Centennial Bar Crawl
Three really, really old Cleveland bars you may not know about with histories you should
BY KEVIN NAUGHTON AUGUST 23, 2017
Two things—among others—usually come to mind when Clevelanders ponder their home: the rich, colorful history of the city and the locals’ passion for the consumption of alcoholic beverages. Well, why not combine the two? We set out to find some of the oldest bars in Cleveland you may not know and learn their stories.
Jerman’s Cafe (better known as Mitzi’s) // 3840 St. Clair Avenue, Cleveland
Opened in 1908 by Frances and John Jerman, Jerman’s Cafe is more commonly known as Mitzi’s—after Mitzi Jerman, the bar’s famously charismatic owner who passed in 2006 at the age of 93. She was obviously quite a presence in the area, as the bar is filled with pictures and newspaper articles about her.
“She was the sweetest thing ever,” recalls Michelle Zamlen, Mitzi’s niece and one of the current owners. “She called everybody ‘honey.’”
Mitzi was a child during prohibition, when the bar hid bootlegged liquor in the apartment next door and passed the barrels through the second story windows. Mitzi learned how to keep an eye out for federal agents—one newspaper clipping contains the quote: “Look out for those guys wearing the black boots and white socks. Those are the Feds. Those are the bad guys.” But, Mitzi would still occasionally have to bail her mother out of jail after Eliot Ness would raid the place for contraband booze.
The surrounding area was a bustling industrial center during the first half of the 20th century, and Mitzi’s was one of many local refuges for the thirsty blue collar workers in the nearby factories. Cleveland’s industrial boom was not permanent, as our city’s numerous abandoned brick warehouses stand testament to, and many of the local watering holes were forced to shut their doors as well. Mitzi’s famous hospitality was what kept the bar alive and well through Cleveland’s economic rough patch.
In 2015, the bar closed for nearly two years after a death in the family, but it reopened back in January of this year—on Mitzi’s birthday. “Everything is the same,” Zamlen explains with pride, gesturing to the original woodwork and metal plated ceiling panels. “We haven’t done anything different.” With such a strong family connection to the bar, it will hardly be surprising when Mitzi’s is still around in another hundred years.
Gunselman’s Tavern // 21490 Lorain Road, Fairview Park
What would later become Gunselman’s started as a grocery store that secretly sold bootlegged liquor during prohibition, and due to the secretive nature of speakeasy, nobody is sure exactly when it started covertly purveying booze. Walking through the back room you can see the hidden trapdoor where they hid the liquor, and there is a sliding plate on a door in the basement that was used to check the identity of the person attempting to make a clandestine booze transaction.
According to legend, Henry J. Gunselman, a liquor salesman, acquired the Pastime Cafe when the bar went sour on its debts to him in 1936. “They couldn’t pay their bill, so they gave him the bar,” explains David Grace, one of the three current owners. The joint quickly became a pillar of the community, hosting many community events. It even boasted the first television in the neighborhood, which makes it one of the first sports bars in the area.
The bar has come a long way since its humble beginnings as a bootlegging corner store. The new owners have turned what was originally Henry Gunselman’s office into a full-fledged kitchen, where they specialize in what Grace affectionately calls comfort food. “We’re very, very proud of the food,” Grace grins. “I’ll put our food [up against] anyone in the city.”
Despite the decidedly minor changes, Grace and his team have made maintaining the original spirit of Gunselman’s a top priority. A central part of the community, they still sponsor and host community events, just like Henry Gunselman did throughout his tenure as owner.
“People pay a lot of money to get a corner bar, to create that,” Grace explains. “We have it. You can’t recreate it. So we’re not going to mess with it.”
Moriarty’s Pub // Somewhere in Cleveland
You may not know this next bar because it does its best to keep it that way. In fact, the establishment is so committed to its status as a well-kept Cleveland secret that the owner—whose name we promised not to include—only agreed to an interview if we promised not publish the bar’s address. “It’s a place that’s been word of mouth,” he affirms, “and that’s how I’d like to keep it.”
Moriarty’s was a well-kept secret from the start. It opened as a nameless beer speakeasy masquerading as an import-export office in 1923, and was christened Moriarty’s after its owner, John Moriarty, when prohibition was lifted in 1933. Since then, it’s only had two other owners, both of which have worked hard to keep the original spirit of the bar alive.
The street where Moriarty’s is located was a real hotspot for nightlife back in the first half of the 20th century, attracting all sorts of partygoers. “You would go in there and you would see businessmen, elected officials, gangsters,” the owner explains, gesturing toward the tall buildings across the road, “and business got done. There were gangsters on this side of the street, and fine supper clubs on this side of the street.” Dean Martin had his first steady professional gig in the area. The likes of Babe Ruth, Tony Bennett, Danny Greene, Dinah Shore, George Steinbrenner, and a number of presidents are said to be among the usual patrons at these clubs.
Moriarty’s is the only bar left from that era. The owner is proud of the history and the welcoming atmosphere of the place. “This is an extension of my house,” he beams, adding, “It is my house. It’s a public house.”
You’ll have to visit Moriarty’s yourself if you want to find out more. If you manage to find the place, that is. “Look for the shamrock,” the owner grins. “If the shamrock is on, I’m open.” Good luck.