Foodie Finds: Bay City’s Old City Hall

by Julie Royce / Oct 16, 2009 /
Julie Royce's picture

Bay City’s Old City Hall Has a Special Table Waiting for You

 

An ordinary storefront façade belies extraordinary culinary delights waiting to gratify hungry diners inside Old City Hall Restaurant in Bay City, Michigan.

 

Bay City's Old City Hall Restaurant

 

Located at 814 Saginaw Street in Hell’s Half Mile, this eatery and watering hole offers a menu that gets taste buds jumping in anticipation. Both the blue jeans, t-shirted crowd and the suits find this a top-notch spot to unwind and enjoy a dinner, a drink or just an appetizer. Along with a bodacious menu you will find a friendly and helpful waitstaff, an extensive wine list (more than 150 from around the world), domestic and imported beer (several on tap including some fine Michigan brews), and a history worthy its own novel.


A friend, born and raised in Bay City, turned me on to the Old City Hall Restaurant and joined me there for a leisurely late lunch. Our first dilemma was what to order from the multitude of intriguing options. We enlisted a bit of assistance. We had arrived mid-afternoon and mid-week so had the advantage of garnering Chef Fred Garcia’s undivided attention. Garcia is a professionally trained chef with a long history of pleasing palates. He has written several cookbooks and taught local cooking classes. This is not his first stint at Old City Hall Restaurant, but his return four months ago brought patron approval for his lower prices and delicious new dishes.


Fred recommended some of his personal favorites. Listening to his enthusiasm, I began wishing my stomach was triple its normal size – not something I often desire! At his suggestion we began with Sesame Crusted Seared Tuna, prepared rare, thin sliced and served with fresh greens, spicy Asian dressing and a garnish of wasabi sauce. It was a joyful experience.
It was so good in fact that I almost hated to sully my mouth with another morsel, fearing it could not live up to the standard now set. But forge on we did. My friend ordered the Thai Lettuce Wrap and I opted for the Amaretto Almond Pork Tenderloin. Neither entrée disappointed and I snuck several bites of the wrap between forkfuls of my pork. If I had to choose between the two I would likely go with the Thai Lettuce Wrap next time. That is not meant to disparage the tenderloin in any way, but the Thai wrap is an exquisite commingling of crunchy, sweet, savory, and spicy sensations bombarding your taste from all directions. From the earthy shiitake mushrooms to the tender chicken to the mild Thai sauce you will be besieged by one delectable flavor after another.


Next came the disappointing moment of our afternoon adventure – I could eat no more. That meant I would have to wait until next time to order the Grilled Chicken Nachos or Crab Cake appetizers and the Artichoke Chicken or Pasta Portifino (shrimp, mushrooms and sea scallops in a lobster cream sauce) entrees. Again I will need to take a companion so we can trade bites.
When our stomachs called a halt to eating, we turned our attention to a bit of colorful local history.

 

Bay City, perched on the Saginaw River, is connected to Lake Huron giving it a shipping route that was critical during Michigan’s lumbering era. Locals argue that the legend of Paul Bunyan started here, based on real-life logger Fabian Joe Fournier who spent time in Hell’s Half Mile. It is a yarn that is easy to believe when set against the known facts.


In the late 1800s and early 1900s crime ran rampant in Bay City’s notorious Hell’s Half Mile - six blocks of the roughest and most violent real estate in the country. Millions of dollars in often illegal business transactions exchanged hands there every month. To contend with the burgeoning corruption Old City Hall was built in 1891 in the heart of Hell’s Half Mile. The building, although one structure, had (and still has) two addresses on Saginaw Street. One address housed the police department (today the main restaurant) and the other the fire department (today the lounge). Above both were the judicial chambers and courthouse. In the catacombs beneath the building ran a series of tunnels that connected them to other businesses in Hell’s Half Mile. From Old City Hall’s basement you can still see an entrance to those tunnels. A criminal dodging the police, or perhaps an even more dangerous assailant, had merely to enlist the aid of a friend with access to the tunnels and from those passageways effectuate an easy escape.


Bay City grew as a center for lumber barons and ship builders during its early days and Hell’s Half Mile drew thousands of loggers ready to party each spring. For nine months they had been holed up in the backwoods spending every daylight hour in backbreaking tree-chopping drudgery. Their pockets were full of cash from their labor. They hadn’t bathed since they left town the previous fall and likely had not seen a woman in an equal period of time. They were eager to return to civilization’s jumping saloons and the bawdy brothels of Hell’s Half Mile where hundreds of willing prostitutes waited to separate them from their cash.


It seems reasonable that such a tough and rowdy area witnessed many violent deaths and the spirits of some of those victims still wander the buildings and tunnels of Hell’s Half Mile today. One of the best-known houses of prostitution was Holy Old Mackinaw which boasted a trap door for dropping the occasional unfortunate lumberjack, drugged and robbed, into the river. The ghosts of slain floaters walk the area bemoaning their misfortune while the apparition of Canada Em, a pretty young woman who died in a jail cell in Old City Hall, is seen hovering about the building.


When the new City Hall was built and the old one closed, the building went through a variety of transformations. It the 50s it opened as the Avon Bar and in the 70s it was the Heritage. When the Heritage closed, the building remained vacant for many years and during that time the occasional visiting circus appropriated the vacant structure to house its animals. In the mid-80s it was again opened as a bar. In 1997 Dave Dittenber fulfilled a dream and opened his Old City Hall Restaurant and Lounge. More than a decade later it is still going strong as one of the finest restaurants in Michigan.


Old City Hall Restaurant is open Monday 5:00 pm to 11:00 pm, Tuesday to Friday 11:30 to 10:00 pm (lounge open later), Saturday 3:00 pm with variable closing and Sundays during the holiday season from noon until 8:00 pm. Additional information at 989/892-4140 or www.oldcityhallrestaurant.com.

 

Julie Albrecht Royce, Michigan Editor, is the author of Traveling Michigan's Sunset Coast and Traveling Michigan's Thumb, both published by Thunder Bay Press. She writes a bi-weekly column (monthly in winter) for wanderingeducators.com, entitled Michigan's Small Town Treasures.

 

This is part of Wanderfood Wednesday at Wanderlust & Lipstick. Head over and explore food from all around the world!

 

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