Out of the park

Baseball-themed lounge enlivens Detroit's Cultural Center

With Kenny Rogers retired, Dontrelle Willis on the DL, and Nate Robertson in long-relief, the Tigers starting rotation is composed exclusively of right-handers. Tiger fans who had hoped for more from the port side will have to make do with southpaws Dave Marcon and Ron Way, two former big-league prospects who are now making their deliveries at Lefty's Lounge, a sports bar on the campus of Wayne State University. Marcon takes time out to pitch batting practice at Comerica. Both lefties who played together in college, they made it to Double A before injuries cut short their promising careers.

Lefty's, which opened last June, occupies a good portion of the ground floor of the Belcrest, a massive Romanesque building that was an upscale residential hotel when it opened in 1926; it's now on the National Register of Historic Places. Marcon bought the entire building in 2004 and opened the lounge last June. In its previous incarnation as Mad Anthony Wayne's several decades ago, Lefty's was a cozy bar that became a sedate meeting place for WSU social-work students, among others, from across the street. Far more bustling now, the lounge is decorated with beer paraphernalia and 14 flat-screen TVs, seating around 80 with space for 30 on a patio overlooking the Belcrest's renowned art-deco swimming pool.

Unlike full-service restaurants in sports bars, such as the Broadcast Booth and Harry's, Lefty's is primarily a watering hole that features a wide variety of items that fall under the bar-food rubric. This means that patrons should not expect house-made dressings, artisanal bread or elaborate preparations, even though Gary, one of the cooks, interned at the Golden Mushroom when he was in high school. On the other hand, many of the dishes created in-house are first-rate, with the exemplary beef, for example, fresh from Eastern Market.

I would skip the chili from Cheli's and the soup from Campbell's (!) and begin with Lefty's large Cobb salad ($7.50), enhanced with tender grilled chicken strips instead of the usual chopped meat. Ignore the fact that the name has nothing to do with the greatest Tiger of them all; it was invented in 1937, after Ty retired, by the Cobb who owned Hollywood's legendary Brown Derby. Under the same menu category, "In the Outfield," are chef's, Greek and garden salads, all of which come with dressing packets from outfits like Niki's and Marzetti's.

"In the Bullpen" is where to find sandwiches and wraps that include a healthy Greek veggie wrap bursting with feta, beets, onions, olives, cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers. A "Rally Cap" BLT, "Stolen Base" subs, and half-sandwich-and-soup combos ($6.95) are among those warming up in this part of the virtual ballpark.

Pizza, a contender for culinary excellence, appropriately starts "On the Mound" for Lefty's. The slightly charred thin-crusted beauties approximate foldable New York-style pies. Like virtually everything on the extensive bill of fare, they are reasonably priced at $8.75 for a 12-incher with one topping.

And it is difficult to find a better burger and beer special at $5.50 (Friday through Sunday), offering an especially juicy half-pounder and a 23-ounce draft. The burgers, which may be ordered in patty-melt and turkey variations, come with decent steak fries (although they were a bit undercooked on one occasion), lettuce, tomato, onion and a pickle.

The mains are anchored by a 14-ounce New York strip, whose recession-busting price ($10.95) belies its quality. Fish and chips (not made in-house), sweet and sour and teriyaki chicken, crab legs and ribs, like the steak, come with soup or salad. The well-prepared meaty and sweet ribs ($11.50), with several spice-level options, pass the falls-easily-from-the-bone test.

Not surprisingly, most of Lefty's patrons are beer drinkers. They are well-served with 17 brews on tap and by the fact that a domestic pint goes for $2.75. The few wine drinkers who wander in have to make do with pours ($4) from jugs of Yellow Tail, a decent vin ordinaire.

As a lounge that touts itself as the official Detroit Tigers sports bar and flaunts a photo of one-time phenom Joel Zumaya on its website, Lefty's could be a bit more playful with the menu, aside from the aforementioned Cobb salad. For example, after a [Paul] Gibson or a [Doyle] Alexander aperitif, with Woody Fryman and Doug Baker in the kitchen, the boys could offer up Tiger [Johnny] Grubb such as [Jason] Grillied [Dizzy] Trout with [Chet] Lemon and [Doug] Brocaili or [Coot] Veal with a Mayo [Smith] dressing, or [Vic] Wurst and boast better cuisine than Howard Johnson's, Denny's [McClain] or Hoot[Ev]ers.

But even without such embellishments, Lefty's fulfills its main purpose.

It is a solid sports bar that contributes to the lively community around Wayne State, which, in recent years, has begun to attract more residential students. Given its proximity to Comerica and the likelihood that the Tigers are better than they were last year, it is also a pleasant spot to while away the hours before and after the games — or during those games, for those who can't afford Comerica's $6.50 beers. You may even get to bend elbows with Tigers players and other professional athletes who frequent the clubhouse.

Mel Small teaches history at Wayne State University. Send comments to [email protected].

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