An elder in the landscape of local bars, the Swingin’ Door Exchange proves that age is only a number.
In an old-timey wood-paneled saloon. A Friday at noon. My bar chair compadres include two construction workers and a business suit, who has thrown his tie over his shoulder. Their orders run from liquid to solid. Between mixing cocktails and wiping down the wooden bartop, the drink-slinger slides a couple of plates my way. Filling out one of them: mesclun greens, sunflower seeds, sliced apples, goat cheese and two thick hunks of beautiful plum-colored beets. On the other – crispy pan-fried tofu.
The Swingin’ Door Exchange inhabits a red-awninged space under one of the city’s most majestic venues, the Grain Exchange Room. The dig’s first incarnation as a bar – called the Exchange Tavern – began in the 1930s. The owner of the neighboring barbershop took over the place in ’67, renaming it the Swingin’ Door. Nowadays, the Door still gets its patty melt and Friday fish fry on, but it’s rolling with the times – packing in a hodgepodge of the hungry, from bike couriers to number-crunchers. Owners KC Swan and Shelly Sincere bought the bar in 2010, putting to use the managerial skills they honed working for more than a decade at the former Slim McGinn’s.
Flipping from a bar that kept patrons fed – casually, not fancily – the couple wanted to keep that rhythm going. KC, moving easily from hunching over soup pots in the back of the house to clapping the backs of regulars out front, inherited a kitchen without bells and whistles. But it doesn’t get in the way of the from-scratch cookery. On Sunday nights, the Door runs a pasta special ($5.95), the red “gravy” a spicy marinara cooked up by KC, along with a homemade Alfredo, garlic butter or a pink sauce (a red gravy-Alfredo hybrid). KC’s repertoire of homemade soups includes chicken mulligatawny, spinach egg drop and roasted eggplant with red wine reduction ($3 and $4.50). Shelly’s beet salad is finished off with a tangy, well-balanced house-made mustard vinaigrette. They definitely deserve props for stepping up the ladder from the low rungs of bar food. But they also don’t rub diners’ faces in it.
It just seems like the right way to treat a bar with such old bones. But don’t try pigeonholing the crowd. Under a speaker pumping out Rolling Stones, a group of stilettoed women, cracking heavily into the Thursday-night crab leg special, sends pieces of shell flying. A heady half-dozen men nearby dabble in beer and burgers, while a couple on the antique settee almost touch noses over a bottle of red wine.
Besides the gift of enveloping darkness that a post-5 p.m. visit brings, there’s a general heat-up in the kitchen. Sandwiches and appetizers – where you’ll find the tasty, firm fried tofu ($5), served with a signature side of thin-sliced, slightly caramelized spicy vermouth carrots – squeeze over to make room for the entrées, which will make you fight for elbow room on the table. If you ixnay the soup, you can get a lovely mesclun greens salad with cucumber and crumbled hard-boiled egg included with your entrée. The carrots will likely be a side on your plate, plus you can choose fries, decent skin-on garlic mashed potatoes or good, crunchy, fresh potato chips. The ribs (half-rack, $13; full, $19) make a saucy appearance. The half-rack is plenty big, generously brushed with sweet, molasses-thick barbecue sauce.
Although it wasn’t medium-rare – or even medium – the ahi tuna steak wasn’t overly dry in its medium-well doneness (one 6-ounce steak, $14; two, $18). Crisp, sweet-salty bacon set the groundwork for a pretty good BLT, slathered with mayo and served on white toast ($7). But too much love from the grill took the half-pound Angus burger ($7 and up) several notches away from the requested medium-rare. On the plus side, I did enjoy the choice of toppings, including the commonplace (cheddar, grilled onions) as well as the singular (goat cheese, Roquefort).
Bicycling garb is a familiar sight inside the Swingin’ Door, the two-wheel transports locked outside even as the snow still flies. Inside, there’s a level of comfort, almost indefinable, that exists under the stained-glass lamps. It was planted long before the new owners took over. Still, consider today’s appealing dichotomy – Buffalo chicken dip and a can of Pabst, Wednesday night all-you-can-eat Thai mussels alongside a cherry-garnished Manhattan. The door is open.
Address: 219 E. Michigan St.
Hours: Mon-Fri 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sat 10 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sun 10 a.m.- 9 p.m
Prices: Appetizers $4-$12; soups, chili $3-$5; salads, sandwiches $4-$10.50; entrées $13-$29
Service: Friendly and fast
Dress: Dark enough that nobody will care
Handicap access: No