Friendly’s Empire landmark stands the test of time
At Joe’s Friendly Tavern in Empire, meals are served all day, the burgers are fresh, and yes, it’s always friendly.
The Empire bar and grill has been in business since 1945. Frank and Mary Lerchen bought it in 2006, and they are only the fourth owners. “Mike Wiesen owned it, and before that it was the Meads and the Deerings,” said Frank following a morning breakfast rush. Lerchen came to the restaurant with a lifetime’s work in the industry. It all began with Donkey Kong.
“I would go to Pizza Plus in Traverse City to play Donkey Kong,” said Lerchen. One day the owner said to Lerchen, “Think you can handle a broom?” “From 13 to 17 I worked there,” said Lerchen. Then it was on to the Flap Jack Shack, where Lerchen first began to find his way around the kitchen. “I wanted to learn to cook.”
After a couple years there, Lerchen heard about a new restaurant opening up on West Bay Shore Drive on the way to Suttons Bay. He met with the owner and became the first hire for Phil Murray at Windows, the fine dining restaurant on the shore of West Bay.
From there it was on to Colorado, where Lerchen worked for a chef he said was “the meanest guy ever. But boy, could he cook.” He gained experience in everything from salads to sauces, and brought that education back with him when he began working once again at Windows.
That’s when Mike Wiesen, the owner of the Friendly and the Village Inn in Empire and Art’s in Glen Arbor, asked Lerchen if he could also help him out in his expanded kitchen. Lerchen agreed, and after a stint working at both Windows and the Friendly, began working fulltime for Wiesen.
When Wiesen decided he’d spent enough time running a restaurant, the Lerchens purchased the Friendly and the Village Inn.
Lerchen says the Friendly’s signature dish is the hamburger. Rather than dress it up with any abstruse flavorings or special sauce, Lerchen says it’s the fact the meat is fresh-ground every day that makes it so special. “We use only grassfed steer,” he said. He also says he’s reluctant to change anything about it, as it’s the same recipe that’s been used for decades, down to the bun.
“Sometimes people harp on to change the bun at least,” he said with a laugh, describing it as “just a cheap butter bun.” But Lerchen says he’s afraid of doing anything that would alienate loyalists.
“There was a guy who was sitting right here,” he said, gesturing to a chair behind him. “He stood up and said in a loud voice he wanted to see the manager. I asked him how I could help him, and he wanted to shake my hand. He was a coal miner from West Virginia who said the burger we made was the closest thing he’d ever had to the kind his mother had made for him.
“For a week while he was on vacation he came in here every day.”
Lerchen says despite that reputation, he knows some people might want something else, and he gives his wife credit for coming up with some of the other dishes that dot the menu or the nightly specials they run.
Such as the char-grilled lake trout with a buerre blanc butter and stone ground mustard sauce, with a root slaw made with shredded carrots, beets, turnips and parsnips with an olive oil and lime juice dressing. Lerchen says that dish may be the single best thing the restaurant serves.
Another of his favorites is walleye, which is lightly breaded in Panko bread crumbs, cornmeal, flour and salt and pepper, pan-fried and served with a pistachio butter.
“I try to only do freshwater fish – trout, whitefish, bluegill. We even did some sunfish last summer. Our Mexican food is really good too,” said Lerchen.
Most of those specials are only served in the summer, when the Friendly is packed. How packed? The staff goes from 60 in the height of summer to eight in the off-season.
“We are so fortunate to have a group of people who care about the place,” Lerchen said of the staff. “The rookie has been here 10 years.”
DON’T MISS: The hamburger, of course. Fresh-ground every day, it’s the signature dish for a reason.
COST: Burgers from $7; Salads from $10; Breakfast from $3-7.50