Comfort zone

By Joe Torok

New Old Town nightclub offers relaxing vibe, homemade tastes

Ease into a seat at The Chrome Cat on Grand River Avenue in Old Town and let the weight of the world slide off your shoulders as you sip cherry wheat ale from a Mt. Pleasant brewery and spoon comforting mouthfuls of homemade chicken noodle soup or six-bean chipotle chili.

Atmosphere and good food (on a limited menu) is what it’s all about at The Chrome Cat, which is technically a management group and not the actual bar and restaurant, because the liquor license has not yet transferred from Rendezvous on the Grand, the building’s former tenet.

In its spacious confines, which used to house a bank, under a barrel-shaped ceiling, everyone is welcome. The misconception is that The Chrome Cat is a lesbian bar, co-owner Michelle Taylor said, but, along with co-owner Lisa Whitehead, she wants her business to welcome everyone: gay, straight, transgender — heck, even men.

"This was meant to be safe for everybody," she said. "We don’t want to be pegged as one thing or another, but we definitely want to make it a safe place for women to go, kick back, relax, come and hang out."

Part of The Chrome Cat’s genesis came from the demise of former lesbian hangout Club 505 last year. Taylor said a few holdovers, like bingo and other game-themed nights, will remind patrons of Club 505, but an exact replication was never intended. Perhaps the biggest difference from 505, Taylor said, is The Chrome Cat’s no smoking policy, which is intended to complement her partner’s passion for creating and serving great food. "It really isn’t a good mixture," chef Simone Latuszek said.

Choice steaks, fish, sautéed dishes, beef burgundy and a host of other meals will begin to populate The Chrome Cat’s menu once kitchen remodeling is completed, hopefully in April, Taylor said.

Until then, it’s mostly soups (all homemade), salads and sandwiches, and those alone are certainly worth the trip. The six-bean chipotle chili ($3.50 cup/$4.50 bowl) is a crowd pleaser with a subtle, smokey depth and a thinner consistency that helps keep it light. Although she found the chili’s basic ingredients in an online recipe, Latuszek makes it her own with techniques like slowly cooking chipotle peppers in water to deepen the flavor of the dish. "I’ve always been interested in making things better. I hate the idea of making food with the cheapest things you can to make it edible," Latuszek said. She looks to Taylor and continues: "It’s frustrating for us to go out to a restaurant and get mediocre food, because you know it’s not the quality you would cook at home."

The chicken noodle soup ($3.50/$4.50), with large, thick noodles, is another kickbutt comfort food that combines chunks of chicken and carrots in a tasty homemade stock.

The toasted turkey sandwich ($6.50) is served on thick slices of whole wheat Tuscan bread, the kind that retains a slight dusting of flour on its crust. Fresh slices of tomato and onion make the tri-cut sandwich a perfect lunch, but basil pesto spread makes it pop. Latuszek begins with a popular brand of basil pesto, but makes it her own creation by mixing a touch of honey, a bit of mayonnaise to cream it up, then Dijon mustard to give it some complexity. Served as a spread on the sandwich, it also shows up on the side and makes a unique dip for kettle chips served with the meal. "I want something that’s fresh, simple, tasty and healthy for you, but yet not gourmet," she says. "I’ll never be gourmet, I don’t like all that design stuff."

Buying local helps Latuszek keep things fresh. Her pita bread comes from Jerusalem Bakery on Michigan Avenue, and much of her produce is gleaned from Handy’s Market on Willow Street.

Vegan and vegetarian options are also on the menu, and that’s important to a restaurant that strives to be as inclusive as possible.

Different nights will feature different genres of music, although dinner hours will mostly feature jazz and blues. Weekend wine tastings are coming soon, and the wine list is growing every week.

Variety, it would seem, is the spice to life at The Chrome Cat; this is not your mother’s kind of lesbian bar.

"People have an impression when they come in here of what it’s going to be," Taylor said. "And when they come in and kind of relax and see the atmosphere — it’s just fun watching that, because then they get interested and start asking questions."

The Chrome Cat, 226 E. Grand River Ave., Lansing. (517) 505-0408. 1 p.m.midnight Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Friday & Saturday, noon-midnight Sunday.