Saturday, September 8, 2007

Fort Ground Grill

Fort Ground Grill
705 W. River Ave., Cd’A.

General William Tecumseh Sherman wasn’t just throwing darts at the map when he deemed our happy little patch of Earth to be the perfect spot for a military fort. Although it would be many years before the first massive condo would rise from the shores of Lake Coeur d’Alene and the Spokane River, the spot of land where the two met still clearly had some potential. After the Mullan Trail was forged and the first choo-choo train came roaring through the area, Camp Coeur d’Alene turned into Fort Coeur d’Alene and a pioneer village began taking shape.

General Sherman may have had some questionable military tactics (like how he mercilessly decimated the buffalo herds in an attempt to dwindle the Indian population), but he was known to be good to his military men, always making sure they were served big fluffy omelets, crisp hash browns and buttery toast for breakfast. After the fort was abandoned by the Army during the Spanish-American War, it was renamed Fort Sherman and the Fort Ground Breakfast Shack and Sarsaparilla Bar was established in 1877 on River Avenue in honor of the good General’s keen enthusiasm for the first meal of the day. Although the place would see many identity and ownership changes over the next 130 years, the tradition lives on today with The Fort Ground Grill, who pay tribute to the breakfast pioneer and hero by featuring his stern countenance and biographical details on their menu.

Okay, maybe that isn’t exactly how history unfolded, but what’s for sure is that the place has at least been in existence in one form or another since the glory days when River Ave. was one of the town’s main drags, when the street was hopping with traffic heading over the bridge that once existed across the Spokane River there, where the dyke road now turns south. Family members recall that the place was once a small grocery store and soda fountain. Since childhood, I knew it best as the charmingly grungy Fort Ground Tavern, a rather rough place where you could watch old men drink pitchers of beer at 8 AM and eat a giant artery-clogging cheap breakfast through a thick haze of cigarette smoke. Certain nights, the place was known to get rowdy with overenthusiastic sports fans and college kids pounding Pabst and duking it out.

I have two fond memories of the old Fort Ground Tavern that will probably stick with me forever. The first was an unsuccessful attempt to eat a “breakfast burger” consisting of three beef patties, four cheese slices, a dozen bacon strips, a thick slice of ham, a fried egg, and grilled onions. I think that monster only cost around three bucks and came with a big pile of home fries. Oy! The second memory is going down for Karaoke nights when the Summer Theater cast and crew were in town and had established the place as their stomping grounds. These kids were professional singers and dancers, and some of their Karaoke performances were devastatingly fantastic. Once the beer really started flowing, it wouldn’t be unusual to find a group of them literally on top of the bar, dancing like Rockettes and singing show tunes. When the longtime owners finally decided to shut her down last year, many faithful customers felt a real loss.

When word got out that local chef and restaurateur Michael D. Pasquale had bought the place and was giving it a much needed facelift, the town collectively sighed with relief. With the Fort Ground Grill, he has managed to give a modern update to an old local favorite without losing the sense of history or the fine traditional food. However, gone are the drunken old coots peering out from dark scary corners. Gone are the nicotine stained beer signs from bygone eras, and the hideous yellow carpeting turned grey with time and beer and ash. Gone are the slightly tilted pool tables and the gruff kitchen ladies, cigarettes dangling from their lips. Most notably, gone are the scariest bathrooms in town, gutted and replaced by clean state-of-the-art facilities.

The basic layout remains the same but now it’s bright and immaculate, with a colorful new paint job inside and out, gorgeous oak fixtures and chairs, and locally historic photos hung around the walls. The atmosphere is as relaxed as it ever was, but so much nicer, and you don’t have to worry about ciggie ashes in your eggs or an encounter with a Hamms-pickled old-timer. They do still serve beer and wine (and have acquired a full liquor license as well), however local micros and fine imports have replaced cheap cans of watery swill.

I’ve visited the new Fort Ground Grill twice so far, the first time for dinner and more recently for breakfast. On my first visit several months ago, I was with a friend from Seattle who was not remarkably impressed with the fact that Ellen Travolta was having a bite to eat with some theater pals at the table behind us, although I watched enough “Happy Days” and “Charles in Charge” that I still get pretty excited when I see her out and about.

We noted that the menu consisted primarily of comfort foods, a culinary trend which includes traditional American staples like meatloaf and chicken fried steak, pasta dishes, and entrees served with mashed potatoes and steamed veggies. She opted for a salmon dish, which she described as “pretty good, but missing some pizzazz” and I tried the Garlic Chicken Breast with Garlic Mashed Potatoes, which was really quite delicious, but afterward I felt sort of bad for being a Garlic Breath Monster as we chatted and did some catching up. I’ve forgotten our servers name from that evening, but she had an amazing bubbly personality and provided top-notch service. We left impressed.

I visited again the other day for a much-needed breakfast fix after a late night out left me feeling a little woozy that morning. Q. and I were sat in the exact same table I’d sat in last time. Maybe my pre-caffeine senses were over-stimulated, but I couldn’t help but note the smell of history lingering in the air. Not a bad smell, just a proud kind of mustiness that no amount of paint and re-carpeting could ever kill. However, in place of boozy seniors were hip young moms, well-dressed professionals, beefy construction guys and gossipy society gals. Our hostess brought coffee over immediately, as if she knew how badly it was truly needed. Sometimes it’s the little things that impress, and I was so excited that they had French Vanilla coffee creamer on the table instead of plain. Nice touch.

No big surprises on this breakfast menu, although if you decide to build-your-own-omelet, you can choose from such odd fare as zucchini, havarti, shrimp and squash. Otherwise, all the usual suspects are in place: French toast, Denver omelet, eggs Benedict. It wasn’t listed as an option on the menu, but the waitress was cool enough to let me substitute a pancake for toast with my Ham Scram at no additional cost. She didn’t even bat an eye when Q. hissed that he wanted his eggs “fried really hard.”

As we waited, we zoned out to the sound of gabbing customers layered atop the classic rock radio that played comfortingly in the background. We began to get a little antsy as the Steve Miller Band turned into Pink Floyd turned into the Stones and still no food. Q had to be at work soon, and the clock was ticking as our coffee cups ran dry and still no sign of our waitress. It wasn’t even really that busy. Just as we were about to get fussy, she came zooming in with steaming platefuls of delightful breakfast. My pancake was bigger than the platter it came on, my ham scram was wonderfully thick with melty clumps of cheddar and luscious eggs, and my hash browns were crispy and flavorful, which is remarkable since I don’t normally get into the hash brown scene that much. Q’s eggs were fried sufficiently hard and his bacon made me wonder how they got it to turn out so crisp and flat, instead of the soggy, shriveled specimen I always manage to cook up at home. Again, sometimes the winning is in the details like the all-American sprig of parsley and twisted orange slice that decorated our plates, or the squeezy ketchup that liberated us from the stubbornness of the glass bottle. By the time I (almost) finished my meal, my morning-after wooziness was gone, replaced by the strong urge for a mid-morning nap in front of the TV.

Our waitress was incredibly sweet, but her lack of attention to our needs began to hurt our feelings. The food took quite a while to appear, our coffees and waters repeatedly sat empty, and then Q. began to panic because she wasn’t bringing our check to the table and he had 15 minutes to get to work. We finally gave up waiting and went straight for the register. The cashier had to hunt our waitress down so she could get our ticket and ring us up, and when she was finally found she seemed a little put out by our “impatience” and offered no apology for her slackness. Fortunately, the lingering joy of such a gratifying meal and the resulting food coma had rendered us lethargic enough to forgive her for her lack of timeliness as we waddled out the door. I’m absolutely certain that even General Sherman himself would be well-pleased by the high standard of quality breakfast fare served at the Fort Ground Grill.


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