The Empire dives back

Durham’s townie bar gets an overhaul and a new deli next door

Photo by Ken Smith

The roughly six-mile stretch of The Midway between Chico and Durham is a scenic short drive—or moderate-length bike ride—at any time of the year. In spring, the surrounding almond orchards bloom with pink-tinged white blossoms, and the ancient walnut and oak trees lining the roadway provide a cooling canopy during the valley’s scorching summers. Soon, the landscape transforms into a kaleidoscope of autumn hues, making way for the stark beauty of winter.

Change is good, and inevitable, even in places that seem like they’ve been the same—and will remain so—forever.

Take, for example, Durham’s venerable Empire Club, which for years stood as a classic small-town dive bar—down-home, dimly lit, a bit gritty and seemingly unchanged for decades. In other words, marvelous, if you enjoy that type of atmosphere.

A ham-and-swiss sammie from the Durham Deli and “tug” of beer from the Empire Club. (Photo by Ken Smith)

In 2018, the long-time owner of the business, Richard Wood, passed away, leaving the town without a dive bar for two years until it reopened under the ownership of Dave Day and his wife, Cricket. From the get-go, Dave aspired to keep the bar’s small-town, salt-of-the-earth appeal, but the space also needed a serious overhaul. He’s accomplished just that.

“It’s still a dive bar, just a clean dive bar,” he said during a recent visit to the Empire Club.

Dave shared some horror stories about how badly the building had deteriorated before his stewardship. The bathrooms were notoriously grungy, with a makeshift drainage system made of rain gutters dumping water from a leaking ceiling in the ladies’ room out of a window. Refrigerator systems behind the bar, he said, were dirty, rusted and sitting on bare earth, with the concrete flooring apparently poured around them.

Now, the large, open barroom is clean, airy and well-lit. The walls are freshly sheet-rocked and painted a calming light gray in areas where not covered with shiny corrugated metal; a new, concrete bar dominates the large north side in front of blue-lit shelves stocked with liquor; and the bathrooms are downright pleasant. But the soul of the place—which Dave said has been a bar for approximately 100 years—remains the same.

“I wanted it to be a good fit for the community,” he said, “a place where everyone—farmers, ranchers, locals, visitors—can all feel comfortable and welcome.”

While the revamped bar has been going strong since 2020, the Days more recently opened the Durham Deli next door. The deli stands alone though is also connected to the Empire Club via an interior doorway, making it possible to enjoy a nice lunch without abandoning your bar stool.

Owner Dave Day inside the remodeled Empire Club, the dive bar in the small community of Durham. (Photo by Ken Smith)

Durham Deli offers a full array of sandwiches and sides, including build-your-owns, classics like The Italian (Italian meats, veggies, provolone cheese and garlic aioli) and some house specialties (The Jerky Time Brat, for example, features locally made cheese-stuffed bratwurst with kraut, mustard, onions and horseradish aioli). The most popular selection, according to Dave, is The Hot Beef—a French dip-style roast beef sammie served with au jus for dunking. All sandwiches are $7.95 (small) and $10.95 (large).

Sides include the usual deli fare (macaroni, potato, pasta and green salads, chips, cookies) or a bag of jerky. Beer, wine, soda and iced tea are served in the deli, plus the Empire’s full bar is just a few dozen feet away.

During a recent visit, I enjoyed a large ham-and-swiss sandwich and side of pasta salad while sitting at the bar, and washed it down with a “tug” of beer (they offer drafts in 16-ounce pints, 26-ounce tugs and 34-ounce schooners; prices are $5, $7.50, $9 for domestics and $6, $8.50, $10 for craft beers and imports).

The bar was mostly empty when I arrived that afternoon but started filled up quickly beginning around 4 p.m. Neighborly conversation and laughter filled the air, and patrons started games of pool and shuffleboard (both free!) as the jukebox played classic rock. I enjoyed the tasty sandwich, cold beer, friendly faces and that indescribable, familiar-but-foreign feeling one only finds in someone else’s neighborhood bar.

As a long-time fan of the Empire Club, I was perfectly happy with both the old and the new. It’s well worth the short trip.

Empire Club
9391 Midway, Durham, (530) 343-1301

Durham Deli
9387 Midway, Durham, (530) 636-4629, facebook.com/durha
mdeli

Day hangs with customers sitting on a bench outside the Empire Club. (Photo by Ken Smith)

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1 Comment

  1. Richard Wood never owned the building; he was just a renter. His pleas to the landlord to make repairs fell on deaf ears.

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