Imperial House, a simple pleasure
Out with the old, in with the new - it’s a truer cliché than ever before thanks to millennials and the iGeneration who can hardly wait a minute for the next hip vegan restaurant or the latest Apple software update.
I’m guilty of it, too - Jay-Z’s “On to the Next One” is like my journalistic anthem - minus the stacks of cash, yachts and whatnot.
But somewhere in the shadows of our demanding social media lives, there’s a voice calling out, nagging for a return to simpler times. Maybe it’s you’re since-passed grandpa, rolling over in his grave at the thought of “what kids today consider a night out on the town!”
If only for the night, ignore your yoga-mantra-clogged Facebook feed, toss the notion of being “present” out the window, and pay a visit to The Imperial House Continental Restaurant - a place that hasn’t changed much since its 1969 inception.
The best time to visit this local institution is on a Friday or Saturday night. Start off with a tableside-prepared dinner in the main restaurant, and save room for dessert with a performance from crooner Rick Lyon (9 p.m. to 1:30 a.m.), whose repertoire of hits - circa, well, probably before you were born - permeate the dim lounge where stiff drinks and dancing flow.
First, cozy up in a raised, shiny-red vinyl booth at this dying breed of white-tablecloth restaurants, and opt for anything prepared right in front of you. Steak Diane is one such midcentury, tableside classic: a pan-seared steak, noted for its rich gravy, flambé finish. It tastes like yesteryear in the best of ways, second only to a huge portion of tender rack of lamb, complete with a side of emerald green mint jelly.
Chances are, it’s the food you’ll remember from early childhood, and looking around the restaurant, just about everything fits that bill from the dark wood and chandeliers to the lounge one room over.
However stuck in the past performer Rick Lyon might seem, like Jay-Z, he’s made the blueprint for all acts to follow - at Imperial House, anyway - after performing there for more than a decade. And, the similarities stop there.
“I don’t sing Beyonce,” Lyon barked into the mic one night, looking at his request pad with disapproval. Until someone forks over a buck for a song, Lyon will keep on covering his favorite Neil Diamond tunes - which doesn’t include “Sweet Caroline,” despite it being an audience sing-along favorite. I guess even for Lyon, songs can be played out.
Though crotchety and outlandish at times, he’s the beloved mainstay here - to the point of audiences young and old making sure to follow how Lyon likes to run his show. Requests aren’t for free; the request pad (or anything else on the piano for that matter) must stay put; and singing along is on a case-by-case basis only. If you decide to move in a little close, you should be able to tell by Lyon’s body language whether he’s feeling it or not.
First-timers should grab a stiff drink from a debonair bartender, post up in yet another shiny booth, this time facing Lyon, and just watch for a bit. You’re sure to be entertained, relaxed, or borderline sleepy, depending on the crowd. It’s most lively after 10 p.m.
You might need a little something to soak up these stiff, old-fashioned cocktails at some point, in which case, the lounge offers a late night menu that’s served till midnight. Loaded potato skins, sliders, quesadillas and chicken wings make up most of the options, but lackluster bar food is far from a mark against this place.
It is widely regarded as a cultural institution thanks to Lyon’s character as a performer, and his kinship with audiences on and off-stage. As you look around the place, when it’s in full swing, you can’t help but feel the warm and fuzzies watching old and young dance and sing along in unison.
“Everyone is here for their own reasons,” said one bar-goer. “Maybe it makes the old feel young, or reminds younger people of their grandparents. Yeah, you might think funny things and laugh - but this isn’t like high school where different groups of people tease one another.
“Seeing old people sing with a gleam in their eyes is heartwarming, period.”
Imperial House: 505 Kalmia St., Bankers Hill. (619) 234-3525 or imperialhouse.net
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