"We wanted to modernize the dusty old wine shop," says Matt Stipe. "If you go to any other major city, you can buy your beer and wine from these great boutique stores where people are hanging out, drinking and having a great time."
Banter, he hopes, will be that kind of place. In fact, he and his partners are aiming for nothing south of being "the best beer and wine shop in town." To get there, they have restyled the bottle shop concept from the ground up (literally, but we'll get to that). From the way it looks to the way it functions, Banter will help redefine what Clevelanders have come to expect from their friendly neighborhood carry-out.
For about a year, partners Stipe, Tom Owen and Adam Gullett, along with consulting chef Adam Lambert, have been working to convert a 100-year-old space in Detroit Shoreway into a genre-bending concept that blurs the lines between retail and restaurant. Beverage shoppers on the run can pop in for a bottle or six-pack and be on their merry way, while those with a little more time – and appetite – on their hands can grab a seat, crack open that bottle or six-pack, and enjoy it alongside a bite to eat.
The 1,750-square-foot space at the corner of West 74th Street and Detroit Avenue features three separate but connected rooms that Stipe labels the "barroom," "wine room" and "beer room." The first is dedicated to a 10-seat bar, some high-top seating and the small open kitchen. Room two is devoted to all things wine, with open shelving containing approximately 350 different labels. Room three, affectionately dubbed the Amphitheater of Beer, surrounds shoppers with coolers stocked with 500 types of beer.
The bar's 10 taps will be reserved for hard-to-find brews while the wine program will highlight unique varietals and smaller growing regions. All the beer, along with some appropriate wines, are chilled and ready to enjoy onsite or elsewhere.
Lambert, the lone Canadian in the bunch, concocted the menu and recipes that will endure long after he moves on to his next big project, Ohio City Provisions. He and his Banter colleagues knew that poutine was going to be the star of the show, and for research purposes they went on a tasting tour through Montreal, where they destroyed 23 different varieties in two and half days.
"Poutine is fries and cheese curds covered in gravy, and you know how it is; the simplest dishes are always the easiest ones to fuck up," says Lambert. "Nobody around here is making an authentic Montreal-style poutine."
He's right. Around here anything served on top of fries is considered poutine. Chili-cheese fries? Nope, Tex-Mex Poutine! Sure, there's room for experimentation and creativity, but at a minimum the dish requires hot, crispy french fries, very fresh cheese curds, and rich, flavorful gravy. Lambert will offer a vegetarian version, but the main lubricant will be a robust gravy built from meat bones. The biggest mistake restaurants make, notes the chef, is mucking up the works with too many variables. His menu will be lean, with about a half dozen chef-designed arrangements.
Lambert also makes a mean sausage, and those will comprise the second half of the quick-casual menu. Some might come poached and griddled atop a platter of poutine, while others could get the battered-and-fried corndog treatment. There will be a few surprises on the menu as well, the chef promises.
When Stipe landed on this particular location, his landlord showed him a little piece of history he'd been sitting on for years. It was the original maple parquet floor from the Elyria High School gymnasium, which had been reduced to 1-inch planks and stacked to the rafters. The guys spent a sizeable portion of the last 12 months stripping wax and glue off the pieces, arranging them back into squares, and laying them down as flooring. What they did not do was remove the colorful bits of tape that long ago demarcated the sidelines, baselines and free throw lines so that they appear randomly throughout the space.
More than just an interesting visual element, Stipe says the floor is a vital component of the entire Banter brand.
"We've done a lot of things that will encourage conversation, like the floor," says Stipe. "It all starts with the decision to use Banter as the name. I think the term implies a sort of witty, back and forth between friends. What's better than getting together with good friends over great food and great beer and wine?"
Other conversation starters include a jukebox that plays old 45s, the old-school changeable letter board that serves as the menu, and the distinctive labeling used to showcase the real stars of the space, the liquid assets.
"There are a lot of great restaurants in town, but not many of them have a complete sort of identity," Stipe adds. "We wanted to make sure that everything from the logo to the people we are hiring to the interior design and artwork are a well-rounded, complete thought."
Look for Banter (7320 Detroit Ave., bantercleveland.com) to open sometime this week.