Compared to the band’s theatrical concerts, which feature spectacular decapitations and crowd-drenching eviscerations, plans for the satirical heavy metal band GWAR’s upcoming Richmond restaurant sound much more sane.
For instance, patrons of the bar in the historic Jackson Ward district will apparently not have to endure torrents of fake blood (or other bodily fluids) just to get through the door. And even though the band’s Web site describes the menu as “intergalactic gourmet junk food,” guitarist/chef Mike Derks says that translates into decidedly of-this-planet offerings: house-made hot dogs, freshly ground burgers and “nuggets” marrying duck and chicken meat.
“I’m making foodie food for people who aren’t foodies,” Derks says.
It turns out that 46-year-old Derks (stage name: Balsac the Jaws of Death) has worked in restaurants and bars for more than three decades. Other than touring with GWAR, which describes itself as “Earth’s only openly extra-terrestrial rock band,” Derks said hospitality work “has been the one job I have been able to keep.”
He has wanted to open a GWAR-themed bar or restaurant for years, but it wasn’t until last summer that plans started to fall into place. That’s when venture capitalist Jonathan Staples, a fan who has become the band’s unofficial goodwill ambassador, spearheaded the project — and got other local tastemakers on board. The plan took on more priority in the wake of the drug-overdose death in March of Dave Brockie (a.k.a. Oderus Urungus), GWAR’s charismatic lead singer and founding member.
Staples had bonded years earlier with D.C. chefs and fellow GWAR fans Bryan Voltaggio and Mike Isabella after meeting them through his wife, Hilda, the entrepreneur behind the growing empires of the chefs. Similarly, when he met cocktail guru Derek Brown in 2011, he said the nightlife impresario couldn’t help but quiz him about all things thrash metal.
“We started going to shows after that,” Staples said.
Staples had been prodding Brockie, whom he met in the 1980s, and Derks to establish a hangout for diehard fans. Staples finally greased the skids by inviting Brockie, Derks and GWAR drummer Brad Roberts to dinner last summer at Rappahannock restaurant in Richmond. He then asked Travis Croxton, Rappahannock’s owner and another devoted GWAR fan, to join him — without disclosing the rest of the guest list.
“I introduced him to the guys and said, ‘Travis, one word: GWARbar,’ ” Staples said. “He looked at me, then the guys, and said ‘I’m in.’ ”
Still, the bandmates didn’t fully buy into the plan until Brown and Voltaggio visited backstage at a Merriweather Post Pavilion concert in June 2013 to pick up a painting Brockie had done to help christen Brown and Croxton’s oyster restaurant in Shaw, Eat the Rich (named for a Motorhead song). The restaurateurs liked the proposal, boosting the band’s confidence.
Getting involved was a no-brainer for Brown. The punk-rock aficionado says he has been hooked on the showmanship and salacious wit of GWAR ever since “Sick of You” wormed its way into his skull in the early 1990s. “Let’s talk about the last show before Dave Brockie passed away, at 9:30 [Club],” Brown said. “It was incredible. The best I’ve ever seen and among my top five concerts.”
Ben Eisendrath, president of the high-end grill company Grillworks, went to his first GWAR concert in 2012. Once the band started rocking — and the prosthetic heads began rolling — Eisendrath quickly fell under their spell.
“Nothing was taken seriously, except putting on an absolute epic spectacle,” he recalled. “A virgin, I was, of course, advised to wear a disposable white T-shirt.”
Which is why when Derks began hunting for superfans to berate in prerecorded mock interviews to build interest in the forthcoming restaurant, Eisendrath — along with Brown, Voltaggio and Toki Underground’s Erik Bruner-Yang — jumped at the chance. The video is available on Indiegogo, where the band is raising money for the bar.
All the principals involved confirmed that the bar at 217 West Clay St. is a go, at least in a “bare-bones” style, even though the Indiegogo campaign raised less than $22,000 of its $50,000 goal. Croxton, a full-fledged partner in the project, said the money they were soliciting from fans will go to turbocharge the next phase: completing the second floor (kitchen, bar and dining room) and outdoor beer garden.
According to Croxton, the motley crew devoted the balance of 2013 to searching for the ideal location. They finally stumbled upon what he described as “an old juke joint” with tons of character. “They were serving drinks out of plastic cups . . . [but] I don’t think they had prepared food in several decades,” he said. “The vibe was just right.”
Perfect for them, but maybe not so much for the owners. “Would you want to be GWAR’s landlord?” Staples said.
Staples finally cut a deal to buy the ramshackle building that had housed the CrossRoads Lounge while the band was wreaking havoc on tour of Australia. “When they left to fly out, we were all bummed because we’d struck out on several places and the bar idea was homeless. When they landed in the U.S., I was able to give them the good news,” Staples said.
Derks loves that the oddly shaped building sticks out like a sore thumb. “The fact that it’s sitting there by itself, it’s like the other buildings are shunning it,” he said.
Construction crews have stripped the building down to the floorboards. By mid-August, if the ground floor is squared away, Derks says he thinks the bar should be able to accommodate around 50 patrons. Once the patio is renovated into a beer garden, “we’ll have room for several hundred,” he said.
Besides the hot dogs, burgers and nuggets, Derks plans a dessert plate featuring his takes on Twinkies and Ho-Hos. He also wants to make room for the signature “meat sandwiches” (think: slow-cooked pork butt) featured at last year’s GWAR-B-Q, the fourth annual event that also includes head-banging music and a competition dubbed the Spew-O-Lympics. Derks designed a sauce with Original Juan Specialty Foods in Kansas City, Kan. The maple-and-beer-laced sauce has “some heat, some sweetness . . . and a really nice smokiness to it,” he said.
How else will the GWAR attitude infiltrate the space? Derks is putting the band’s stamp on the interior, including fashioning a bar forged from ice, glass, steel and stone. “Walking into GWARbar will be like entering GWAR’s Antarctic stronghold,” Derks said. Tables will be adorned with display cases featuring band posters and tour memorabilia; Derks also anticipates employing original GWAR-related sculptures as light fixtures.
And the band’s hilariously grotesque armors will be on full display. “We will also rotate different pieces from our collection of costumes and props,” he said.
In the meantime, Croxton is hammering out administrative issues and intimated that some of his chefs have made themselves available to help with menu planning. “It’s the closest we can get to a rock-and-roll thing,” he said.
Although he’s not formally attached to the project, Brown has recruited two of his bar managers, J.P. Fetherston of Southern Efficiency and Rob Tinney at Eat the Rich, to each create a cocktail. (Fetherston’s is called, in true GWAR style, “Alien Secretion.”) And Tampa, Fla.-based Cigar City Brewing has been tapped to supply custom beers it has crafted for the band, such as GWAR Impaled Pale Ale and the soon-to-be-released GWAR Killsner .
If the building work or permitting gets delayed, Derks has a contingency plan. “I’ve already purchased a GWAR food cart,” he said. “So, if we have to, we can serve barbecue sandwiches in our parking lot.”
When the restaurant officially opens, Derks expects to offer dinner and late-night dining (5 p.m.-2 a.m.) to start. Sunday brunch will come next, followed by daily lunch service.
And even though the fake blood will be kept to a minimum, Derks promises some surprises.
“We don’t want to go so crazy that we’re going to alienate people,” Derks stressed. But even a restrained GWAR, he said, “is still pretty crazy.”
A public memorial for Dave Brockie is scheduled for Aug. 15 at Hadad’s Lake in Richmond; the band’s fifth annual GWAR-B-Q, a celebration of music and mayhem, is scheduled for Aug. 16. For information, go to www.gwar.net.