Step across the threshold of Empire Italian Chophouse and travel back in time to the 1940s.
Orange and green – popular colors from the decade – cover the walls of the restaurant, known in 1947 as the Empire Steakhouse, said Chef Rich Abila, who owns the restaurant. Ostrich feathers in brass-like vases serve as dining table centerpieces. Chandeliers from 1947 hang from the ceiling. Even the menu reflects the theme, featuring 1940s staples such as Pineapple BBQ Franks and Baked Four Cheese Macaroni.
Sous-Chef John Shay said during World War II and immediately after, ingredients were hard to find. “They didn’t have a lot of resources, so they were really creative.” Families sought inexpensive recipes that could feed an entire family.”
Although the Empire Italian Chophouse has been around little more than a year, Abila is no stranger to restaurants. In 2013, Abila opened Café Cremosi in a small diner near where Empire Italian Chophouse operates. Prior to Café Cremosi, Abila worked in Detroit-area Italian restaurants for years. He moved to this area to help his family after the death of his cousin. His team includes Shay and Sous-Chef Abby Coplin. Coplin is also Abila’s fiancé.
Since 2013, people have told him his concept is too high-end for Bay City.
“I was always told when I got here, ‘No, that’s not going to go over. If you can’t sell a burger in this town, you’re not going to make it,’ “ Abila recalled.
Today, he’s delighted to have proven the naysayers wrong. “It’s been growing and it hasn’t stopped. It’s been great. I love Bay City. Everything in Bay City just has so much potential We’ve been asked to move to Frankenmuth, Midland, even Saginaw, but I’m just like ‘Nah. I think this is the spot.’ “
When Café Cremosi outgrew its original space, Abila moved to two different West Side locations before settling at 1205 Washington Ave., a building connected to Washington Lanes. Abila extensively renovated the space before opening the Empire Italian Chophouse in June 2018. He changed the name of his restaurant to reflect the building's history.
He also changed the menu to include classic dishes that required slightly less prep time without sacrificing quality or raising prices. Everything is still prepared from scratch each day, Abila said. “I want everybody to have the dining experience and keep the price reasonable.”
Today, Abila offers dishes such as Adriatico Oregonata -- crafted from lobster tail, king crab, whitetail shrimp, sea bass, salmon, bluefin tuna, cod, and green lip mussels – alongside Italian classics such as Eggplant Parmesan, Chicken Marsala, and Baked Lasagna. Filet Mignon, French Marbled Pork Chops, and more round out the menu. He plans to add ice cream and gelato this summer. He's also planning on a special Adult Banana Split as well as Tiramisu soaked in limoncello.
To offer individualized attention, he staffs each table with two servers. Each person gets an individual entrée, but tables have to agree on two family-style side dishes. “People are getting used to that,” Abila admitted. But he also sees the discussion about side dishes launching interesting dinner conversations.
Whatever you order at Empire, you can be certain it’s unique. Abila stocks his bar with wines not available anywhere else in the area. His craft beer selection draws customers in from the bowling alley next door. He makes homemade meatballs and brings in specialty items from Detroit and from abroad.
If he can’t get an ingredient from his preferred supplier, then he removes it from the menu for the day. “If we run out of something, it’s OK. Everything is fresh. We prep every day. That’s what separates us,” Abila said.
Out-of-towners are noticing the restaurant. Abila said his clientele is about 30% from Bay City. The rest of his customers drive in from the region. He’d like that to change. Abila and his staff are trying to get word out to his Café Cremosi customers that he’s back with a different name.
He’s also hosting a Celtic group every Tuesday night. The group used to perform at the Stein Haus. A unique recessed ceiling in the center of the lounge offers unusual acoustics for the group. They’ve attracted a following.
On the immediate horizon is a re-vamped lunch menu. Shay and Abila are considering serving sliders on ciabatta bread, coleslaw, potato salad, and other classics popular in the 1940s. He also plans on upgrading the bathrooms, a banquet room, and the exterior in the future. He’s still working on specific plans, but expects to keep the 1940s theme going.
“I just think Bay City needs something like this,” Abila said. “People say it’s a burger town, but I don’t buy it. “
Click here to learn more about the Empire Italian Chophouse.