Nine months to the day after sirens first blared down Harper Avenue in an effort to stop a blaze at Gilbert’s Lodge, Gilbert’s reopened to customers who had been counting down to its return.
At a grand tour the night before, it was an eerie sight to see fire engines sitting quietly along the edge of the parking lot, reminiscent of the two times they had to be called to put out a fire at the eatery, but the owner was so grateful for their help that members of the Fire Department had been invited to the party.
Manager Flip Ulrich said “a lot of blood, sweat and tears” went into the renovations at Gilbert’s Lodge after not one, but two fires: one Oct. 10, 2013, and one May 22.
“We miss the community just as much or worse than they missed us,” she said.
Nevertheless, Ulrich said they are excited to share the changes and “updated, fun, cozy feel” with the community.
“For a while, it was feeling like it was never going to happen,” owner Louie Bricolas said.
Being closed for nearly nine months put a strain on his family and finances, he said, and because he wanted to make so many improvements to the restaurant, a lot of it had to come out-of-pocket.
New touches abound in a restaurant that still feels like the Gilbert’s Lodge everyone knew and loved but brought into the new century. The “Trophy” room, reservable for banquets or larger parties, can be split into two smaller rooms with a sliding barn door, which Bricolas got from a barn in Almont. The rear of the Trophy room opens onto a small patio with a fire pit, giving large parties more room to spread out.
The iconic train still makes its way around the ceiling of the restaurant, but now it is lit by LED track lighting so it’s easier for small fans to spot when it chugs by. And the outdoor patio, which also contains fire pits and an outdoor fireplace, has radiant heat cement and can be fully enclosed so that in the wintertime, sliding glass garage doors can open between the inside restaurant and the patio to allow it to be used year-round.
“People like what we have and we want them to feel comfortable,” Ulrich said. “We tried to keep it Gilbert’s but (with) something new and exciting to add to it.”
The bar area of the restaurant now includes cedar high-top tables, and the beer tap is hewn from a cedar log. The kitchen, Bricolas said, is twice as good as it was, and he installed oversized air conditioning and heating units to make sure that customers would always be comfortable.
Bricolas said he told the Birmingham design team he worked with, Ron and Roman, that he wanted a “lodge-y atmosphere, but bring it into the 21st century.” And the room isn’t so crowded, with a few less tables and more open entrances to give customers more elbow room.
“We’re hoping, with the new atmosphere and lighting, people stay for that one extra drink,” he said.
“We’re excited that we’ve got 50 people back to work,” said General Manager Bruce Burdick. “The loyalty they had to come back here … is phenomenal.”
Stacie Mahfet, a bartender at Gilbert’s Lodge for 15 years, said employees would meet up in different places over the past nine months to get together, but that “it wasn’t the same not being here.”
She said customers would be excited when they see the new bar area, complete with 16 beers on tap instead of just 10.
Gilbert’s Lodge will hold a grand re-opening weekend with entertainment, giveaways, specials and more July 16-20.
“We’re the same, but we’re better,” Burdick said. “It’s an environment where people can feel like they’re at home. We’re really excited people can come home to their bar.
“It’s great to see the look on everybody’s faces. … Like, ‘wow.’ It’s so cool.”
He said Bricolas has bent over backward working daily to bring Gilbert’s back.
“That’s why we’re here,” Burdick said. “We’re here for him.”
Bricolas said he couldn’t have done it all without help from the city, his employees and, of course, the Fire Department. To give back, the restaurant is running a special: When customers order a certain beer, it comes in a can with a red koozie sporting the Gilbert’s Lodge and Firefighters Local 1744 logos; all proceeds will be donated back to the firefighters to go to the Great Lakes Burn Camp, their charity of choice.
“That was our way to thank them for all the help,” said Katie Cyr, spokeswoman for Gilbert’s Lodge.
Before the ribbon was cut July 9, St. Clair Shores Mayor Kip Walby said that he was thankful that Bricolas persevered in rebuilding what he called an “institution in St. Clair Shores.”
Walby said he never had any doubt that Bricolas would rebuild.
“Louie was committed to St. Clair Shores, committed to Gilbert’s Lodge and knows the value of this operation in St. Clair Shores,” he said.
He said Gilbert’s fills a niche in the city because it’s not just another bar; it’s got a complete menu, and so it has something for everyone.
St. Clair Shores Firefighter Aaron Silorey said he remembered the call coming in for the second fire in May; he said at first they thought it was a false alarm.
Back in the restaurant the day before it reopened to the public, he said he’s happy to see it looking good again.
“It looks great; completely different,” he said.
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