Nighttown continues longtime tradition of fine food and hot jazz
On one hand, it’s a Cleveland Heights musical mainstay that has hosted the likes of Wynton Marsalis, Stevie Wonder and the Count Basie Orchestra. One the other, it’s a culinary symbol of consistency that, for decades, has served up some of the most popular meals and drinks on the entire east side of Cleveland.
Since February 1965, Nighttown has been catering to residents from Westlake to Hunting Valley, with an intensely loyal following from throughout the Heights and the University Circle neighborhoods.
In April 1992, Brendan Ring, a hard-working Irish immigrant who had moved here from New York, became a bartender at Nighttown. He held that position until 1994, when he became general manager. It didn’t take long for then owner, John Barr, to notice that Ring’s work ethic and stick-to-itiveness made him the obvious heir apparent.
“He and I hit it off from day one,” said Ring. “He wanted someone to freshen it up. He kind of made it clear that I would be the owner one day.”
That day would come sooner than Ring expected. He was given a 20 percent ownership stake in 1996.
“That was sweat equity. [Barr] was always giving me challenges and goals to reach, and I met all of those goals,” said Ring. “It took me five years to come up with the other 80 percent.”
Inside Nighttown, an amalgamation of diverse artwork adorns most of the wall space, and numerous plaques in the hallway commemorate members of the Cleveland Press Club’s Hall of Fame. It’s the type of place that attracts huge crowds, ranging from diehard music fans with a penchant for hard drinks to Cleveland Clinic types with more sophisticated tastes.
“When you’ve been around for 47 years, people have expectations,” said Ring. “That can be a good thing or a bad thing.”
Ring cites his willingness to adapt to change as one of the keys to Nighttown’s success.
“We’ve been constantly adapting, whether it’s the furniture or the menu or opening up opportunities for new business,” he said. “We did 16 weddings this year, whereas five years ago, we did only one. We recently hired a new chef, Nate Sampson. His food is fresh and wonderful and clean. We’ve also been taking stuff off the menu, and we’ve been taking flak for it, but a year from now you won’t recognize the menu. We’re phasing out the old stuff and sprucing things up a bit.”
Three years ago, Rachel Ray videotaped a show from Nighttown that featured the house specialty, Dublin Lawyer, a lobster dish. Show producers instructed Ring not to let the word out about Ray’s impending appearance in order to avoid oversized crowds, which is exactly what greeted them at the door.
“When they arrived, they said to me, ‘you weren’t supposed to tell anybody.’” Ring explained. “I said I didn’t, this is a typical Thursday night.”
With more than 400 seats, Nighttown has one of the largest seating capacities of any restaurant on Cleveland’s East Side. With about 40 employees, Nighttown is one of Cleveland Heights’s largest employers.
“We have three employees who have been here for more than 20 years, and two others who have been here for more than 35 years,” said Ring. “When people come in here they see the same faces. It’s like a family. We also like to keep our prices affordable.”
Nighttown’s tradition as a magnet for jazz musicians began long before Ring’s tenure. The restaurant always had a piano. “[Barr] brought in significant old-time jazz, and all I do is to build on that,” said Ring.
Ring employs a full-time booking agent and is known to attract some of the top jazz talent in the country, year in and year out. The jazz magazine Downbeat, known as the foremost publication in the industry, lists Nighttown as one of the top jazz clubs in the world, an honor Ring takes considerable pride in.
Ring intends to use his passion for food and music, and his sense of when to innovate, to keep the establishment fresh for the next 47 years.
“I think there is a lot more that goes into a restaurant other than the food,” he said. “I don’t want to wake up 20 years from now and say, what happened?”
Richard Stewart is the owner of Digizoom Media and a member of the FutureHeights Board of Directors.