by Elissa Karg
A reader’s request that we check out R.P. McMurphy’s sent me exploring to Downriver. Wyandotte’s a lot nicer than it used to be!
The downtown waterfront is accessible via a grassy strip where kids and old men fish, couples stroll eating ice cream and/or walking dogs. Farther down Biddle Street, the river is obscured by marinas, factories, office buildings and a hospital, but you can turn your attention to the other side of the street filled with charming old houses.
Our reader, Jennifer, described the atmosphere at R.P. McMurphy’s as “vintage,” and it sure is. The building sports a historic marker saying that it was built in 1911. Actually, it was built before that but was part of a hotel next door. In 1911 it was deeded as its own entity.
It looks like it’s always been, and always will be, a turn-of-the-century saloon. But Prohibition shut down the bar, so it became a confectionery and green grocer. At one time it was a holding tank for the local jail. In 1934 it reopened as a bar, and it has been a restaurant and/or a bar ever since.
Do you remember R.P. McMurphy in the film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? McMurphy is a prisoner who is driven crazy by a stay in a mental hospital. “It’s a great movie,” says owner John Rusu, then adds (by way of explanation?), “We were much younger then.”
Rusu bought the building in the late ’70s, and it has been lovingly restored. You can’t exactly call it beautiful, but it has a lot of atmosphere. The decor is all a little incongruous — each piece is lovely by itself, but does it all go together? The walls are covered with large, mossy-green Pewabic tiles. Above that is a mural of peasant life that was painted in 1934. At the front end of the long narrow room there is a beautiful old bar of dark wood, and a semiopen kitchen under a huge copper vent.
A second dining room has murals painted by Don Capeling, inspired by Bruegel’s The Wedding. In 1983 Capeling was laid off from his job as a curator at the Detroit Institute of Arts; he came in every night when the restaurant closed and painted until it reopened the next morning. It’s a great place to have a drink with friends, and it’s often crowded and lively on the weekend. We waited 30 minutes for a table on a Friday night. (Reservations are accepted.)
There are more than a dozen sandwiches on the menu, including several vegetarian choices. After that, you have a choice of tried-and-true entrées of fish, pasta or meat. My advice is to avoid anything with clams. I tried more than once: clam chowder and linguini with chopped clams. Chopped or not, these clams are tough fellows. An appetizer of fried clams was more tender, but the emphasis was on the breading.
There are lots of fish choices — lake perch sautéed in garlic butter, broiled cod, fish and chips, ahi tuna and salmon. One night we tried a special of beef stroganoff. The meat was tender (only Angus beef is served) in a rich sour cream sauce with mushrooms.
Lots of the side dishes are above average: There’s great coleslaw and a good Ceasar salad, served with an abundance of anchovies for those who ask. You can also get nice crispy French bread that you dip in a mix of Parmesan cheese and herb-infused olive oil. One thing I really liked was that many of the entrées are offered in half portions for one-third off the price.
There is a full bar, a brief wine list (which includes a Pinot Gris from Pelee Island) and quality beer on tap. The Newcastle Brown Ale went well with all those anchovies. Draft root beer is an alternative for the young at heart.
Elissa Karg dines for Metro Times. E-mail email@example.com.