Beer & board

Oct 17, 2007 at 12:00 am

Emory Johnston has been immortalized. It's not just his name that adorns the exterior of this recent Ferndale bar and grill. Hardwood culled from his Ohio farm have been incorporated into the Emory's custom-made chairs and bar stools, made into a stacked-plank bar back and even used to frame the windows. This was built to be the kind of place Emory's great-grandchildren, Grant and Chris Johnston, and their partners, Brian Reedy and Krista Johnston, want to hang out at. You can almost imagine Emory himself sitting there, a beer and burger in front of him.

The rich chocolate color of the outside brick continues throughout the interior, including the family-style semicircular booths that line the spacious room, which is anchored by a long and attractive bar and ably carved up, with room for billiards and a jukebox, a corner where windows face busy Woodward Avenue, or cozy nooks warmly lit with strings of hip light fixtures.

A highlight of the lunch and dinner menu is a plate of sliders. These little celebrations sport a heap of sweet caramelized onions and a side of au jus for dipping. For something slightly lighter, try the crisp cherry walnut salad — slightly lighter only because it's topped by a mound of bacon bits that's about the size of a softball.

Other salads range from the house variety to the interesting beef-and-fried-okra. Burgers choices include vegetarian black bean with a side of hand-cut fries. Sandwich options range from the sensible grilled veggie sandwich to the hedonistic pot roast sandwich with au jus and a side of crispy onion rings. The chicken tenders are — well, chicken tenders. The pizza amounts to thick, well-seasoned focaccia bread heaped with toppings like whole-milk mozzarella and then baked to a crunch. It's certainly a kid-pleaser or a suitable base for a night of carousing.

The Emory doesn't offer a children's menu, but will often accommodate a toddler with a smaller portion size or at least a cup with a lid. Family dining gets slightly more difficult in direct proportion to the setting of the sun. After all, the Emory is a bar too. Cocktails are standard. Compensating for the minimal wine list (dominated by a few single varietals), a diverse beer menu includes everything from standards to American microbrews to Belgian Trappist ales. A focus on beer weds well with the menu of burgers, pizza and sandwiches.

Chris Johnston doesn't mind the Emory being labeled a burger joint. When deciding what type of food to serve at the restaurant, he knew there weren't going to be any $20 entrées. "We just wanted to make really simple food, really good," Johnston says, "and overdeliver in any way we can."

This concept is most obvious on weekend mornings when you're digging into a plate of huevos rancheros: two crispy corn tortillas layered with black bean spread, a generous dose of sautéed peppers and onions, eggs sunny-side-up and topped with melted cheddar. On the side are potatoes, baked and then flash-fried crispy on the outside and sprinkled with large chunks of onion and pepper. The other side of the plate is reserved for avocado slices and mandarin orange wedges. Wash it down with a creation from the well-stocked Bloody Mary bar and it's certain the rest of the day will unfold in your favor.

Other Mexican-inspired breakfast options are burritos and a heaping plate of nachos. Eggs Benedict and biscuits and gravy fill out the more exotic portion of the menu. Vanilla cinnamon French toast is thick and abundant. Buttermilk pancakes are airy and light and take on maple syrup without getting soggy. Omelets are offered by region, starting in California then moving through the West, down South and finishing with asparagus and roasted red pepper. For a tippler's breakfast, try pairing these sumptuous egg dishes with a premium beer, such as the bar's spicy Orval Trappist.

Reedy and the Johnstons employ about 80 people between the Emory and adjacent, decade-old Ferndale fixture, Woodward Avenue Brewers. Though they joke about playing "Ferndale Monopoly," these business owners aren't just invested in their community but in the earth as well. They recycle everything. Chris Johnston recently purchased a '95 Chevrolet Suburban retrofitted to use the Emory's leftover deep-fry oil as fuel — zero trans fat, of course. Carryout gets placed into containers made from sugarcane fibers that easily biodegrade in a compost pile. The partners' new venture, a billiards hall connected to WAB, will even have a receycled name, borrowed from the massage parlor that occupied the WAB building in the 1970s: "The Loving Touch" — a name suggesting certain pleasures slightly beyond the confines of legality.

Todd Abrams is a freelance writer about food. Send comments to [email protected].