The Flame Restaurant began as a BBQ joint in a decrepit storefront on London Road sometime in the '30's. Jimmy Oreck presided over the makeshift kitchen and motley assortment of discarded school desks bolted to the "dining room" floor much like Charles de Gaulle presided over wartime France--austere, imperious, elegant, laconic, absurd. No one and everyone was his friend.
I knew it as a free-standing Moderne building at the water's edge of 5th Ave. W, a solid industrial block of warehouses or so below the RR station. Through its large plate-glass windows in the 2nd floor dining room one had a clear view of the Aerial Lift Bridge, St. Louis Bay, and Lake Superior beyond. Despite its elegance and grace, there was always something of the joint still there to give it life.
At the top of the wide and graceful curving stair was a large wooden ship's wheel, a big brass bell and Jimmy Oreck, maitre d'. Friends received a grumble of recognition, others got much less. But, when the bridge opened and a ship passed through, he clanged the big bell and announced in a drole monotone through the loudspeaker, "The Julian B. Simmons, Cleveland Cliffs Steamship Company...." And the big ship would glide by huge and silent, awesome--I feel it now.
Charlie Kasmir tended the big mahogany bar up a few steps from the dining floor. We always sat at Irma's station. The menu was big, had all the fancy stuff for the tourists, but the regulars knew better. Irma told you what was good and there were nods all around--most times fish or steak. There were wonderful popovers, special potatoes, and other stuff.
There was a bandstand and a dancefloor. Big names played through the years. Jerry's folks, Nat and Viola, flew in Skitch Henderson and the NBC orchestra for their 35th Wedding Anniversary. The next day, Sunday, the band came over to our house to "jam" with my Dad and the locals. They were all over the house, out in the backyard, eating corn-beef sandwiches, big dill pickles, potato salad, coleslaw, drinking Ham's beer, and blowing up a storm.
My Dad always sat in and played a couple of numbers with the band, sometimes a whole set if the regular drummer was making time. My folks, Aunt Betty and Uncle George, Ben and Jean, Arnold and Shirley--were terrific dancers. They'd eat, dance till 11pm or so, then finish up at Tony's Caberet, a real jazz dive across the bay in Superior. WI. The old black musicians pumped out pure prewar jazz--dixieland with a big-band beat--impassive, barely moving, but the sound had passion. The place had been decorated for Valentine's Day in 1939 and that's how it remained until the old lady died.
The Flame had its ups and downs. Chefs quit, money was tight, whatever it was Irma gave us the news out of the side of her mouth. Just when businesses were thinking of pulling out of downtown, the Flame moved to Superior Street. Jimmy spent a fortune decorating the main dining room like a tropical rainforest complete with a live monkey, signed a disastrous long-term lease, neglected the food, and watched the patrons vote with their feet. The joint was gone. A group of them tried to revive it a couple of times, keep Jimmy out of trouble, but they were beating a dead horse.
The scion of a local but nationally prominent businessman bought the name, spent a fortune decorating it in slick, upscale New York style. He tried to palm off the food suppliers' portion-controlled, flash-frozen, top o'the line, hotel chain fare but it was no go. He pulled the plug in less than a year, started selling yuppified hamburgers and fries in a converted warehouse decorated with the usual antique tools and sepia photos, gave it a cute name, and made his own fortune.
Jimmy died a while back, Charlie Casmir not too long ago. The Oreck family makes those satisfaction-guaranteed-or-your-money-back vacuums sold all over the place. The building stood for a long time even after all the industrial buildings have been torn down around it; it's gone now. There's a new convention center across the street, a new park alongside. The RR station's been turned into a cultural center--a form of artificial life support. After the Flame closed for good, Jimmy's widow opened a little BBQ place on London Road called the Flamette. It was clean and pretty and no joint. It changed hands a couple of times, called The Lemon Tree which was about right. Now there's nothing there at all.