Friday, February 19, 2010

ECCO Lounge: Venerable Jeff City Restaurant, Reborn

. . . Again! Reborn again! On this spot has been an uninterrupted string of bar-and-grills since 1860! In the 1800s it was the Farmers’ Home, a hotel and eatery for German-speaking farmers from out in the country, who’d arrive in town with wagonloads of produce and spend the night. The names changed over the years (though not since 1945), but the hospitality has continued unabated.

The ECCO holds warm memories for many in the area, and that’s why so many folks have been flocking to the newly reopened restaurant—that, and the fact that the new owners have done an incredible job of renovating the place while enhancing its historic appeal.

I feel like I ought to be careful here, in my description, not to say anything to offend people—like any previous owners of the business, or smokers. But you know what? This is my blog—I’m not a representative of a newspaper or TV station, so I can speak my mind. In fact, I think my thoughts generally “ECCO” those of most other locals.

The place is definitely cleaned up; I think the new owners, in their rehabilitation of the space, must have had to scrape, and scrape, and scrape! No doubt they also had to haul out all kinds of scary, serious cleansers and strippers (that is, where they didn’t just tear out stuff wholesale), in order to get rid of what must have been the grease of the ages.

What Did They Do?

From what I know, they did a “gut rehab.” They took the walls down to the bricks. They got rid of the drop ceiling and discovered the original, patterned tin ceiling—how cool is that! And nifty retro ceiling fans now dangle above the bar, but they don’t have much to blow around, since the restaurant is now nonsmoking.

Yes, you read that right: Nonsmoking. Unlike how it used to be, you can now stand at one end of the big room and actually see clearly to the other end of the room. Yeah! You can go in there, have a sandwich or a burger and a pint of beer, and emerge without smelling like an ashtray!

If you’re reading this and you’re a smoker, you’re probably “fuming” a little bit about my cheering, but face it: Smoking’s not healthy, and the new owners are simply going along with the evolving views of most Americans. Most of us don’t want to be subjected to smoldering tobacco; it just smells nasty to us. It’s only a matter of time before this city, and most others, enacts ordinances prohibiting smoking in public restaurants.

But I digress. The new owners, Don and Sally Powell and Mark and Anna Ewers, have over the past months accomplished a true transformation of the lounge. I’m sure that they remodeled the kitchen entirely. (Gosh, that must’ve been a frickin’ nightmare; think of the exhaust hood!) In the seating area, there are new tables, booths, and chairs, new walls, and new paint, to go along with a revamped menu.

Meanwhile, they’ve kept the nifty old stuff that used to lure me in the place occasionally these past years, despite the smoke: The large Buddha and a pair of Chinese foo dogs, acquisitions of Earl Childers, who initiated the ECCO incarnation in the early 1940s.

And the bar is still there. (I’ll bet they had to really scrub that thing, too!)

And there’s more: Nifty retro signs of long-defunct Missouri breweries, including Griesedieck Bros. brewery from St. Louis, and Jefferson City’s own Capitol Brewery, which closed in 1947 but had been located right across the intersection from the ECCO since the 1800s.

A very large neon sign for Stag hangs on the back wall, casting a warm red glow. All this stuff came from Don Powell’s “breweriana” collection, I think. (Well, we all need a hobby, right?)

Overall, even though the exterior of the building hasn’t changed much, the ambience of the restaurant has changed drastically. The stale smoke smell and the odor of rancid grease are gone: Gone, gone, gone! The tacky inflatable Budweiser bottles and NASCAR cars no longer hang over the bar.

And the people working there? They seem happy, friendly, and excited. (No offense to anyone, but I have to say that the service in the recent past had not seemed particularly cordial.)

In sum, the ECCO “feels” like a new restaurant. A new, old restaurant. The new caretakers of this landmark did a great job of uncovering and renovating its retro taproom past.

And yes, there’s a good selection of beers on tap, ranging from Anheuser-Busch products (well, this is Missouri) to microbrews and imports. The bar is fully stocked. You will find something to your liking here.

On to the Food!

I had been very curious about this, since the menu hadn’t seemed to have changed much since the fifties. How were they going to continue the tradition of burgers, shrimp baskets, steaks, spaghetti, and the like, while also expanding to include items that would attract, oh, state office workers, people watching their “carbs,” people counting calories?

They did all right; they kept the best and left the rest. They didn’t mess with many of the standbys. I think they kept almost all the old favorites, while adding several different salads (with all the dressings made in-house), new sandwiches, and some trendier seafood and chicken dishes (Chicken Asiago; Spinach-Stuffed Chicken; Southwest Chicken; Pan-Seared Salmon). And there are plenty of other dinner selections; steak, lobster, and so on. They kept the spaghetti on the menu, too!

The ECCO doesn’t pass as a “health-food” restaurant, but there are some reasonable options for people wanting lighter meals. Portobello mushrooms have also now made it onto the menu, as both a vegetarian sandwich with veggies and feta, and as a topping for a burger (with Swiss cheese). I suspect you can request that certain items be omitted.

The ECCO club sandwich is a delicious combination of turkey, bacon, Swiss, sliced apples, and a sweet and spicy mustard. I’ll bet you could order it without the bacon.

A Pastrami Reuben on Rye and a German Bratwurst are much-appreciated nods to the German history of the Munichburg neighborhood, which the ECCO is at the heart of. Another local favorite appears on the dessert menu: vanilla ice cream from Central Dairy, a longtime Munichburg business that is a tourist attraction in its own right.

The pork tenderloin sandwich is apparently one of the big favorites, and it’s available grilled or fried. All the sandwiches and burgers come with chips and a pickle spear. We got an order of onion rings for the table, and they were enormous, sweet, and tasty. I’d get them again for sure.

Here’s Why We Care

I admit a bias and a personal connection to this restaurant in more than one way. For one thing, we live in this neighborhood, and the renovation of this restaurant is part of a long-term, uphill battle in cleaning up this old-town district.

Indeed, that entire block of shops and restaurants, running east along Dunklin, is currently undergoing a major rehabilitation. This is big, folks, it really is, and the people who are doing this are to be congratulated, thanked, and supported. Otherwise, many of these historic buildings were headed for the wrecking ball.

Here’s the other reason we care about the ECCO: It truly is a tradition. I wasn’t surprised when we went there for lunch and noticed plenty of “gray heads” at the tables; most locals remember when this was a favorite, nice place to go for lunch or dinner, or to hang out with friends and family. When I was there recently, I noticed that everyone in the room seemed to be reminiscing about it, while glancing around and nodding approvingly.

I had the privilege of sitting at a table with my parents and my uncle and aunt, who all have a long string of ECCO memories. They were local children in the thirties and forties, young adults in the fifties and sixties, and as we sat there, they recalled some highlights of a lifetime of memories of the restaurant.

My mom recalled a time in the late 1950s before she got married: She and the other “Light Company gals” used to get together for dinner after work. They’d sit in the back room and eat spaghetti. It was the best spaghetti they’d ever eaten! And, my mom told me, cocking an eyebrow, this is where she discovered the delicious flavor of whiskey sours! (That’s big for a Lutheran gal!)

My uncle and aunt remembered a time back in the late forties or early fifties. When Uncle Richard’s aunt and uncle would come visit from Kansas City, they would stay here on Elm Street with Grandma, just a few blocks from the ECCO. They’d all walk together to the ECCO and get two-dollar fried-baloney sandwiches and drink beer! Boy, I’ll bet that was a good time!

Later, Uncle Richard said, in the eighties, once their own kids had grown and gone, it became a tradition for him and Aunt Carole, and my grandma, to go to the ECCO on their wedding anniversary. A shrimp basket or two, a pitcher of beer, a salad with bleu cheese on it, baked potato, or whatever.

My dad chimed in at this point and said that he, too, often accompanied them on these anniversary dinners, and that with Grandma there, the celebration usually included them all singing in German.

At this point in their storytelling, Dad and Uncle Richard began to sing one of Grandma’s favorite songs, a drinking song (I translate for you): “Morning’s with the brandy wine! Noon is with the beer! Evening’s with the young ladies! Nighttime?—Who knows! We live high!”

Of course, by the time Dad and Richard were halfway through the song, we all had joined in, oblivious to what other diners were thinking. (That’s how it always was with Grandma; she just sang, and we always sang with her . . .)

The Jefferson City Convention and Visitors Bureau has recently been trumpeting a slogan of “You’ll feel the history!” . . . And here at the cleaned up, comfortable, renovated, friendly ECCO Lounge, you’ll taste the history, too! Kudos and best wishes to the new, old ECCO.

Ecco Lounge on Urbanspoon


Michael said...

I am so glad the Ecco is being resurrected- again! I am among those who have fond memories of the Ecco days gone past. I'm fine with the nonsmoking situation, in fact, happy that I can now take my kids there. Your photos are nice, too!

Julianna Schroeder said...

Thanks, Michael! I think it's tremendously exciting to have such a fun eatery to walk to here in Old Munichburg--without having to cross the busy expressway! And the photos? Hey, I'm just glad the place is so dang photogenic now!

BonnieChasteen said...

Awesome post, Julie--can't wait to try it! Thanks for reminding me that the whole block is getting renovated.

Julianna Schroeder said...

Yes! Thank you for the kind words. I think that the renovated Bassmann Apts. building is going to be schweeet! But as for the ECCO, I think you should try . . . their REUBEN! (LOL!)

Anthony L. DeWitt said...

Until today I was unaware that the Ecco had reopened. I told my wife not to make plans for dinner. For us, it was the only place in town with decent burgers. Now that it is smoke free, that's like free dessert and free beer all wrapped up in one!

Julianna Schroeder said...

Hi, Anthony, I agree about the nonsmoking bit, for sure, but I think there might be a feeeew other places in Jeff to get a good hamburger. (Now, where to find good *Ethiopian cuisine,* hmmm?)

But best of all, I like that the ECCO is still, and again, a cornerstone of the Munichburg business district; with its rebirth, and with the fabulous work of Messrs. Kolb and Rollins on the Dunklin block east of there, I hope it signifies a renaissance for our neighborhood.

We're in need of a renaissance!

Osage Bluff Quilter said...

It just took us more than a year to go since you posted about Ecco. We went tonight.
Great food, we loved the place.
Now time to do a review on the Shep's cafe across the parking lot. Have you been there? they were still open when we came out at 8:30!

Julianna Schroeder said...

Yeah--we keep going to the ECCO--it has a good selection of chow, for whatever you're in the mood for. And the servers are good, too!

We TOTALLY need to go to Shep's--it's on our short list--they look promising, indeed! Let me know what you think of them.

nancy said...

I also grew up in Munichburg, now live in Oklahoma--This past October, Hubs and I spent three weeks in Jeff--I had been craving a Ruben for TWO long years, hubs the prime rib san. Ate at ECCO at least six times, the 1514 draft is the best beer, goes with any food. Sad thing our "last meal" someone had drank up all the 1514. Can't get this in OK. Plan a spring return in 13.
We did try Sheps--good food, different atmosphere, ECCO is home!!! See Y'ALL Later

Julianna Schroeder said...

Nancy, I'm glad you had a good time at the ECCO. We've really enjoyed it as a neighborhood place we can walk to--and, considering all their good brews, walk home from! Sally and Co. are doing a great job with the place.

You know the ECCO is on Facebook, right? Locals who "like" the ECCO on Facebook get notified of daily specials and other goings-on at the restaurant. Since you're in Oklahoma, though, Nancy, it could only be a vicarious thrill for you, unfortunately!

Thanks for commenting,