Strike back

Bartender Jena Alumbaugh serves up a house speciality jalapeño margarita.

Bartender Jena Alumbaugh serves up a house speciality jalapeño margarita.

Photo/Eric Marks

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The old cliché of “going to get a beer after work” doesn’t often ring true for me. As a working parent married to another working parent, after-work time is almost always some combination of picking up kids, sports, dinner, homework and other things that aren’t beer. Exceptions occasionally arise as one did on a recent Sunday, so I took the opportunity for an after-shift beer at a watering hole I’ve neglected. As it turns out, Imperial Bar and Lounge is celebrating a landmark this year, having been open for 10 years. I’d call that a win, having weathered the great recession during their first few years of operation.

My lasting impression from the Imperial of years ago is not of drink, but food. I have a fond memory of enjoying thin, salty French fries, and little else. I haven’t consciously stayed away for any reason other than a general decline in my “going out” habits, but I’ll admit to some bias—the occasional late night line I’ve seen outside complete with velvet ropes, coupled with a reputation for a young, college pickup crowd, and it hasn’t been the first place I’d consider for a drink in recent years.

Trying to forget these preconceptions, I walk into an almost-empty bar, just one lone soul at the bar eating pizza and a group sharing drinks around a cluster of tables. Imperial is big, as bars go—like theatre in the round, a large central bar with stools on all sides, tables and booths surrounding it, and maybe the coolest feature, a large vinyl couch/bench/lounging area sprawling along the large windows spanning Arlington Avenue. Those windows were wisely kept closed on this insufferably hot day, but during cooler times of year, they make a fun viewing space onto the urban landscape. The historic brick architecture with open rafters and modern steel design creates a hip-feeling metropolitan atmosphere, for better or worse.

I had forgotten what a sizable beer selection Imperial had to offer, almost overwhelming to the average drinker 10 years ago, a beer smorgasbord before a selection like this was as common as it is now. Sixteen taps pour a decent variety of beers—locals, well-known crafts and macro lagers, in a cross section of styles. Light, dark, hoppy and sour are all represented. The bottle menu is more impressive still, equally varied and at least double in size. A full bar is also on display, but I didn’t get an actual drink menu to see how fancy the cocktails are or how wine drinkers would fare here.

As selection goes, the notable thing here is food. Along with some expected choices, Imperial features an admirable menu of pizzas, burgers and other plates, all crafted to be a decent step above typical “bar food.” A family with stroller came in for dinner while I sipped my pilsner, a sign to me that Imperial does a good job of balancing the roles of bar and restaurant.

I actually enjoyed the relative quiet to unwind a bit in this sometimes-raucous place. The few TVs are discreet but there if you care, music present but not obnoxious. Once the group and pizza guy left, though, it was just me and stroller family, almost awkward in this large vacant space. Fortunately I had cash so didn’t need to fret again about the $10 minimum to use a card—an unwelcome trend I’m starting to see in bars. The parking lot—at a downtown bar!—called to me more than the pool tables, and family dinner awaited at home.