Building the Empire

Cicione’s reinvents itself, puts focus on beer

Brett Bachman, photos by Andrea Paulseth

SELF SERVE BREW? Using iPads, the “beer wall” at Empire American Bar & Grill (previously Cicione’s Italian Restaurant) allows customers to open a tab or prepay for a set amount of beer and serve themselves throughout their visit.
SELF SERVE BREW? Using iPads, the “beer wall” at Empire American Bar & Grill (previously Cicione’s Italian Restaurant) allows customers to open a tab or prepay for a set amount of beer and serve themselves throughout their visit.

Sitting behind the bar at Empire American Bar & Grill is a sign that simply reads, “If you don’t like the food, drink more beer.” The good news is that you’ll probably like the food. Regardless, you’ll probably find yourself drinking more beer.

After more than a decade of operating Cicione’s Italian Restaurant at the same location, 120 N. Clairemont Ave., the owners saw business stagnate into what they described as a “depressing” state, and were looking for ways to add a little fun to everyday operations.

“It was boring,” admits one of the owners. “People were coming in and reading books at dinner. It wasn’t a social situation at all.”

After menu changes last January failed to produce the desired results, the restaurants’ managers decided that it was time to change things up and find something “fun and different” to give the community.

“There’s only so much you can do with Italian food,” said the owner. “There’s just a limit, especially in this town.”

After a lengthy brainstorm, inspiration for the restaurant again came from overseas, this time from the United Kingdom. After looking for ideas high and low, a relative of the owner living in England mentioned a bar in Liverpool that has a wall of self-serve tap beer.

It was an opportunity not only to introduce the concept to the Chippewa Valley, but to the nation as a whole. Empire’s signature attraction is the United States’ first self-serve tap beer wall. A company in Ireland was willing to work with Empire to expand the idea from a small table serving Guinness to a wall serving multiple varieties of craft beer.

Run entirely through a few iPads, the beer wall allows customers to open a tab or prepay for a set amount of beer and serve themselves throughout their visit. After showing an ID and paying, patrons receive a “fob” and drink to their hearts’ content from Empire’s vast selection of craft beers, which changes every week. For safety and business reasons, after every 32 ounces of beer poured each patron must check with a staff member to resume the “session.”

And although it might be tempting to come just for the wall of beer, remember that Empire still offers a full menu specializing in burgers and pizza as well as American-style entrees such as pulled pork tacos and Philly cheesesteak sandwiches. “Fresh, Modern, American” is the motto on the restaurant’s logo, though a few Italian pasta options still remain as a reminder of the establishment’s Italian history.

The decor inside Empire is described as “rustic” and “unfinished, to a point,” which gives the space a truly American feel, almost minimalist in its execution. Wood paneling and tin sheets on the walls conjure up images of the American Southwest, while steel girders on the ceiling are quintessentially urban, evoking the New York skyline portrayed on Empire’s logo, an image designed completely in-house by the owner.

Televisions are placed strategically throughout the space, and are especially concentrated at the bar area, allowing customers to catch the game or watch the news while enjoying their meal or drinks. And while it is hard to picture during this time of year, there is also an outdoor patio area that can be used for dining in warmer weather.

The atmosphere within Empire is a “happy medium” between family dining and a true sports bar, a place that can be enjoyed by anyone who is a fan of “good food made fresh.”

Empire is located at 120 N. Clairemont Ave. in Eau Claire.

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