clean and refinished it. The counter along the window still retains the awful surface, but hopefully not for much longer.
Garrison Tavern's Bar Rescue-penned menu remains. When we stopped by right after the show left recently, we found big portions of great beer sponges and great-for-the-price $6.25 cocktails. The drinks still hold up; we try a Charlie whiskey, which blends cherry syrup, orange bitters and rye, topped with a brandy-soaked cherry, for a fruitier old fashioned. It's not putting the city's best on notice, but it's sweeter without disguising the fact that it's whiskey. Well done.
Of note, Nicholls has brought in local Southern caterers Jayzwingz to run his kitchen, and they've added some comfort-food classics to the menu. I sample the Southern-style spring rolls, stuffed with collard greens, served with a thin but piquant cilantro-jalapeño sauce. They're good, and it's neat to see drunk food seamlessly integrating dark, leafy greens. As an entrée, I try the daily-special fish po'boy — two big pieces of fried catfish with seasoned tomatoes and lettuce on toasted white bread, remoulade on the side. Unpretentious to a fault, the sandwich is packed — I set aside one of the pieces of catfish so I can eat it properly. And while it would be nice to get all of this food in a sturdier roll, the batter bears a fun spicing with notable cinnamon.
As for the Triple Nickel, the menu's still up, but neither my bartender nor I are sure why — my money's on contractual obligation. They aren't serving anything on it. Instead, a whiteboard on the bar shows the kitchen's offerings — beef, chicken, veggie and seafood meatballs, priced per ball, available as subs, salads or pastas, among other items. I try beef on a sub, rich and tender under a garlicky tomato sauce with chives as garnish. Served with a side of shoestring fries, it's a fine bar bite. The $2 extra for cheese sauce on the fries sounds tempting, but the combination veers salty, though not inedibly so.
On Tuesdays, the Nickel ditches that menu for street tacos and brats, cash only. Chicken tacos pop more than steak, though both come with fresh pico, guac and decent salsas on the side. As for the brat, it's griddled properly and served on a crunchy toasted roll, under pico with mustard and/or salsa on the side. Either menu has good options. And the beer's cold again, which means pints of Bristol's Laughing Lab or Red Leg's Devil Dog wait to wash it all down.
So, ultimately it appears Garrison got a lot more out of its reality TV experience than Triple Nickel. Of course, there's a critical difference: Nicholls wrote a letter to the Bar Rescue crew asking for help. According to a Focus on the Beer blog post by Ryan Hannigan (who, disclosure, is the production director for the Independent), the Bar Rescue team reached out to the Triple Nickel, not the other way around. But, of course, Grueter can't confirm or deny that, because the road to reality TV is paved with nondisclosure contracts. Thanks, Viacom.