Ypsilanti’s Tower Inn is getting a Mary makeover.
Tower Inn Cafe owners Rois and Nathalie Savvides were putting the final touches on their new, pared-down menu when Pride Source checked in with them recently. Many of the restaurant’s signature dishes will remain when Hamburger Mary’s, an LGBTQ-friendly bar and grill franchise with locations across the country, collaborates with the storied Ypsilanti pizza joint on a concept the owners hope will have broad appeal (no pun intended). They opened in January and a grand reopening is planned for March.
And yes, the spinach cheese triangles stay. The pizza Blanca, breadsticks and Greek salad made the cut, too.
“I chose the 20 percent of our items that were top favorites,” said Rois. Those favorites will round out Hamburger Mary’s full menu.
And for those uninitiated, Hamburger Mary’s may be a place to eat and drink, but food is not what made the franchise famous. Drag shows and other entertainment are featured throughout the evenings, some of it family-friendly, some a little more risqué.
“It’s not all going to be rolled out right away,” said co-owner Doug Hanchett. “We’re going to have karaoke — we call it MaryOke — a couple of nights a week, hosted by drag queens. There’ll be trivia hosted by a drag queen…’bitchy bingo’ where [customers] can win fun little prizes and whatnot.” In addition, “Dining with the Divas,” Hamburger Mary’s signature drag offering, is on the menu, too. Late Friday and Saturday nights will be saved for the adult crowd, with live entertainment including burlesque. Hanchett also mentioned an open mic night.
“There’s lots of new drag queens popping up everywhere,” said Hanchett, who performs as Chanel Hunter. “We want to be able to give them a platform to grow their art and earn a chance to work with us.”
Hanchett was tightlipped about potential headlining main acts because the contracts aren’t yet finalized. But, “I have some of the biggest names in [‘RuPaul’s] Drag Race’ already secured for February, March and April,” he said.
It was Hanchett who approached the couple about exploring a dual-concept restaurant. As the owner of a Hamburger Mary’s in Grand Rapids, which is now “on pause” due to the pandemic, it’s clear Hanchett is passionate about bringing the restaurant’s feel-good vibe to another Michigan locale.
“It’s a fun environment,” Hanchett said. “Anyone who walks in the door is accepted. Even though it’s LGBTQ-owned, it’s not necessarily a gay bar.”
Grand Rapids resident Jimmy Link agrees. Link, who is gay, could be found at the Grand Rapids Hamburger Mary’s once or twice a week when they were still open. While Link said the venue may not be a typical gay bar, “it’s definitely a restaurant and lounge-entertainment location, where there are drag performers.”
Link said he would notice when groups who love drag came in with their partners, often the partner was uneasy at first, but, “nine times out of 10, they seem very involved at the end,” he said, and they were at least watching the show instead of a game on TV. “The hosts get them involved.”
The Savvides and Hanchett all emphasized the family-friendly atmosphere of Hamburger Mary’s, which bills itself as an “open-air bar and grille for open-minded people.”
“Family is part of what we do at Hamburger Mary’s,” Hanchett said.
Hanchett described a scenario where a mom and dad with two kids might be at a table enjoying an early evening drag performance while the kids are handing dollar bills to the drag queens. Or, “a kid who comes in who is almost paralyzed in fear to go out in public with his mom and dad because they’re identifying as trans now —and they feel comfortable going here,” Hanchett said.
Hamburger Mary’s is also the kind of place where a patron might feel inspired to join a spontaneous conga line trailing behind a local drag queen after one of the regulars requests “Wepa” by Gloria Estefan. At least, that’s what Link experienced recently. “It was something you would picture in a movie,” he recalled.
While the Savvides and Hanchett together own the new-fashioned restaurant, which is located across the street from Eastern Michigan University, the Savvides are taking a step back to become silent partners. Rois and Nathalie both attended EMU and The Tower Inn Café, established in 1975, is integral to who they are. “We had our first date there, a long time ago,” Rois said. They purchased the restaurant in 1997.
But like many restaurants, Tower Inn was hit hard by the pandemic.
“Our business is tied into the university,” Rois said. They’re located at the corner of College Place and Cross Street, and many professors would walk across the street from EMU to dine there. When classes went online, their clientele — and staff — dwindled.
“We did very well for years [but] the pandemic affected us more than any other restaurant,” Rois said. “We went from 55 employees to having maybe, toward the end, 15 employees.”
That’s where the makeover comes in. When Hanchett approached the couple with his idea for a dual concept, the Savvides were won over by the welcoming spirit of the franchise.
“One of the things that really inspired us and helped us make the decision to go forward with this Hamburger Mary’s concept is how Hamburger Mary’s strives to be a safe place for everybody,” Nathalie explained. “It doesn’t matter your background. It doesn’t matter who you love, the color of your skin, your religious background. It just wants to be a safe haven for everybody.”
And while that’s true, Hamburger Mary’s also wants to be a place where customers are well fed. To that end, their burgers — like Buffy the Burger Slayer and the one-pound Proud Mary — are part of a “mouthwatering menu” that also includes milkshakes, homemade chili, soups, salads, sandwiches and entrees. For dessert, deep fried Twinkies and Mary Tyler S’mores are just two of the options. And a full-service bar with cocktails, wine and a specialized beer list is available.
Appetizers and sides are some of the popular choices from Hamburger Mary’s menu. Link recommends the Ta-Tas. That is, tater tots. But what he really wanted to talk about were the macaroni and cheese balls.
“They are actual deep-fried balls of mac and cheese,” Link said. “It’s literally what it sounds like. And it is heavenly, especially when you’ve been waiting outside in the cold rainy weather for a show and then you get to go inside and have a nice hot mac and cheese ball. It’s excellent.”