All the Bars

We join the Cleveland Bar Experiment for a night, downing cheap beer and free tequila only to discover that there's always another drink on the path to visiting every bar in Cleveland

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AC/DC's "Hell's Bells" now, and Chris gleefully takes credit for the swing toward the 1970s, while also adding, "There's no rhyme or reason to the songs we choose." The jukebox features, in sequence, Santana, Keith Urban, Dean Martin and Jamie Foxx's "Unpredictable." The whole room is represented by the Bar Experiment crowd, so there's no backlash. But would this sort of musical takeover be welcomed at other, more off-the-beaten-path bars? Really, would the Cleveland Bar Experiment as a group — as a concept — be welcome everywhere?

"So far, nobody has ever had anybody come up and say, 'You shouldn't be here,'" Todd says. By this point, more than 100 bars deep, the guys have hit every Cleveland neighborhood from the crotch of downtown to the concrete outskirts of Union and East 93rd. Among the notables: Cinema Lounge (blue LED lighting friggin' everywhere), Ronda and Mike's Place (that was tough to find, but they eventually nailed it [it's on Lorain]), B&G Tavern (the 100th bar and a consummate favorite among the group; it's in their backyard, but they'd never been there before).

"Plans," firmly enmeshed with quotation marks by this crowd, tend to go awry.

"There's a lot of computer help. Google Maps is really helpful," Todd says. "Sometimes you just go into Streetview and look around the neighborhood without having to drive it."

Earlier in the week, though, Pat says, he drove up and down St. Clair scouting the warm welcome of neon signage and errant outdoor smokers. Looked alright. After tonight's madness, they'll notch five more pins to the map of the city's bars. Recently, someone arrived at the number 464 - quantity of liquor licenses pulled in Cleveland - though no one can confirm its accuracy. Pat quickly adds that Payne Cafe isn't on that list, so who really knows at this point?

For illustration: Remember Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart? He once tried to define pornography in terms of the threshold in obscenity law. "I know it when I see it," he wrote. That's kinda how the crew here approaches the Experiment, (at times) less the obscenity.

"If most of your business is about food, we're probably not going there," Todd says. "We wouldn't go to Applebee's. Is there an Applebee's in Cleveland city proper? I don't even know."

The conversation bubbles onward at all times. Topics include: the Progressive Field Social Suite, Ohio University, onion rings, Detroit politics, nipple tattoos. These guys are quite clearly the archetypal "buddies" out for a weekly jaunt through the hometown saloon circuit.

"We're having at least another beer, right?" "Sure, whatever." "What's next, anyway?" "Sweethearts, next to Hi-Lows." "The Hi and Low, have we been there?" "No, it's closed. It looks like it's closed. It was shuttered when we went by." "It's on the list, though."

Hi-Lows is closed, we will soon find out. For now, we're all lined up at the bar bombarding the still-shocked employee with orders for the cheapest possible domestics. We face a firing squad of Bud Lights, Miller Lites (why the discrepancy in spelling, we wonder?), and a lone Scotch, neat, for contrast.

"Some nights we walk in, have a beer, go to the next place, have a beer," Todd says. "Sometimes it's eat, play pool, and you might get three in. We're not trying for a quota."

It's 10:01 p.m., at least according to the Budweiser digital clock behind the Payne Cafe bar, and we're finishing drinks and more or less deciding to mobilize. Onward. Upward. Eastward. Whatever.

Single-file procession out of Payne, BUT NOT BEFORE Scene journalistically inserts quarter into candy dispenser for handful of peanut M&Ms.

Question: By taste, what year would you estimate the Peanut M&Ms WHICH YOU ATE were manufactured?

Answer: 1976.

Mad-dash to the chariots. Joe's been playing DD admirably, sipping waters like they're specialty G&Ts. He now returns to RedKiaSUV, driver's side, to drive. The rest of us disperse at random along Payne, knowing that among this crowd, seats are available and warm and eager for butts.

The Ohio City guys usually carpool, but a lot of the suburban appendices drive in for the fun — it's not like they're getting plowed. The point isn't drunkenness.

We wind through East Side side streets, convene in a parking lot to confirm that no one knows exactly where our next stop is (in relation to where we are now), but then arrive, magically, at E. something-or-other, off of Superior, under the low-watt buzz of a traffic light which Chris later says is a comfort.

There ye be, sweet Sweethearts. Though what exactly, excuse me, the fuck, are you?

Sweethearts is a club — owned, we later learn, by a "fiery Taiwanese woman" named Judy Ho who's been battling neighbor opposition since she converted the former industrial space into retail and then this nightlife hub for predominantly black crowd (thanks Mr. Naymik!) — a legit club, it appears, because:

We are patted down one-by-one as we enter — thoroughly, we might add — and then congregate for a moment so everyone can look among themselves and take turns remarking that this is the first time that's ever happened on the Cleveland Bar Experiment.

This is bar No. 3 on the night, but No. 113 all-told. It is a festival of neon and strobe, red-blue-green lights alternating ad infinitum. An empty dance floor, with slightly-off-central pole, does the opposite of beckon. Lil Wayne shouts at us through speakers.

Chris, no fewer than three times, on the tiki hut thing at which where we're chatting over beers: "I want one of these for my backyard."

Chris is from Columbia Station. He started tagging along in "October or November" and comes out every couple of weeks. He moonlights as a DJ. He drinks Scotch. At Sweethearts, he doesn't get a generous pour.

Todd points out that this is the first (or maybe second) bar they've seen where beers are meticulously scanned before disbursement and liquors are capped in such a way to regulate portions — keeping the bartenders honest, is Todd's guess.

More Bud Lights.

About The Authors

Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...

Eric Sandy

Eric Sandy is an award-winning Cleveland-based journalist. For a while, he was the managing editor of Scene. He now contributes jam band features every now and then.
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