Nighttown celebrates 50 years in the Heights
Nighttown, the restaurant located at the top of Cedar Hill in the Cedar Fairmount Business District of Cleveland Heights, is observering its 50th anniversary this month. On Feb. 13, the restaurant will host its biggest anniversary celebration, which will feature a concert by the Manhattan Transfer, the Grammy-award-winning vocal quartet. In addition, the restaurant is putting together an all-star Cleveland band for a performance on Feb. 5, and is planning numerous other anniversary celebrations over the course of the year.
Nighttown opened on Feb. 5, 1965. The space it now occupies comprised four separate stores back then. Original owner John Barr first bought one of the middle storefronts—the Silhouette Lounge, a 40-seat bar that featured a pool table—paying $18,000 for the space. Barr, who’s now 84 years old and lives in Cleveland Heights, owned other restaurants in the Cleveland area, including the Lonesome Dove, which was in the Rockefeller Building at the intersection of Mayfield and Lee roads in Cleveland Heights; the Raintree in Chagrin Falls; and the Watership Down in Moreland Hills. He named Nighttown after the Dublin red-light district in James Joyce’s book Ulysses.
In 1968, Barr purchased the space immediately to the west, which had been occupied by the Cedar Hill Café. Four years later, he bought the space to the east, and, finally, in 1978, he took over the entire building. “My fondest memory is when we bought the space to the west and opened the dining room,” said Barr. “Prior to that, it was just a bar. But it was a lot of work getting the dining room ready. We had to work all night to put in a wood floor, then I put in a charcoal broiler. I was both the chef and the clean-up guy!”
Nighttown’s current owner, Brendan Ring, previously owned a restaurant in New York City called Joxer Daley’s, named after one of the characters in Sean O’Casey’s play "Juno and the Paycock." In 1992, when Ring’s wife’s company closed its New York office and she was transferred to Cleveland, Ring sold his New York restaurant, and moved here. He got a job as a daytime bartender at Nighttown. The following year, Barr asked him to be the restaurant’s manager, and in 1995, Ring became a 20 percent partner in the business.
In 2001, Ring, now 51, was sitting at the bar next to Charlie Keane. “He said that I ought to own the restaurant,” Ring recalled. “And I said that I didn’t have any money and that I would need $1.5 million if I was going to buy the restaurant. It turned out that he was a banker, and five days later he called and said he would give me the money.” Two weeks later, Ring closed a deal with Barr and became the owner of Nighttown.
In addition to its fine food, Nighttown is known as one of the best music venues in Greater Cleveland. For the last seven years, DownBeat magazine has rated Nighttown as one of the best jazz clubs in the world. Barr began presenting music when he first opened Nighttown. “I had an old, beat-up piano in the bar, and Bill Gidney and George Peters both played there on a regular basis,” Barr said.
Around 1978, Nighttown began presenting bigger-name artists. Some of the first artists to play there were Dick Hyman, a jazz pianist who wrote the scores for many of Woody Allen’s films; Ralph Sutton, a stride pianist; and Dave McKenna, a swing piano player.
In 1999, Nighttown hooked up with Jim Wadsworth, who had been booking shows at other Cleveland-area venues. Wadsworth’s first concert at Nighttown featured jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal. “He recommended that we get a new piano,” Ring said. “So I spent $75,000 on a new Steinway piano.” Since then, Nighttown has presented numerous legendary jazz artists, including McCoy Tyner and the Count Basie Orchestra. In the last year, Nighttown has expanded its offerings, presenting shows that feature a wide variety of music, including cabaret, folk, Broadway and classical.
Asked about his favorite memory of his years at Nighttown, Ring said it was probably Aug. 14, 2003, when there was a major power outage throughout Cleveland and beyond. Nighttown had an emergency generator system, and, as a result, was the only restaurant open in the Cleveland area. “We served about 750 dinners that night,” he said. “Then I got a call from the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, and they said that Prince Albert of Monaco was staying there and needed a place to eat. He came to Nighttown and wound up staying for about four hours!”
Ring loves the fact that Nighttown has been around for so long that he now has customers who bring their children and grandchildren to the restaurant. “Since 1965, four generations of families have eaten here,” he said. “And they still love the place!”
James Henke, a Cleveland Heights resident, was a writer and editor at Rolling Stone magazine for 15 years. He is also the author of several books, including biographies of Jim Morrison, John Lennon and Bob Marley.