>> I had the pleasure of talking to my friend, Mike Lake about his job as a bar back at the ever-hopping joint, The Playhouse// Swillburger. Nestled on the corner of South Clinton and Meigs, red brick exterior is weathered has continued to stand tall for the past 126 years! While little change has happened on the outside, the inside, however, has gone though some dynamic changes. “It’s called The Playhouse because it was originally the Playhouse Theatre and before that, it was a church,” Lake answered, taking a sip of his espresso. “And the other [Swillburger] is because it’s located in the neighborhood of Swillburg.” Well shoot, that’s one of the best local puns I’ve ever heard! “The vibe there is upbeat, nostalgic… It’s maybe the most fun place I’ve ever worked; it’s the most light-hearted and happy place.”
How did the idea The Playhouse // Swillburger come to exist? “The owners, [Jeff Ching and Brian Van Etten, owners of Rochester’s Owl House] wanted to open a place that they would want to hang out.” Nostalgia, here, is the key: inspired via their childhoods of burger bars and arcades, they found their Mecca. “Plus they figured that just a burger joint was not going to fill up the entire space; it’s not just somewhere for people to go, but it gives people something to do.”
Playhouse is a place for all ages, as it should be, with over 25 arcade games and pinball machines, it rightfully puts certain childhood arcades to shame, one especially rhyming with Duck E. Sneezes. Of course, after 9pm Playhouse becomes a place of nostalgia for patrons 21+. With two distinctly different sets of customers, does it ever throw Lake off? Nope!
“I love working with the kids that come in. I was a bit worried at first, but I totally love it. I have a regular; she’s about nine or ten. She’ll always come in with a fist full of quarters and ask me to make her her favorite drink [a Shirley Temple] and she’ll just do cartwheels in the bar.” I jokingly remark that if you were to see that occurring at any other regular bar, it’d be a bit concerning; Lake laughs, “Not Playhouse! We’re just that inclusive!”
So, how did Playhouse // Swillburger come to be? “It got started through crowd funding and the vibes towards the opening were like a shaken soda bottle, it was a slow build for hype, but it was there.” Originally, Playhouse//Swillburger was supposed to open two years ago but there were some bumps along the way which went unmentioned; regardless, its followers remained loyal: “Our soft opening was on Christmas of last year… there was a line out the door and it continued every single night when we first opened. We actually ran out of patties on our first day, and buns on our second.”
The burger menu itself is simple: start with a bun from Rochester’s Flour City Bread Company. Then, you have the option of either a beef patty, [hormone and antibiotic free], sourced directly from Lima’s own Seven Bridges Farm, or a veggie burger made of black beans, brown rice, and beets. Then comes the myriad of free toppings ranging from the basic lettuce and tomato, to the more unique such as “Swillsauce” and “[Van Etten’s] Dad’s pickles.” Moreover, Playhouse is extremely accommodating- everything, sans the bacon and cheese, can be vegan, just let the staff know your restrictions! “There are other food options too, like the BLT, the chicken sammy, or the grilled cheese, and but it is a burger place after all!” Lake is all smiles.
The food diversity can be found in the fries and the “Fantasy Tots,” a daily tater tot special. “It changes every 5-10 days, depending on their popularity and the recipes are a collaborative effort. Right now, we got the Cowboy BBQ Tater Tots, which consist of a secret BBQ dry rub, baked beans, tangy BBQ sauce, pickled onions and scallions. They’re so damn good!” Of course with Lake being a bar back, I had to ask him about the drink and cocktail menu: What would be the number one drink ordered? Lake pauses to think, “You know, we can make you a lot of pretty drinks, and we have had beers from all over the world [Playhouse carries 18 craft beers at a time, just saying], but I think the number one drink will always be Genny. It’s definitely a locals pride thing and I no qualms with that, it just describes Rochester. A Genny and a shot kind of town for sure.”
All of a sudden, Lake’s face lights up when I moved to the cocktails: “ We actually came out with a new cocktail menu! Jay Rodgers, who oversees the bar wanted to draw ideas from everybody. All the bartenders brought it all together in meetings, trying new combinations and now we have seven or eight originals and a few more classics. Collaboration: that’s how you make happy bartenders.” Lake’s favorite new cocktail? “The Requiem Spirit. My friend, Shawna Ewing created it! It’s tequila-based cocktail.” Why does that name sound familiar? “It’s named after a song you learn from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time in the spirit temple!” After Lake laughs hysterically at me freaking over the name, we both agree that the title definitely improves the taste: “The nerdier the better!”
Last but not least, I had to ask what Mike’s favorite game is. “I’m a Space Invaders man, and Galaga is right up there with it, but I can’t play them anymore. I had to stop because I yelled at it [Space Invaders] too much; it was too intense I ended up losing my voice on that machine twice. Not a good look. But trust me, if there’s a day where I didn’t work there for some reason I’d go there and yell at it every single day.”
So the overall feeling of Playhouse // Swillburger: its classic yet modern atmosphere opens the door to everyone whether you’re a current child, or a child at heart; it’s a true one-of-a-kind experience that makes this city all the better. I’ve never seen a person sad while eating tots and kicking some House of the Dead 2-zombie ass. <<
GET IN THE KNOW
The Playhouse // Swillburger
820 Clinton Ave South, Rochester NY
All ages until 9pm. After 9pm, 21+ only
Burgz 11:30am - 10pm (12am on Fri & Sat) // Bar 12pm - 2am Monday – Sunday