It's not often that an identity crisis is a good thing, but Imperial, Ferndale's new kid on the block, views the confusion over what it is -- Bar? Restaurant? Barstaurant? -- as a positive, not a problem.
"We haven't found the perfect term. We hesitate telling people we're a restaurant. We're kind of a pub, a tavern, a cantina. Our focus at the beginning was we want a really cool bar with great food," says co-owner Jeff King, who opened the Woodware Avenue spot with wife Susanne King, old pals Perry and Sharon Lavoisne and longtime music and club promoter Amir Daiza. (The group worked together at St. Andrew's Hall and Small's; now the Lavoisnes live in Los Angeles.) "What we've learned very rapidly is the food is the star right now. And I'm really happy because that's what people are getting to experience: something they don't get everywhere here."
That "something" is an affordable, super-focused menu of homey, Los Angeles-inspired Mexican street food along with beer and drinks meant to invite, not intimidate. Think finely executed carnitas, al pastor and chorizo tacos (and, yes, a few vegetarian options) and 32-ounce cans of Pabst and bottles of Corona that arrive on the table wrapped in a "hillbilly cooler" (more on this later).
Imperial's interior design cues deliver a laid-back vibe, including its frontage, which is open to Woodward when the weather agrees. The ownership dynamic helped chart the venue's course: The Lavoisnes are Detroit natives now living in L.A.; King is just the opposite. King says Perry Lavoisne had found Los Angeles lacking in some elements of Detroit's working-class culture.
"So he missed the social aspects of the corner gathering place, and I missed the food -- the street tacos that are so dominant there," King says. "It's kind of a blend of the Los Angeles subculture and the Detroit working class is what we are, or trying to be."
It certainly won't be an easy blend to achieve once winter rolls around and Imperial's breezy garage doors are slammed down, but King is up to the challenge after making it to his May 23 opening day, nearly a full year after the group got the keys to the building. Licensing issues, interior redesigns, you name it, Imperial went through it.
And on the other side, the owners have found happy patrons ready to wolf down elemental SoCal taco truck-style fare, made-from-scratch margaritas and those oh-so-cool beers.
Now that you've been open for a few weeks, how has it been going?
I think we've reached and maybe exceeded our hope for what the place was going to be. ... We didn't want to be a bar where you had bar food. We wanted to be a place for families around here. That's why we're open 11-2 every single day. We start serving food at 11 and the kitchen closes at midnight.
We've seen a lot of young families. We're seeing a lot of strollers. We're seeing a lot of people enjoying themselves and similar faces and fresh food. It's just kind of a unique atmosphere and different for the area. We're just very happy the way things are going right now.
Your original plan was to open last fall, but there was a lot of red tape to cut through. How frustrating was that?
We actually are pretty happy that we got to open with the weather being what it was now because it's actually so key to how it feels in here for a first-time experience -- with the breeze going through and the open air we have through our building.
They probably would have still enjoyed the food, but the atmosphere and the vibe is really, really key to us. ... There was a silver lining there for sure because we did get to let people enjoy nice weather, the doors open, a new concept, new foods.
Where did the menu inspiration come from?
Everything is as simple as making California street food, which is what Perry eats every day. Talking about a really cool bar with great food is what started us down this road. I love (that food). He knew I lived there. So we started talking about that kind of thing. Amir was all about it. The menu is actually basically what street food in Los Angeles would be.
We're not really a taco truck, per se -- there's a Sonoran hot dog -- but these are the simple foods, the homemade foods, the home remedies and recipes, and things that are fresh and clean and inexpensive. We're not a fine dining establishment. We don't want to be a fine dining establishment. It's very, very California street-inspired.
A couple of your 30-plus beers are served in brown bags -- what you're calling a hillbilly cooler. Could you elaborate?
There's only two beers you're getting that with, so we don't want everyone coming here and wanting the brown bag. It's either the 32-ounce Corona Familiar or the 32-ounce Pabst in the can. Those are the two.
So you get your own little glass and a hillbilly cooler to sit next to you so you can keep that 32 cold.
Are you concerned that people will walk in, look at the design and experience you're delivering, and say, "Ugh, hipster bait"?
Our position is: If we like it, we do it. Haters hate and that's OK. We want people to enjoy and I know that the reaction to our hillbilly cooler has been very good; a lot of people enjoy it. It's kind of the L.A. subculture. We're not a surf place; we're not the typical beach scene that you'd see in California. We're kind of stepping away from the California beach, surfboards and parrots and bikinis. This is what you actually see in places there.
We're not trying to be hipsters. We just want to differentiate ourselves from other new places we all enjoy. We just didn't want to do anything that followed a trend or do something that wasn't unique to the area.
More Details: Imperial
11 a.m.-2 a.m. daily
22828 Woodward, Ferndale