From all indications, it's a pretty good gig. When Alice (né Vincent Furnier) showed up in town in early April for the grand opening of Alice Cooper'stown across from Jacobs Field, he looked relaxed, fit, and friendly, signing autographs, giving sound bites, and tossing his long black hair with manly insouciance. And no, he wasn't wearing the eye makeup.
While hardcore fans of the old Alice -- the guy who once promoted madness, mayhem, and intimate relations with the dead, and ended each concert by staging his own execution -- may find the new Alice hard to fathom, precedent does exist. This is, after all, the same Alice Cooper whose satirically subversive leanings once led him to infiltrate Middle America by way of appearances on Hollywood Squares. If nothing else, we know the man has a knack for self-promotion and a wicked sense of humor.
However, Alice's partner in Cleveland is Main Street and Main Inc., the world's largest franchisee of T.G.I. Friday's and operators of Redfish Grill & Bars, and when it comes to Cooper'stown, presumably the players aren't kidding around. The first-floor space in the Dallas Building (a former Redfish) has been remodeled into a handsome, commodious spot, with a smoking-permitted barroom on one side and a good-looking nonsmoking dining room on the other. Stone tiles pave the floors, red bricks cover the walls, and tabletops are made of shiny wood. An impressively large video "wall" runs the entire length of the bar, showing everything from ball games to Bruce Springsteen concerts (the concert footage gets a little edgier later in the evening, notes Director of Operations Tim Rose). In addition, dozens of TVs dangle from the ceiling, providing a dizzying bombardment of sports, sitcoms, news, and trivia games.
And yet, for a place with the motto "Where Rock and Roll and Sports Collide," the atmosphere at Cooper'stown feels calculated, commercial, and prepackaged. Sure, you've got the requisite autographed album covers and framed photos of Elvis, the signed footballs and the vintage jerseys, and the state-of-the-art sound system. But if it weren't for the prominent displays of the Cooper'stown logo, you couldn't tell the place from any other sports bar in the city. The banality even extends to the staff's appearance: While we're told that, in a sly wink to the fans, servers at the Phoenix Cooper'stown wear Alice-style eye makeup, in sleepy little Cleveland, the faces are fresh-scrubbed and wholesomely Midwestern.
Phoenix diners also seem to have snagged a more interesting menu, with choices like coconut shrimp; artichoke, cheese, and crab dip; and blue-cheese escargot on focaccia toast points. Clevelanders? We get wings, potato skins, and chicken fingers. Moreover, in Phoenix, barbecued meats (a house specialty) include smoked beef brisket, smoked turkey, and hot links, with a choice of three barbecue sauces. The mundane Cleveland version of this is ribs, ribs and chicken, and ribs and shrimp. As for main dishes, the Southwesterners feast on cedar-planked salmon and chipotle-chicken pasta. Us? Let's see . . . there's fried fish, fried shrimp, fried chicken fingers, fried shrimp with fried fish, and fried chicken fingers with fried shrimp. Obviously, someone at corporate HQ seems to think Clevelanders' tastes are a good 20 years behind the curve.
What the food lacks in originality or appeal, though, it sometimes tries to make up for in sheer brawn. How else to explain the incendiary baby-back ribs, basted in a pepper-laden barbecue sauce so fiery, it practically gave off sparks? Or the Buffalo-style wings: meaty, tender, but screaming beneath a thrashing of Tabasco?
Fortunately, the menu includes more mercifully executed options as well. A big serving of fried Atlantic cod, part of a fish-and-chips platter, was pleasantly light and sweet, with a crisp, delicate batter. An eight-ounce grilled Angus beef burger, topped with bacon, cheese, red onion, and pickle chips, had an enticing aroma and a satisfying heft, and was just greasy enough to qualify as bar food. And the meat in a pulled pork sandwich was moist and toothsome, while the splat of barbecue sauce that topped it was vaguely sweet, relatively mild, and roundly flavorful. (Rose says this is the very same sauce used on those five-alarm ribs. Why it tastes so different in this context remains a mystery.)
Under the heading of "No More Mr. Nice Pie," loaded pizzas come in seven different guises, including cheese, pepperoni, corned beef and sauerkraut, barbecued chicken, and chopped hamburger with ketchup and mustard (now that's scary). We opted for the suitably excessive Buffalo Chicken Pizza, with mozzarella, Monterey Jack, cheddar, and crumbled blue cheese goosed with red onion, green onion, cubes of grilled chicken, and a toned-down application of the Buffalo wing sauce. The thin, chewy crust was particularly good, and the pie rated a solid thumbs-up around our table.
Most sandwiches and entrées come with a small plastic cup of crisp, lightly dressed cole slaw (a blessed relief after some of the fiery dishes) and a pileup of limp, seasoned french fries. Skip the frozen fries (unless you order them beneath a layer of the tasty "Rock City" chili and cheese) and instead order a batch of freshly battered onion rings, with an enjoyable crunch and peppery zip. But stick to the slaw: The alternative, the Rock the House Salad ($1.99 with most meals, $3.50 on its own) was enormous but ultimately boring, with a scant amount of shredded cheese, a flat-footed Italian dressing, and greens so poorly drained, they formed a puddle at the bottom of the bowl.
As befitting the basic bar food, Cooper'stown stocks a solid array of beer, both in bottles and on draft; we just wish management would commit the list to writing, as it is hard to catch the servers' recitations above the blaring music. Among the usual on-tap offerings (Bud, Guinness, Great Lakes' Dortmunder Gold, and so on), we were intrigued by a pint of Coop's Poison Ale ($3.75) -- a smooth, golden brew that, despite its bad ol' name, was crisp, fruity, and slightly sweet, and is brewed especially for the restaurant -- not in Alice's garage, as Rose initially maintained, but by a local microbrewery that he ultimately declined to identify.
We made a point of visiting Cooper'stown at times when the Tribe was on the road, half expecting that the place, like so many other Gateway eateries before it, would be deserted. But both at a workday lunch and on a rainy Saturday evening, the dining room was nearly full, with an entirely normal-looking crowd of office workers, barhoppers, and out-of-towners, including small children and more than a few folks old enough to have detested Alice back in his prime.
It's a delicious irony -- and one that probably isn't lost on the performer or his people. But hype has its limits, and in the face of the run-of-the-mill food and ambiance, celebrity can drive this vehicle just so far. Like a plain white T-shirt from Abercrombie & Fitch, the only thing unique about Alice Cooper'stown is its label.