Bay Horse Cafe Goes Back to the Future

The historic downtown hangout, iconic neon sign and all, finds new life yet again for a spring reopening.
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MARCH 2024

PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF BAY HORSE CAFE

Cincinnati’s home to plenty of historical haunts, and when it comes to drinking establishments from the days of yore, talk usually turns to Arnold’s, the oldest continuously operating watering hole in the city. But for the sheer audacity of its will to survive, Bay Horse Cafe deserves a special nod. Under off-and-on threat of disappearance for the past 200-plus years, the famous (occasionally infamous) bar has once again pulled off the impossible to emerge from permanent closure to sling suds to Cincinnatians.

Bay Horse stakeholders trace the bar’s roots back to 1817, a Water Street location that suffered frequent flooding. It moved a few times, landing on Fifth Street where, in 1878, it picked up its name after a horse broke free of its pen across the street and wandered into the cozy interior. During prohibition, then-owner Gus Schmieg kept the establishment going by selling soft drinks (or “soft drinks,” depending on whom you ask), and the drinkery moved to its current location at 625 Main Street in 1968 when the federal building forced relocation. By 2004, the business had fallen on hard times and, after a shooting occurred outside its front window, the city declined renewal of its liquor license. For a while, the building faced threat of demolition. But, in true fashion, it avoided the wrecking ball in the end.

Then, in 2017, a local entrepreneur and real estate investor named Fred Berger bought the building and, alongside his partner, Lori Meeker, renovated the bar, returning it to its glory days. The reopened Bay Horse Cafe quickly became a beloved local fixture until the tragic death of Meeker led to yet another closure. A “For Rent” sign eventually appeared in the front window. Which brings us to today.

A longtime local bartender, Kyle Smith had been looking for a place to call his own for more than a year when he heard the Bay Horse was for rent. He called the number, and Berger answered. The two instantly hit it off.

“He said, ‘You can’t change anything,’” Smith recalls. “’The sign has to stay on the front. I don’t want you to change the name.’ I said, ‘Fred, you don’t have to worry about a thing.’”

He does have plans for putting his own mark on the place, though, including installation of a jukebox, bringing in some games, and playing old movies and TV shows around the space. (“But if somebody comes in and wants me to put on the game, I’m going to put on the game. I’m a bartender. We’re hospitable like that.”) He’s also adding a wine program and a high-end cocktail menu.

Then there’s the whole time travel thing.

“Going forward, the Bay Horse will be a time-travel bar,” Smith declares. “All of my cocktails are named after famous time travelers. I have a vodka drink called the DeLorean. I’ve got a London gin drink. Obviously, we had to call that the TARDIS because of Doctor Who. I’ve got an Excellent Adventure, an Aperol drink that tastes like Hawaiian Punch—that’s Bill and Ted all day long.”

One big inspiration for the theme comes from the Bay Horse’s interior decor, which features numerous articles from throughout the years, all detailing the bar’s historic run. “There’s a hundred years of history right on my walls,” says Smith, a self-described “time travel nerd.” “Every decade is represented in a framed photo of a newspaper article, running all the way from the early 1900s to now.”

But there’s another weirder layer to the time-travel tale, an experience Smith had in 2017 with a unique bar patron—unkempt with wild hair and beard, but dressed in expensive clothes and accessories—he believes might have been a touch timey-wimey himself. (Other area bartenders also recount strange tales of the patron.)

“We’re trying to flush this guy out,” he says. “At what point does someone walk into the Bay Horse Cafe, the first-ever time travel bar in America, and say, ‘Hey man, my machine is outside. Are you ready to see ancient Rome?’ Is that a possibility? Bay Horse Cafe is calling all time travelers!”

Sci-fi storyline aside, though, Smith knows he’s been entrusted with a special piece of Cincinnati history. He’s clearly excited and brimming with ideas for his stint behind the bar, but he points to Berger and Meeker as the modern-day protagonists of this epochal tale, which is set to start up once again, just in time for Reds season.

“I’m simply the man at the wheel,” he explains. “I’m just going to be opening and operating the Bay Horse. Lori Meeker and Fred Berger are the real heroes here and have been the ones to put in the work to make the Bay Horse what it is today.”

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