Let's not confuse the namesake of the new Jack Gage American Tavern at 50th Street and Main with an American Jack Gage, such as the late film and TV director of the 1940s and '50s or the boyish-looking New York-based writer for forbes.com. No, restaurateur Blair Hurst named his clubby pub after the British Jack Gage, a scrappy fight promoter — a carny, really — who set up a traveling "stadium" at English fairgrounds in the days before and after World War II. Hurst doesn't know very much about Gage, but he does own a fine piece of memorabilia.
The owners of the House of Blues chain bought the stadium troupe's backdrop, long after this kind of entertainment fell out of favor. Later, when they auctioned it off, Hurst bought it, intending to use the artwork for a British-pub concept. When his restaurant turned into an American joint, the hand-painted Jack Gage tableau — rendered in the same spirit as those arresting freak-show illustrations of the early 20th century — still made an excellent, offbeat backdrop for the bar. Not that anyone who steps into the 82-year-old, two-story brick building at 50th and Main is going to give a tinker's damn about Jack Gage anyway, even when one of the cheery servers runs over bearing a handful of vintage photos of the Jack Gage boxing stadium in all of its 1940s glory.
The real celebrities at Jack Gage American Tavern are alive and working: veteran restaurant manager Joe Wilcox (best known for his long tenure at Plaza III) and Richard McPeake, the chef who created the menus for the Gilbert-Robinson restaurant empire in its heyday. Hiring these two pros may be the smartest thing that Hurst has ever done because they've elevated Jack Gage American Tavern to a real contender. The extensive bill of fare (which McPeake created with input from both Hurst and Hurst's Mississippi-born wife, Jean) is a good combination of traditional dishes and contemporary creations. And in a nod to the classic diner, the kitchen puts out breakfast all day.
The place also serves a more expanded breakfast menu on Saturday and Sunday mornings. I stopped in on the morning after Christmas with a couple of friends, but we didn't stay because the dining room was having an unexpected technical issue: It smelled — only temporarily, I'm happy to say — like the last tenant, the dreaded Double Dragon Chinese Restaurant.
Maybe it was the ghost of Christmas past, because Hurst had the place completely gutted, right down to the studs, and then spent more than two years renovating the building, which opened in 1928 as Country Club Cleaners. That's why there's a massive steel vault in the center of the first floor — not for bank deposits, as people have assumed over the years, but for storing fur.
There's also a more playful (and less smelly) poltergeist roaming the building; several employees have felt his or her presence. God only knows who it is because, after that dry cleaner, this building has been home to a pasta palace, a nightclub, the glummest gay bar ever, a jazz joint and, finally, that Chinese buffet (which had an aggressively pungent aroma in the dining room that I suspect had nothing to do with General Tso's chicken or beef lo mein).
"You won't believe what Blair has done with the space," said my friend Nancy, who works down the street. "It's exactly what this neighborhood needed."
This stretch of Main Street has some first-rate dining spots, and what it needed was a restaurant that didn't serve pizza or spaghetti. It already boasts Minsky's, Osteria il Centro, Accurso's and Spin. Hurst's tavern has a lot of TV monitors scattered around the bar and dining rooms but, contrary to rumor, is not a sports bar. Instead, it serves pub fare: burgers, salads, steaks, barbecued ribs, rotisserie chicken and fried shrimp, along with that smattering of soul food — Southern dishes that are better than you might expect in a part of town where grits rarely show up on a menu.