Oh, the little bar that could. You know that one that so many doubted would find its way after changing hands in fairly rapid succession? That bar whose storied rep predisposed it to all sorts of rumor and misguided hype? That little bar some swear was among the bane and blight of all things Broadway back in the days of rough and tumble Saturday nights when bikers and blue collar types drank away the strain of long work weeks and low pay. Where, indeed, fights broke out on occasion and blood ran on the sidewalk.
Yeah, that one. That brick and mortar classic on the corner of Sturgis and Broadway that has since 2006 basically redefined what downtown bar in Fort Wayne even means. That little bar that is now known nationwide as a rock n’ roll venue in the vein of CBGB’s, where you can not only see some of the nation’s and even the world’s hottest up-and-coming, underground, midstream punk, rock, reggae, country, folk, metal and hip-hop acts, but where you can now also take your mom. Where fisticuffs are rare as they are brief and smiles from strangers and head nods between disparate types are common. Where, as the newest slogan reads, “Everyone is welcome until they’re not” is as undeniable as the dirt and sweat of 500 bands that have all but lacquered the thin carpet of the stage.
Yes, that bar. The little bar that made good, nay kicked proverbial butt. The Brass Rail, 1121 Broadway Ave., under the Pepsi sign.
The Rail has a long history, but this isn’t about that. This is about now.
In fact, as the Rail’s website sums it up: “The bar has been around forever so let’s just say 40 years.” Perfect.
The past nine years are when the Rail became the Rail of today. The transformation began after current owners Corey Rader and John Commorato Jr. were handed the keys in 2006. It was a slow change at first. Nothing major – a bit of paint here and there, a few pictures taken down, a few new ones put in their place.
If you haven’t been to the Rail in the past three years, you will notice a lot more than just a few replaced items: bathrooms have been remodeled; new hardwood floors have been laid throughout; exquisite murals by outstanding local artists Jeff Stump and Daniel Dienelt decorate the walls; and a concrete slab has been poured in the famous outside smoking section.
The “Odd Couple” of bar owners, Rader and Commorato had to practice compromise and cooperation to blend passion and vision on a level that can only be described as almost martial arts-like in discipline and focus. Breathe. Stretch. Bend. Flow. Block and strike only when necessary. They learned an invisible tango with one another, and for the most part got pretty damn good at it. The passion was the bar itself; the vision was a punk-rock-metal-country-indie-rock-alt-country-folk venue that would somehow be all things onto all people. Ha. Right. Like that happens.
When I first started frequenting the Rail in 2008, it was still a fairly consistent punk, rock, reggae and old school country venue. Bands like Jay Reatard, Radio Moscow, Off with Their Heads, The Slackers, La Armada, Murder Junkies, Murder by Death and Wayne the Train Hancock routinely came through its doors and put on the kind of shows that shook the floorboards, rattled the mason jars and made ears ring for hours – and they did it all for a cover charge that typically couldn’t buy a combo meal.
In the past few years the Rail has not only begun to bring in a much wider array of musical genres – Water Liars (Hi, Courtney!), Damien Jurado and Marah being a few of the favorites – it also has expanded its daily/evening offerings of drink and food. That’s right, food. The legendary Brass Rail Red Barron frozen pizza (microwaved first to melt the ice, then toasted to a sagging semi-crisp mediocrity) is no more. In its place are hand-crafted Cuban-style, pressed sandwiches made with care and attention by head Rail tender Zoe Martin and her husband Jim: Asian Chicken, Sausage and Kraut, Bacon and Chicken Pesto, Mediterranean Veg, Buffalo Chicken, and the sammy that started it all, the Muffuletta (ham, Genoa salami, pepperoni and Provolone with a Giardiniera olive spread). There is also the occasional “secret sandwich” that is offered up when the spirit moves.
As Zoe remembers, the move from frozen pizza to hand-crafted sandwiches was rather abrupt.
“People were getting hungry before shows started and would leave to go to Arby’s. We needed to have food so people didn’t feel like they had to leave. So I finally just said to Corey one day, we do frozen. Why not just do real food! It’s not that hard. Corey will let you do anything as long as you’re trying, so we went for it.”
I went for it on a Thursday recently and had the flagship Muffuletta. The crisp, Italian bread introduces the “rainbow of meat,” as one patron recently described it, as delicately and succulently as a lover’s kiss. And the olive spread? I could continue the erotic depiction here in the most obvious way but will spare you, dear reader, and say only that it is a veritable explosion of flavor on the palette: green olive, garlic, pickled onion, red bell pepper, cauliflower, carrot, and celery.
But let’s not forget we’re at the Rail. Booze is still king. There are a lot of great bars in town that pour good drinks, but there is no place in town that pours them with as much love as the Rail. You might get more umbrellas and fruit in a fancy glass at a bar up north, but you won’t get as much fun.
And, as she did with the menu, Zoe is putting as much heart and attention into the drinks as she does the sandwiches. Two of Martin’s drinks have risen to near-cult status of late: the seasonal “Zojito,” a spin on the traditional mojito that features flavored vodka instead of rum, hand-picked mint from Zoe’s garden and house-made, infused simple syrup. The other is “Zoe’s Famous Bloody.” It’s not so much a bloody Mary as a meal that landed in spicy tomato juice and vodka – bacon garnish and an entire skewer packed to the hilt with pickled veggies and assorted meats and cheeses.
Nightly activities at the Rail are also jammed with variety. Monday night is vinyl night. Bring your favorite vinyl in and hear it spun over the bar speakers while you relax. Tuesday nights are “Zoe’s Movie Night” where you can enjoy double features of classic films spanning the past few decades. There are also monthly events like Brass Rail Trivia, Coloring with Ashley and Cards Against Humanity.
As if that weren’t enough, there are also the killer shows. Usually a killer show headlined by a national act and supported by any number of local, all-original bands. I could go on and on here about the dozens of mind-blowing performances I’ve seen here in the past seven years, but space won’t allow or even do justice.
But it will only take me the next 35 words to say the most essential thing that must be said: if you haven’t been to a show at the Rail you have cheated your soul. If you’ve stayed away because you don’t feel like you “fit” or are too “square” or too “old,” just stop. That myth has been exploded. The Rail is for everyone.
Of course you might want to check the bar’s web site for upcoming shows and do a little research on bands you might not be familiar with, but you can find something. Don’t let another year go by and wish you would have. Do it.
See you there.