The odds are good on the new Bay Horse Café

By John Erardi, Contributing Writer
Photos and video by Madison Schmidt

Lori Meeker and her friend and partner, Fred Berger, greet me just inside the front door of the reopened Bay Horse Café at 625 Main Street, downtown, Wednesday morning. I notice it’s a French door, which when the two sides are fully open would fit a horse through for show and sale, a tribute to the Bay Horse’s early origins.

It is two hours before the lunch crowd will begin to arrive, a half hour before the waitresses begin to set up. The Bay Horse reopened only seven weeks ago. Business was bonkers in July, but any restaurateur would tell you that if there’s one month to close, it’s August; everybody’s quiet in August.

"How cool is that sign!” I exclaim to Fred.

For the first time earlier this summer, I saw the revitalized "Bay Horse Café" sign with its neon trotting feet. 

"What?" was my reaction.

I am old enough to remember the old Bay Horse, a place I never felt comfortable enough to enter. (This from a guy who felt more than comfortable in the 1970s and 1980s entering the old Phoenix, a block away on Walnut, a no-frills shot-and-a-beer place for the truly hard-core.)

Simultaneous with my "What?" was a strong sense of delight: All right, all right, a comeback

The pristine restoration of this great sign is imprimatur of a better-than-ever comeback, the best kind. I vowed that this time, I would enter the Bay Horse, grab a cold one, and if warranted, write a story.

Oh my, did it ever warrant.

Fred tells me that if he hadn't seen the sign sitting on the floor the day he first entered the old building three years ago, it never would have crossed his mind to reopen the Bay Horse.

The tavern had been shut down as a nuisance back in 2005. But the thought also crossed his mind, "If I buy this building, this sign has to come with it."

The sign dates to the 1930s. It is one of the most, if not the most distinctive sign in downtown. There were only specks of paint left on the sign when Berger first recovered it. Restorer Tim Behme had to first figure out what was the movement of the horse’s legs, and then set to work.

The sign beckons passersby into a space of great character: cool and wide windows that were revealed when workmen removed the dry wall; authentic tin ceiling, floral-patterned tile floor remindful of something that might be in a watchmaker’s shop, which it was, back in the building’s early years.

The beautiful wood bar is from Dublin, Ohio, provenance of a gentleman who own and ran a tavern for 65 years. The bar itself is complete with cigarette burns on the back wood beneath the glassware, where the bartenders had set their smokes over the years (“proof of authenticity,” says Fred, and I laugh).

Old framed photos adorn the walls of the new Bay Horse, including one of Gus Schmieg, bartender and owner for 78 years, all of it at a previous incarnation of the Bay Horse when it was on Fifth Street. The saloon moved here (625 Main) in 1962. There were three floors of apartments above it, and thanks to Berger there will be again.

I know enough about the old Bay Horse to know it had a colorful history, not the least of which was that Cincinnati-born and -raised novelist Robert Lowry who was much revered internationally between the World Wars and for a decade afterward, frequented the Bay Horse well beyond its (and his) heyday in the late 1980s and early 1990s when thewriter lived downtown.

I know this, having first read a story by Cincinnati Post reporter Lew Moores in the late 1980s, and then a wonderfully insightful piece (“Maddening Genius”) by Lew in CityBeat in 2003.

I stopped by the Public Library Wednesday afternoon to pick up a couple Lowry novels, and ran into a librarian who, like me, had caught the Bay Horse bug. He had assembled some photos of Lowry book covers and intended get them framed and present them to the Bay Horse’s co-owners.

The Bay Horse years weren’t Lowry at his best, but it was Lowry, a terrific writer who Ernest Hemingway admired. I like what Lowry biographer James Reidel said of Lowry in the 2003 piece by Moores.

“It's time to stop talking about the old Bay Horse Lowry,” Reidel said. “We need to look at that good Lowry who existed up until 1952. We need to picture him then, and begin again."

I very much like what the re-opening of the Bay Horse has already created in Cincinnati, a feeling of affection for what had gone before, even though it was more loathed than loved by the end.

The story of the new Bay Horse is part love story, part beer story, part comeback story. I don't know which part I like best, because I'm a sucker for all three.

But I especially like that Berger and Meeker overcame the city’s anathema for the rebirthing of the Bay Horse. Heck, it took eight separate permits just to get the sign up. And it took two-and-a-half years to reopen the place. No commendations have been forthcoming from the city, and nobody at the Bay Horse is holding their breath. And yet, it’s the ultimate payback: The city that didn’t want it was unable to stop it (the Bay Horse is in a historic district) and now, surely, must be a grudging if silent admirer.

A large truck passes through the alley that passes by the Bay Horse to the back of the Aronoff Center and unloads. The ding-ding of the street car on Main Street punctuates the pre-lunch quiet, and makes me think of what one day might be. I love this stretch of Main Street, with so many distinctive storefronts and signs: Spitzfaden and Hathaway Stamp, among them.

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While Fred is out front in the main part of the restaurant being interviewed for a video, I talk to Lori in the back, in a private room where the guys would gather back in the day, eat lunch, play cards, tell stories and hang out.

Lori and Fred both seem like naturals to be running a bar-restaurant. They are, in large part, the type of people who make Cincinnati tick.

I ask Lori how in the world it was that she and Fred met. She tells me they met at a hospice memorial service in 2013, she just having lost her husband to pancreatic cancer, he having lost his wife to Alzheimer's. They got to talking, both lived in Westwood, one thing led to another, and the next thing you know, I'm drinking a cold one at the "Home of the Hudy Schooner." (Like I said, this is a beer story. And this was one terrific Hudepohl Amber Lager, a 25-ouncer in a specially designed glass that keeps the beer ice-cold longer, four bucks.) The Bay Horse used to be the largest retail outlet of Hudepohl beer and this was never a huge bar. It speaks well of the taste, allegiance and per-man consumption. Welcome to Cincinnati.

Lori grew up in the northwest part of Hamilton County, making cheesecakes at age 14 after school for the old TC  Peppercorns. Later, she sold vacuum cleaners, vibrating pillows and laser art. While attending the University of Cincinnati, she read of a job opportunity at the Vernon Manor, interviewed and was hired on the spot. (The Vernon Manor closed in 2009, two years before Lori would have reached full retirement. She had been there 28 years.) She opened a dog-walking business, which is still going strong. Fred, who grew up on the small family farm in Delhi, is a descendant of long-ago German immigrants. His great-great grandfather came to Cincinnati from Germany in 1853. Fred has been restoring buildings in Cincinnati for four decades now.

Finding the Bay Horse was serendipitous for Fred and Lori. It played well to Fred’s love of history, and Lori’s love of hospitality.

I ask Lori what her vision is for the Bay Horse.

“I want it to be somebody’s living room,” she says. “I’m pretty sure we’re going to open on Sundays for Bengals away games. Come in and have a beer and bring a dish to share with people.”

I have one more request of Lori.

“Did you ever get to the old Bay Horse?” I ask, never expecting her to say yes.

“Oh yes,” she answers. “It was back in ’96 or ’97. We had just finished a run of Christmas parties that night at the Vernon Manor. It was 4:30 in the morning. I said to Tyrone Hubbard, the restaurant manager, ‘I need a beer.’ Tyrone said, ‘I know a place that opens at 5.’ ”

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She remembers the trotting legs on the neon horse outside, and the smell of stale beer and urine and tobacco smoke inside, so deep that it seemed baked into the walls. It was the same smell that hit Lori again when she walked into the (long-closed) Bay Horse back in 2014. Ten years of being boarded up did nothing to reduce the stench, nor the memory.

Just before the lunch hour on Wednesday, a slightly built senior woman – wearing pearls, a box-fresh Reds cap, and suitcase in hand -- stopped in to say hello.

“It doesn’t smell like it used to!” she tells Lori, who smiles. “It smells really good in here!”

Recalls Lori to me: “When I walked in here back in ’97, I walked right up to the bar.”

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The bartender motioned her to a table away from the bar, clearly meaning there’d be no bellying-up for women at the good-old-boys’ Bay Horse. (In 1997? Wow is right.)

“I enjoyed my two Bud Lights,” recalls Lori, “but oh, that smell. I didn’t think I’d ever be back.

“And now look at me.”

Twenty minutes later, five tables are full. Laughter fills the place. The Bay Horse comes to life.       

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