Indie Awards: Depot Town saved by napkins

By  |  0 Comments

Finalist: Washtenaw Soul

Sidetrack Bar and Grill

Linda French, owner, left; Alyssa Knope, manager, and Harry Tanielian, general manager

Linda French, owner, left; Alyssa Knope, manager, and Harry Tanielian, general manager | Photo by Benjamin Weatherston

Linda French knows how to change the clientele in a bar.

When she bought Sidetrack Bar and Grill in Ypsilanti’s Depot Town 35 years ago, she says, “It was a redneck bar. Before that it was a railroad bar. We cleaned it up. We changed the clientele by putting down a napkin and getting rid of Budweiser.”

But Sidetrack never got too fancy. Its main staple over the years has always been beer; 24 kinds are currently available and there are plans to add 10 more. “The name of the game is to give people what they want,” French said. “They don’t want to feel like they’re getting shaken down.”

One could argue that the napkins and beer decision not only changed the restaurant, but changed Depot Town. When French bought the Sidetrack building in 1979 for $35,000, she remembers, “People would not come to this area. It was scary, with motorcycle gangs. We all wore buttons, ‘Save Depot Town.’ Banks wouldn’t loan money to businesses here.”

Today, Depot Town is a thriving commercial area and many give Sidetrack, and French, credit for paving the way.

The Sidetrack building has been a bar since 1850 —except during Prohibition, when it was a speakeasy —and has had only five owners during that stretch.

Harry Tanielian has been general manager of Sidetrack for eight months. Born in Beirut, he came to Ypsilanti via San Francisco after his wife got a job at U-M. Once he found out about a job opening at Sidetrack and met French, he says, his future was never in doubt.

“I just love working with Linda. We just kind of connected,” he said, “I’ve tried restaurants all over the world. The first day I got here I ordered the food and was blown away. … We’re a scratch kitchen but very simple. We know who we are.”

But Tanielian has made one concession to “fancy” since arriving; he started a wine list. “And we’re actually selling a ton of wine,” he said.

Don’t get any big ideas, French said: “We’re a beer bar.”

Kyle Poplin

Kyle Poplin is co-founder and editor of The Ann magazine.