Mr. President: A cocktail lounge for the over-30 crowd

After being closed for 14 years Mr. President Restaurant and Lounge is back in business.
Steve Jones is a Quentin Tarantino fan.

Visiting Mr. President Restaurant and Lounge in Kalamazoo (known by locals as Mr. President's), it's hard to not think of the '70s-style bar in "Pulp Fiction" where deals went down to Al Green's "Let's Stay Together," or the Cockatoo Inn in "Jackie Brown."

Mr. President's manager Jones describes a DVD extra scene from his copy of "Jackie Brown." Bad characters played by Samuel L. Jackson and Robert De Niro meet at the Cockatoo.

"This, my friend, is a cocktail lounge. They don't make them like this anymore....  Now everything is pizza and f---in' sports bars. Beer drinkers," Jones paraphrases De Niro's lines, and laughs.

This Kalamazoo cocktail lounge at 304 N. Burdick St., Kalamazo reopened late last summer after 14 years closed. It has been refurbished, but it still feels like time has stopped inside. Jones and his uncle, building owner Fred Jones, are betting that now, thanks to more people living and visiting downtown, they'll get a clientele looking for an adult spot to eat, drink and dance.

To keep it adult, after 9 p.m. the lounge enforces a dress code, and no one under 30 will be admitted.

Jones hopes to get "people who want to be in an adult environment. There's enough college bars. Where does someone go to dance if they're 45 years old?"

It seems counterintuitive. Kalamazoo's nightlife is dominated by brew pubs, sports bars lined with TVs and nightclubs dominated by bands and DJ's, all designed to drain the money from partying students of the college town.

You want to ride a mechanical bull? Sample all the products of Kalamazoo's breweries? Be in a room of boisterous and loud 20-somethings singing ironically to Toto's "Africa" on the jukebox? Get blown away by a blasting metal/grindcore/garage/free-jazz band? You can.

And now that Mr. President's has reopened, you can have a quieter night with cocktails at an urban lounge among a more-mature clientele. No pizza, but you can get a mean pulled pork or burnt ends, with a side of fried okra, from the kitchen.

You have to hunt for Mr. President's flat screen TVs. Otherwise, it's straight out of the '70s, all rich dark wood, lights from chandeliers and sconces, and mirrors covering the walls. Very little natural light slips in. All the mirrors, multiple rooms and seating areas give it a labyrinth quality. Two rooms are dominated by horseshoe bars with padded railing. You've got a choice -- sit near the DJ booth/stage/dance floor area, the source of '70s-'80s R&B hits and deep cuts, and occasional jazz or oldies group, or find a quiet corner. A gold disco ball hangs over the dance floor.

Is there any other place like this in town? "No. There's not any place like this around," Jones says.

Guests tell him it reminds them of another era. "There was an era where you had fantastic nightclubs."

From Another Era

Fred Jones originally opened the club in 1973, after having run the Ambassador Lounge on Paterson Street since 1961. Steve remembers being a kid there, sneaking maraschino cherries and seeing his cousin Narada Michael Walden (later renown drummer, singer/songwriter and producer for artists such as Whitney Houston) playing with Joel Brooks' (now pastor at Christian Life Center) band.

While a student at Battle Creek Central in 1974, he started work at Mr. President's as a dishwasher. He got further involved in the business in 1977, when he was attending WMU.

Mr. President's was originally a supper club, with "fine dining, live entertainment.... We evolved into being, during the disco era, a downtown urban nightclub, and was extremely successful for a long time."

"People appreciated how we ran the place. We always had a dress code, always had security, tried to do everything first class." And they had lines out the door weekends. "The dance floor would be full, all night long."

They thrived in the '80s, but in the '90s there were signs of change, and it was another world in 2000. The neighborhood of Eleanor and North Burdick lost Flipside Records and Missia's Bar and Grill. Redevelopment brought in a parking garage, Kalamazoo Valley Community College's Arcadia campus and the Kalamazoo Valley Museum. A nearby parking lot underwent a transformation as the Arcadia Creek Festival Place, site of nearly-weekly summer music and food fests.

In 2000, "We were going to close for eight weeks, and eight weeks turned into 14 years," Jones says.

His uncle needed to focus on his other business, the Checker Cab/Yellow Cab Car Service."When you're a small-business person, you're putting fires out all the time," Steve Jones says. He went to Florida to work on an internet business, and the lounge was put up for sale.
In This Era

Rumors were that they put a pretty large price tag on the building, but Jones won't go into the details. "There were some deals that did not materialize. When you have something like this, the best way to describe it is, a lot of people want to buy it, but they can't afford it. And the people who can afford it, don't want to pay for it," he says, and laughs.

Outside the empty bar, changes in Kalamazoo continued. More loft and condos opened up downtown. Art Hops, festivals, and all of those young-people clubs brought more traffic on the weekends. If there are people not into the nightclub life, at the rear of Mr. President's, facing the festival site, is their new Lil' Smokies Back Door BBQ. The food counter should be open by the summer to tempt festival goers and downtown workers.

Jones listed all of the above as reasons to open. But, mainly, "The reason we decided to open is, we felt the community needed it." People have told him, "we need a place where adults could go..... We don't want to go to the Wild Bull, we don't want to go any place where there's a bunch of 21-year-olds."

He is a realist about opening a place that is truly retro. It's a nostalgia thing --"people capturing a better time in their life. And the reality is, that the customers that we had 20 years ago are all 20 years older. And a lot of them are beyond the range of doing this anymore."

Those who partied in the '70s, '80s or '90s aren't going to be out every weekend in the '10s. "But they come and they love it."

Thanks to the bitter cold, "the winter was rough. It was rough for everybody," he says. But, overall since reopening, "business has been good."

Jones is hoping for a newer, and more-diverse, audience. "Traditionally, people who've been from Kalamazoo years ago, they still perceive us as being an all-black, urban nightclub," he says. "This is 2015, it's a different day. Everybody's always been welcome here."

Mr. President's now has a chance to be a neighborhood bar/restaurant, with actual neighbors. "When we were here before, nobody lived downtown. It's different now. A lot of our neighbors come over, they're happy we're here. It's a non-color issue."

For the first of two visits by this writer there was a diverse crowd enjoying "Alison Wonderland," singing bartender Alison Cole backed by guitarist David Lloyd Greeley. Between pouring drinks and singing songs ranging from Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine" to Grateful Dead's "Friend of the Devil," she says of her regular (Wednesdays, 5 p.m.-7:30 p.m.) gig, "I love it.... I really like the atmosphere a lot. It feels warm to me."

The second visit was an early Saturday evening, and although we unexpectedly crashed a private birthday party, we were warmly welcomed. We were seated in the main bar, to enjoy cocktails and a plate of BBQ and fried wings as regulars arrived. The the perfect soundtrack, not too loud, came from the DJ booth. It could've been Tarantino-selected -- when was the last time you heard John Handy's 1976 jazz/funk groove, "Hard Work," played in public?

It's clear, for Jones, there was another reason they needed to reopen. "The greatest thing about being here, always was, we were always able to bring young people here and teach them how to do something. That's what this whole journey is about. This journey is about what we've given back to our community," he says.

They reopened with around nine servers, with most having never worked in restaurants. "We took the time to teach them how to be a server.... Not many businesses would take an African American with no experience as a server or bartender, and take the time to train them."

Jones points to framed photo on wall, of a Mr. Ardel. "He was a professional waiter," Jones says, since the 1940s, and was with the Ambassador and Mr. President's for nearly 40 years. He lived "back in the time when people were professional waiters. That's what they did for a living. Professional bartenders.... We were fortunate to have people like this when we started."

Mr. Ardel's photo includes his favorite quote, "A man that doesn't stand for something, will fall for anything."

Are there any other African American-owned lounges, bars or restaurants in Kalamazoo? Jones pauses for a while before answering. "Not anymore. There was an American Legion post on North Burdick.... At one time, there were probably five or six places," he says.

"Being here in the rustbelt, manufacturing jobs dried up, people with disposable incomes left, a lot of that dynamic has changed."

But the dynamics of downtown Kalamazoo life keep changing. Mr. President's is betting that changes could bring back a vibrant urban world that they can be part of.

Mark Wedel is a Kalamazoo freelance writer since 1992. He has been in nightclubs from Kevelaer, Germany to New York City, Chicago and most of the quality venues of New Orleans. 

Photos by
Susan Andress.

Mr. President Restaurant and Lounge

304 N. Burdick St., Kalamazoo


Hours: 4 p.m.-midnight Wednesdays and Thursdays, 4 p.m.-2 a.m. Fridays-Saturdays.

On the web: Here 

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