The Unicorn Lounge will open in the location formerly inhabited by the historic Unicorn Tavern, which closed on June 10 after 34 years. The building is undergoing a whirlwind makeover before its grand re-opening this Friday.
On June 10, the book closed forever on a piece of Lansing history when Old Town’s longstanding Unicorn Tavern gave its final last call. There was a distinctive lack of fanfare about the business’ closing, perhaps because the drinks will be flowing again this weekend under new ownership and a slightly tweaked appellation. When it opens on Friday at 327 E. Grand River Ave., the new Unicorn Lounge will have fresh interior and exterior looks, new hours, more tap handles and an upgraded sound system. But one thing new owner Pat Gillespie, president of development company the Gillespie Group, said he hopes to maintain is the old place’s authentic dive bar sensibilities.
“The Unicorn is part of the fabric of Old Town, and we’re trying to preserve that as much as possible,” Gillespie said last week, shortly after closing on the building and embarking on a whirlwind, 10-day overhaul. “There were a lot of memories in that place, a lot of history, a lot of love. I never met him, but I’m told it had everything to do with the way Tommy ran it.”
That would be former owner Tommy Malvetis, who ran the bar almost right up to his death last year at the age of 94. Malvetis bought the bar when it was a rough-and-tumble biker bar called the Shamrock in the blue-collar North Lansing neighborhood. He renamed it Unicorn Tavern in 1983 to soften its image and serendipitously played a leading role in guiding the community’s transformation into the quirky, quaint Old Town we know today.
“It was very important for me to have the blessing of (Malvetis’) children,” Gillespie said. “I worked very closely with them to make sure that this was something that would pay respects to their father’s legacy but could still be its own thing. I think a lot of people are going to be surprised by how much it will still feel like the Unicorn.”
After Malvetis’ death in December, the bar fell into a trust managed by his children, Alec and Nancy Malvetis. Alec Malvetis said opting to sell the Unicorn was a joint decision between his sister and him.
“If our father was still alive, we would never have considered selling,” he said. “Running that place kept his spirits up for years. I think he lived as long as he did because that place helped keep him going. He had a house in Delta Township, but (the Unicorn) really was his home. Working with Pat has been great, and we’re really happy he wants to keep my dad’s legacy alive.”
Malvetis said his father didn’t want to drive a car for the last 10 years of his life, so he and his sister had a daily pick-up/drop-off schedule for him so he could still be a hands-on owner/ operator/raconteur. Tommy Malvetis spent hours holding court in his “office” at the Unicorn, an old kitchen table near the bar that had a bright desk lamp and overflowed with newspaper clippings and bits of paperwork.
He’d occasionally stroll behind the bar to give firsthand accounts of his nearcentury of experiences or to bask in the massive street’s-eye-view mural on the bar’s rear wall of Myrtia, his father’s hometown in Greece. The mural, done by late local muralist Gary Glenn, was based on a photo Malvetis took when he visited the village with his children in the ‘90s.
That mural was discarded as part of the renovation process, but beneath it Gillespie’s team discovered an older mural, possibly also done by Glenn, of a bar full of imbibing dogs — think da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” meets “Dogs Playing Poker.” The dogs were subsequently covered up by a newly commissioned mural, which is being kept top-secret until Friday’s opening.
“We’re sharing a few of the things we’re adding, but we want to keep a couple surprises for people showing up this weekend,” Gillespie said. “It’s not a big place, so we couldn’t move many things around, but I think it’s a good blend of the old and the new.”
Prominent among the incoming décor are a pair of life-sized unicorn sculptures, one of which will appear to burst from the brick above the threshold. The other will find a home somewhere inside, prompting policy No. 9 among the lounge’s newfangled house rules: “Never ever ever ever touch the Unicorn.” Other rules include “Don’t ask for a mojito,” “Don’t complain,” and “We play music we like.” That last one includes the tradition of live music played on the bar’s stage, which also got an update. Steve “Frog” Forgey leads Frog & the Beeftones, which served as the unofficial house band for Unicorn Tavern. On Friday he’ll christen the new stage at 9 p.m. with his trio, Fragment of Soul.
“It would have been great if Tommy could have run it until he was 1,000 years old, but that didn’t happen,” Forgey said. “A lot of us (performers) were worried when we heard the Unicorn was closing, that everything we’d built up for all these years was gone. But Pat and his team have assured me that they want to keep the (live music aspect) going. They seem really excited about they’re doing, so that’s a good indicator. It will never be exactly like it was, but will it have the same vibe? We really hope so.”
Forgey said Frog & the Beeftones will continue the tradition of Thursday night performances starting in July. One tradition that won’t be carried over will be the bar’s early morning opening time, a callback to the Unicorn’s history as a shift bar. The new first call won’t be until early afternoon on weekdays and noon on Saturdays. But it’s clear that Gillespie sees himself as a guardian to the establishment’s heritage.
“We’re putting up a photo of Tommy behind the bar, and we never would have used the name ‘Unicorn’ without the blessing of his family,” Gillespie said. “We’re just doing a little modernizing and trying to get another (34 years) out of it.”
Unicorn Lounge 327 E. Grand River Ave., Lansing 3 p.m.-1 a.m. Monday-Friday; noon-1 a.m. Saturday; closed Sunday (517) 485-9910, unicornoldtown. com
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