Let the Good Times Roll

Let the Good Times Roll

Illustration by Ryan Snook

 

It’s happy hour on a Friday, and everyone in The Black Sheep, a nightclub-restaurant in Cheviot, looks happy, chattering away around black high-top tables. A three-piece band called Fineline, led by popular west side guitarist Tim Keller, provides some energy, playing an eclectic mix of mellow-ish covers on a stage at the far end of the L-shaped room.

Next to the stage, a door leads to a large patio, where smokers huddle for shivering puffs in the winter air. I’m here with friends, trying to instigate a pub crawl through every bar on the Cheviot entertainment strip, roughly a tenth of a mile along Harrison Avenue. My goal is to fully experience what is becoming one of Cincinnati’s busiest gathering spots for a good time. A friend points out that there are more than 10 bars along that short walk, and by the end of it we will, indeed, be crawling. She has a point. There are actually 13 drinking establishments within a half-dozen blocks of where we’re sitting. Still, there’s no way to fully appreciate the strip without experiencing it. You’re game, right? Then let’s go.

Since we’re already here, we’ll start with The Black Sheep. The happy hour crowd is made up mostly of baby boomers, but younger folk have begun filtering into the place, and by 11 will have it to themselves. A nighttime band starts at 9 to keep things hopping. There’s a good menu of bar food available—appetizers, sandwiches, and a surprisingly delicious pizza.

The Black Sheep is located on the southeastern edge of the Cheviot strip, and since opening on New Year’s 2008 it has drawn patrons from throughout the city, who can either stay and dance the night away or use it as a starting point before heading further west. Which is how owner Scott Scherpenberg planned it. In fact, that’s how he came up with the name. A dark-haired, 30-ish guy bristling with energy, Scherpenberg is a Cheviot native and resident. Using the west side code of naming one’s home parish, he identifies where he grew up simply as, “St. Martin’s.”

A Cheviot fireman by day, he opened the place with partners Greg Kling and Tom Gessendorf. So, why “The Black Sheep,” I ask. Scherpenberg tells me that Cheviot is named after the Cheviot Hills in southern Scotland and was settled by Scots. (This I knew, though in Scotland the word is pronounced like Chev in Chevrolet, while we west-siders say Shiv.)

Cheviot, Scherpenberg continues, also refers to a breed of sheep common in the Scottish hills. Because the breed is white, farmers sometimes lost them if they grazed too high in the snow-covered terrain. To make their herds easier to find, the farmers would mix in a few black ones. Thus “The Black Sheep,” the place that will help anyone in the city find the herd of Cheviot bars.

I’m impressed by the amount of thought put into the name. Scherpenberg goes on to explain the thought he’s put into his establishment. “The goal was to create a place where my mom doesn’t feel too old, and I don’t feel too young,” he says. Given the broad range of ages around us, he seems to have succeeded. He says he’s learned a lot in a short time about the never-ending battle to stay afloat in the current economy.

“It’s not easy,” he says. “You’ve got 13 places inside Cheviot and five more right outside.” But rather than eliminate the competition, he hopes they will work more closely together, believing that the bars collectively draw far more people than any of them would attract by themselves. “You don’t have a lot of entertainment areas in town,” he says. “So we have something unique here.” Eager to find out how unique, we head out the door.

We walk maybe 30 feet to the corner of North Bend Road and Harrison Avenue, turning right on Harrison. A short block later we come to Skin’s Place, with Costello’s right across the street. These no-frills bars cater to locals, with televisions tuned to sports, pool tables, and modest bars. You won’t get a Cosmo or chocolate martini here. A bright sign announces “Skin’s Place” above a navy-blue awning that also announces “Skin’s Place.” Costello’s features a less winsome facade, going more for the battered bunker look. Both places conjure the old days, when bars ruled with far less fanfare. Long-gone establishments such as the Hob-Nob and the E&B catered mostly to blue-collar local guys seeking a cold beer and good fellowship.

After quick stops at Skin’s and Costello’s we take a very short stroll down Harrison to Rootie’s Brickhouse, a small, square room with exposed brick walls, large windows, and a smattering of high-top tables and stools. Along with its excellent roundup of draft beers, Rootie’s has a cozy, comfortable quality—a bit tonier than its neighbors but without a lick of pretension. Most of the tables are full and a boisterous game of darts in the far corner draws a small audience. By midnight on a weekend you can barely get inside.

But Rootie’s popularity pales next to the place next door—the Cheviot Sports Tavern, a hopping hub for the early-20s crowd. One of the largest clubs on the strip, the draw here is games—darts, pool, and cornhole. If cornhole is king on the west side, the Cheviot Sports Tavern is its bejeweled throne. The thump of bags on boards provides a backbeat within the loose, rowdy atmosphere reminiscent of a backyard party.

The location has housed several restaurants through the years. In the 1960s and ’70s, it was a popular eatery and drinkery called The Gay 90s. It drew many regulars, including Pete Rose, whose swanky car parked out front contrasted sharply with the humble surroundings. In Hustle, his book on Rose, author Michael Sokolove interviewed the owner, Danny Gumz, a boyhood friend of Pete’s. Despite local rumors to the contrary, Gumz said his place was not a gambling hangout and that Rose came just to play cards, with no money involved. But other Cheviot bars, Gumz told Sokolove, provided plenty of opportunities to gamble. “In the ’60s you could bet in any damn tavern in this town,” he said. Sokolove describes Cheviot in that era as “hardscrabble,” and while today you won’t confuse it with Las Vegas, the nightlife, if a bit scrabbled, is far less hard.

To get to our next stop, we must cross Harrison Avenue again, a quick scurry that is a large part of the Cheviot Entertainment Experience. Between smokers gathered at every doorway and partiers strolling from one place to the next, often scampering across Harrison in little groups, there’s nearly as much action outside as in.

We slip into Fogarty’s, where we meet owner Eileen Borgmann. A striking blonde, Borgmann has been in the bar business for years, though her main job is running TB Sports Awards and Custom Apparel, a silk-screening store that occupies the front part of the building.

The bar has changed names a few times recently. When Borgmann bought the building in 2004, the bar was called Shelton’s and featured a first and second floor. Downstairs was pool, darts, and a bar. The larger upstairs room offered live bands and dancing. Then it became Rockin’ Kickin’ Country and then Mr. B’s, which attracted a younger, more boisterous clientele, and Borgmann quickly tired of the hassles and closed it down again. A few months ago she reopened as Fogarty’s, using the family name in honor of her grandmother Jane and her uncles Murray and Jack, the latter well-known to older Cincinnatians as a news reporter on WCPO radio and television.

The top level is now only rented for parties. The bottom remains a small bar that is dark yet inviting. Borgmann plans to decorate with an Irish theme. “I want an Irish pub but not fabricated,” she explains. “I don’t want the clovers and Celtic knots. It will be like an Irish pub in Ireland.” She’s seeking a mellower, older crowd.

She says the draw for the strip is the number, diversity, and proximity of the bars. “That’s what makes Cheviot neat,” she says. “You have so many different options. All the bars feed off each other. They’re all clean and nice, and you can just go from one to the next.” She also notes that the bars provide an inexpensive alternative to downtown and the Levee. If less glamorous, they’re cheaper, which could add to their growing popularity in these thrifty times. You might wake up with a throbbing head after a night out, but your wallet will feel OK.

Though Borgmann is
a gracious host and Fogarty’s a charming spot, we must move on, crossing Harrison again and walking a block to the intersection with Glenmore Avenue. Turn left and you’re at Keller’s Cheviot Café, which is right next door to Roswell’s. They might as well be the same place; the front doors are within a few steps of each other. Keller’s, owned by Cheviot mayor Sam Keller, is twice as large and features two bars, louder music, and a slightly younger crowd. At one end a couple evaluates the pool table as if preparing to perform surgery, while at the other “Happy Birthday” balloons float above a roaring group in full celebration mode. Drinkers stand two-deep at both bars. Roswell’s, meanwhile, is nearly as busy but seems more akin to Skin’s Place and Costello’s.

Right around the corner on Harrison, we come to the bar that may have sparked the change in the flavor of Cheviot’s entertainment district: The Second Street Saloon. Opened in 1980 on Second Street downtown, it fell victim to the construction of Paul Brown Stadium. Owner Carol Baker changed locations but kept the name. For Cheviot, this was a step up—a new spot run with more than a desire to attract people from the neighborhood. A fancy sign and inventive promotions drew new regulars and gave the strip a more energetic attitude. Though it’s essentially a shotgun bar—a long narrow room with pool and darts in the back—it attracted a broader clientele, which began spilling over into all the other bars. With that, the strip was born.

Located a few doors down Harrison, the Smokin’ Monkey is open for business on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. With nary a window in the place and a single, full-metal door, it looks a bit forbidding from the outside. I had always assumed it drew a crowd of young men who like to guzzle beer, punch each other, and throw up (and the women who love them) but the reality is far different. The interior is surprisingly nice. An undulating bar graces the far wall, and the main dance area explodes with colorful pulsing lights. Urban pop blares through a first-rate sound system and owner Denise List, who works behind the bar, explains that dancing is the main attraction here, along with her many specialty drinks, particularly the 29-ounce Mega-Monkey or one-liter Long Island Iced Tea in a range of flavors from mango to “exotic.” Both come with glow-stick straws that make the drinks look almost radioactive. “Most people order one of my drinks,” List says proudly. “They’re beautiful, and that’s our biggest draw.” She pours the drinks into large beer steins for men, who may feel unmanly walking around with a bowl-shaped glass of glowing fruit-flavored liquid.

The crowd ranges widely in age and is, if energetic, well behaved. In fact, the only scary thing about The Smokin’ Monkey is the mural of a smoking monkey on the wall behind the bar—a questionable, even sinister-looking, fellow. Well, the monkey and the ghosts. It seems the place is haunted. Things regularly go bump in the night and in the morning those things aren’t where Denise and her staff put them. At least once a month, she comes in during the day to find all the liquor bottles behind the bar turned around, the labels facing the other way. The jukebox sometimes bursts into song even when it’s not plugged in. A heavy ice scoop often finds its way into a cooler behind the bar, though it’s always left in the front ice bin.

“I noticed strange things happening right after I bought the bar, but I didn’t tell anybody about them,” List says. “I didn’t want people to think I was nuts.” By now she’s not the only person who has noticed the unexplainable events. “It’s like pulling teeth to get my staff to go into the basement,” she says with a laugh. Having owned the place for 12 years, she’s become accustomed to paranormal activity, though she invited a ghost-hunting group to investigate and has done research on the building.

The property was originally owned by Cheviot’s founder John Craig. Two of his sons were killed by lightning and his wife drowned in a cistern. They were buried near the building in what is now a large parking lot. The upstairs, says List, may have been a brothel and a bookie joint a hundred years ago, which fits well with the nefarious history of old-time Cheviot. Whether someone met a violent end and is still hanging around, she doesn’t know. I wish we could hang around longer—no, really— but we must keep moving.

Across the street stands Luckey’s, an Irish-themed bar with the shamrocks and leprechauns Eileen Borgmann hopes to avoid at Fogarty’s. Two wide front windows offer a warm welcome, and the band you see playing on a stage right behind them lets you know the joint is jumpin’. Luckey’s offers live music four nights a week. The crowd varies from twentysomethings to older folks and seems pretty varied in background, though a sign on the door forbids the wearing of “colors,” suggesting that some of those folks are bikers. But I can’t say for sure, just as I have no idea why Luckey’s is spelled with an “e.”

Fact is, I’m too tired to find out. And I’m grateful that the next stop is our last. We head to Maury’s Tiny Cove for a nightcap. A west side institution, Maury’s opened in 1949 and very much retains the atmosphere of that era. With its strangely low ceiling, red leather booths, dark paneling, and even darker lighting, it looks like the set for a Rat Pack movie. In fact, as we take a seat at the bar upstairs (the one downstairs is packed), Dean Martin croons “Ain’t that a Kick in the Head” through the ceiling speakers.

Despite waitresses bustling through with trays full of steak, the atmosphere here is calmer than in the other places we’ve visited, the crowd a bit older, more sedate, more sophisticated. In the warmer months, the bar extends onto a patio deck with umbrella’d tables, giving patrons a pleasant view of Cheviot’s residential streets and the place a livelier tone. For now, the ambiance, if strikingly anachronistic, is a welcome relief from pool tables and dartboards and ecstatic rounds of Jaeger Bombs served in plastic shooter cups. Sometimes the entertainment district can be a bit too entertaining. I’m hoping to hear some Sinatra—in fact, I’m counting on it—and enjoying some relief from the frenetic world of Saturday night on the strip. Here ends the crawl. Can I say what happens in Cheviot, stays in Cheviot? Yes, I can.

Originally published in the March 2010 issue.

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