I had a big year in 2008: got a new job, got dumped by a girl, met the girl, decided I’d had enough of apartment life and bought a house. It was also the year I officially woke up, as it were, to “the scene.” Sure “the scene” had been around in various forms and intensities long before my awakening, satisfying or disappointing whatever proclivities fickle audiences brought to the table, but as the Judge says in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, “Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent.” What mattered about the scene in 2008 was that it now mattered to me. Selfish much? Yes. Who isn’t?It was also at some point in 2008 I began hearing a new name dropped in conversation about all things downtown. Admittedly, it took a while before it stuck, since people were confusing me by interchangeably using the long and short forms of this establishment. The long form was a definite mouthful: Calhoun Street Soups, Salads, Spirits and More. Wait, slow down. I’ve had three beers. Say that again. CS3. Ah, got it. Now that’s a name the sober and the not-so-sober can contend with. I was intrigued.
It took some time before I finally made it down to CS3, but get there I did. Like so many who first visit the place, I was immediately taken with the building itself. In my opinion, and I don’t think it’s a slam on any other of the fine bar/restaurants in town, CS3 is the best-looking downtown bar we have. The interior is a knockout: original light-oak, hardwood floors refinished and preserved beautifully but still water-stained here and there to give it that time-worn look and feel; warm brick walls accented by the light green of the original embossed tin ceiling; an impressively large L-shaped classic bar with the requisite backdrop mirror reflecting customers’ eager faces as they are served; and dining tables and chairs all made of exquisite hardwood and lit up in the daytime by ample light coming through an entire wall of front windows.
But wait, there’s more. The patio: a neatly landscaped terrace with a large gazebo, bountiful seating, strings of white lights and awning-covered seating with heaters for colder weather. Again, not sure there is another like it.
According to owner Donna Kessler, the building itself was completed in 1880 and over the years has hosted various businesses. One of the more well-known was Welch Hardware, opened in 1901 by John Welch. One of Welch’s great granddaughters recently stopped by and was very impressed by its preservation.
Not sure if she stayed for lunch, but if she did she would have had more opportunities to be impressed by CS3’s delightful menu which is not just soups and salads, although they do feature prominently. House, Greek, Deluxe Caesar, and Southwest Chicken are all salads I have had over the years, and they are consistently fresh, well portioned and expertly mixed. My favorite is the Greek, which comes with pitted olives instead of the teeth-shattering kind that served up by other places trying too hard to be authentic. The Deluxe Caesar is also an excellent choice, with that just-right level of anchovies—not too little not too much.
Freshly made soups feature daily and run the gamut from the traditional chicken noodle, ham and bean and vegetable to adventurous seasonal varieties like Cheesy Reuben, Stuffed Pepper, Cabbage Roll, and the award-winning White Chicken Chili.
If you’re like me, however, salad and soup are often a warmup or just a passing thought. You want the beef, the grease, the hearty fare. Something to complement a cold beer or tasty cocktail. Well, CS3 has that too. The mac and cheese is legendary, as are the deep-fried onion straws. My hands-down favorites in this category, however, are the burgers: 1/3 pound of pure Angus beef on a deal-maker pretzel bun. Great flavor every time, and you have choices: the Jack and Blue with blue cheese, grilled onion and pepper, and a homemade signature Jack Daniels sauce; the Smokestack, featuring a hearty slice of beef brisket on top of the Angus, onion straws, pepperjack cheese, and BBQ sauce; and the Pizza Burger, featuring pepperoni, banana peppers, grilled onions and peppers, provolone cheese and pizza sauce. Or you can build your own. My personal pick is the Smokestack because who doesn’t like meat on top of meat? Okay, not everyone. If you’re inclined toward vegetarian, CS3 has plenty of wraps, salads,and soups to accommodate.
Originally Donna and her husband Phil envisioned a lunch-only place; get in at 9 and home by 4. But destiny had other plans. Leo Vodde, who before Donna came into the picture was working on what would become CS3, wanted a bar. At first Donna and Phil were reluctant, but the sheer size of the building seemed to demand more than just lunch, so they relented. Not long after this concession, Donna’s nephew, a senior in high school at the time and fronting the newly formed psychobilly band, Sour Mash Kats, began urging her to think about opening up the back room of the bar to bands, starting with his own. Becoming a music venue was definitely never part of Donna’s vision.
“I’m a huge music fan,” she says, “but I just knew that it would become so much more involved. Looking back now to that first show seven years ago, I’m really glad we took the leap.”
She is particularly glad since over the past seven years she has been able to book some of her personal favorite artists like Eef Barzelay, Matthew Ryan and one of my favorites, Ike Reilly. I first caught Reilly in 2007 at the Botanical Conservatory. Really fun show. But three years later, on a steamy late July evening he came back to town and brought his young, hungry band with him to debut his latest release, Hard Luck Stories, at CS3. It was, hands-down, one of the best live shows I’ve seen in the Fort or anywhere. They played nearly every cut off the narrative-driven album with sweaty abandon and had the near-capacity crowd at the “Tiger Room” (a borrowed name from the fictional Fort Wayne venue from the movie The Rocker) stomping the floor for more. Fast-forward to a less than steamy July night here in 2015 and I was able to catch Reilly again at CS3. Once again he came on the heels of supporting a new album, Born on Fire. At an age when most performers have long since hung it up, Reilly went for broke once again, prowling the stage, looking lean, mean, and completely invested in each word.
Donna and her excellent staff will also continue to invest day in and day out at CS3. Once a tad gun shy, they now relish new opportunities be it food or music. You can catch more than just a rock show at the Tiger Room. As I write this – on yet another rained out Tuesday – Jen Kirkman, TV comedian from shows like Chelsea Handler, Funny or Die and Drunk History, is on her way to the Tiger Room to do a show. I, sadly, will not be there dear readers, but here’s to hoping you threw a middle finger to the weather and your own laziness and decided to go. If you did, good on ya. If you didn’t, there is always tomorrow. Roar.