As tavern flourishes, Payton keeps investing in downtown Port Huron business

Jeff Payton is excited to serve up new dishes for his customers.
After two years of restoring the site of the former F.W. Woolworth and S.S. Kresge stores, Jeff Payton opened the Vintage Tavern. Upon opening, he figured the downtown area in Port Huron would take off.

"I expected things to take off in Port Huron area years before now," he says. "May is our 12-year anniversary, and I thought back then that it would do so after about five or six years. I was getting worried.”

Payton says now that there are so many great things happening in the area. "Larry Jones is opening his 19 loft apartments, the City Flats Hotel is about to open, the Harrington Inn, the Convention Center—it’s really coming together," he says.

Vintage Tavern is a staple for many who enjoy dining in downtown Port HuronEventually, the current downtown Renaissance that the city is experiencing started contributing to the crowds at the restaurant. It has become one of Port Huron’s favorite establishments for upscale dining.

The polished vibe is due to locally sourced ingredients and materials, and an owner who is always striving to make customers happy.

"I usually steer in the direction that our customers want to see," says Payton.

That current direction is making sure there are healthier options on the menu for those customers, such as vegetarian and gluten-free dishes.

"We’re going to continue to offer healthy alternatives," says Payton. "Port Huron is kind of lacking in that department. There are sub shops, delis, Tex-Mex. We are looking to offer those gluten-free options, plant proteins, vegetarian options.”

A new favorite, the Chana Masala, an Indian dish of tomatoes, chickpeas, and traditional Indian spices, is gaining in popularity.

"We have a healthier fry oil that we are using, we source a higher quality of chicken—no hormones; beef is a choice cut," says Payton. "I try to select a higher grade, and that is a little more expensive."

Some of the other favorite dishes include beef tenderloin, beef tips with teriyaki, and halibut.

Payton says he also makes sure to have a professional, friendly and knowledgeable staff of servers to help customers have a Guests are greeted by a unique entrance at Vintage Taverntruly great experience.

"I make sure the waiters are trained properly," he says. "And that they are veterans, with 3-4 years of experience in hospitality or restaurants.”

Other highlights include three fireplaces, stained glass windows, the original tin ceiling, hardwood floors, and a roof deck with views of the St. Clair River and Canada.

"It’s really the only outdoor rooftop in Port Huron," says Payton. "It was a good addition, but it was risky, and a scary addition. It was quite pricey and a major undertaking, but we did it properly, and the customer base in Port Huron enjoys it. It’s the busiest area in the summer."

In addition to the rooftop seating area, the tavern also offers spirits—and not the alcoholic kind. During construction of the 1800’s building, Payton had a brief encounter with a couple of otherworldly figures.

"It depends on your take," he says. "I don’t believe in that stuff, but I saw what I saw," he says. "It was a strange occurrence that I can’t explain."

Great views of the water are a dining perk.During construction and renovation of the building, Payton was working on an overloaded circuit and needed a flashlight. He had cut himself on some shredded ductwork, and suddenly, there were two figures in front of him.

"There they were," he says. "They were translucent. It was really quick, just a second or two. They weren’t scared. They were gone in an instant."

He says he couldn’t really wrap his head around it and ended up leaving early. According to him and other members of the staff, other small occurrences have happened, as well.

"The girls will have to go to the roof, and it’s closed now, but they will have to get a beer or something from the bar,"he says.

"They came back and said to me ‘I’m not going in there alone.’"

Vintage Tavern hosted "Motor City Ghost Hunters" in spring 2014 to take readings.

"They definitely felt a presence," Payton says. "Not sure what, but it was the mild, harmless presence of two spirits."

As far as that possibly scaring customers off, it mostly has given the Tavern a good reputation. He says that people ask himGood friends and great wine combine for a good time. often if the building is really haunted.

"I don’t mind running with that," he says. "Because if that intrigues people, I’m all in."

Besides offering a ghostly experience to the community, he also likes to help in other areas, especially with fundraisers and local nonprofits.

"I get involved as much as I can," he says. "The city is doing great. In the not-so-distant past, we only had a few events out there-Boat Week, the Silver Sticks, St. Paddy’s pub crawl. Now, I have to pay attention to the calendar, between McMoran Place, and the Convention Center."

Payton gets involved with local programs such as March of Dimes, Humane Society, Salvation Army, food banks, and more.

"I love doing those things," he says. "It’s important to be an active member of the community. If I can help someone in need, whether that is for cancer, children, I am first on the list to offer support."

The Vintage Tavern is located at 103 Michigan St. in Downtown Port Huron. For more information, visit http://vintagetavern.net/.
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