July 22 2009 12:00 AM

Downtown restaurant and bar gets franks


For a fourth grader, this place is a dream come true. A restaurant menu designed around hot dogs, the ultimate kid food. Pictures of cute dogs on the walls. A pool table. Smoke-free environment. Mammoth back hoes, dump trucks and front-end loaders in action out front, moving earth from A to B. Yeah, there’s just something about gigantic construction machines that captures the imaginations of the young‘uns (and the young at heart). For grown ups, not so much.

“I keep giving hot dogs to the workers out front to try and speed this thing along,” said Matt (who declined to give his last name), the general manager at Downtown Dog House, as he looked out the window. “I’ve been in the restaurant business for 20 years, and never have I been through a challenge like this.”

That challenge consists of the following elements: A.) Opening a new concept restaurant B.) two months before the establishment’s liquor license was approved (no problems, just lots of hoops) on C.) a one-way street that’s completely closed to traffic until September for D.) noisy, dusty construction in E.) a downtown that’s still struggling to stay alive after 5 p.m.

“We found out two weeks before we opened that all this was going to be going on,” said Audrey Orr, who co-owns the restaurant that opened May 22 with several other partners. “Talk about bad timing.”

But some guerilla marketing tactics seem to be helping get people in. On the high traffic corner of Allegan Street and Washington Square, a handmade sign reads “Downtown Dog House Bar Now Open.” At lunch an employee stands guard and hands out copies of the menu and coupons.

“So far, business has been pretty good,” Matt said. “As far as I know, no one’s ever put this concept together. You can have a gourmet hot dog, drink a beer and watch the game. You won’t get a generic hot dog here.”

“We spent a lot of time online looking up hot dog styles in other cities,” Orr said. “I couldn’t believe just how many ways there are to put together a hot dog.”

Downtown Dog House has 18 different dishes made with nearly a half dozen different kinds of dogs, including European brats, Koegel’s franks, Cajun sausages and the only Lansing original on the menu — the “Downtown” Dog.

Also known as the Hamburger Hot Dog, the “Downtown” Dog ($5.99) isn’t actually a hot dog at all. It’s ground beef rolled into a cylinder around oozy cheddar cheese and stuffed into a hot dog bun. Throw some ketchup, mustard, onion and relish on this bad boy, close your eyes and take a bite, and it’s indistinguishable from a hot-off-the-grill burger.

Who knew they had hot dogs in Hawaii? The Honolulu Dog ($4.69) is rolled in ham, grilled with fresh pineapple and topped with shredded Swiss cheese. A little zesty tomato sauce keeps this dog one step away from being a slice of Hawaiian pizza.

Meanwhile, The Chicago Dog ($6.29) may be the most familiar to frankfurter aficionados. A quarter-pound, all-beef Chicago Red Hot is grilled and served in a poppy seed bun, garnished with neon green sweet pickle relish, diced tomatoes and onions, a pickle wedge and three pickled sport peppers. When this writer asked whether it should be eaten with a fork and knife, several sets of eyebrows in the vicinity were raised, so it was picked up and unceremoniously inhaled. (Note: Do not wear your favorite shirt when attempting this.)

For those who prefer to actually know all the ingredients in their food, Downtown Dog House has a selection of non-hot dog appetizers, including fresh salads, loaded baked potatoes, paninis and phenomenal beer-battered, sweet Vidalia onion rings ($6.95). There’s also a rotating selection of homemade soups and chilis.

As for the dog pictures on the walls, Orr said there is an ongoing contest for the best candid photo or drawing. Customers are encouraged to bring in a picture for the staff to frame and hang, and one is picked at the end of each month to receive a donation in his or her name to a charity of the winner’s choice. “We’re trying to make this a fun place to be,” Orr said. “We’ve got a great juke box, we’ve got TVs everywhere, and if you’ve got a taste for hot dogs, these are way, way better than anything you’ll find on a street corner or at a gas station. And the construction will all be done very soon.”

Score one for the grown-ups.

Downtown Dog House, 10:30 a.m. to midnight, Monday through Saturday, closed Sunday. 107 E. Allegan St., Lansing. (517) 316-2312.