In the 1930s, Henry Gunselman worked as a whiskey salesman for the Weideman Co. When the owners of the Pastime Cafe in Fairview Park couldn't settle up, they were forced to sign over their business. That colorful origin story may or may not be true, confesses owner Joseph McDonough, but that doesn't change the fact that this "seven-sided brick building" at the corner of Lorain and West 215th Street has enjoyed many vivid episodes throughout its nearly 100-year existence.
The latest chapter kicked off a couple years ago when McDonough, David Grace and John Caine purchased the iconic corner bar. The trio, pals since sprouts growing up in this very neighborhood, had decided to go into the hospitality business together. After scouring the market, kicking the tires of numerous big, pricy downtown spots, the partners found themselves in the strangest of places: right back where it all started.
"Gunselman's was the last place in the world we were looking for," cracks McDonough. "We had been in here so many times over the years, but it was always that stinky old-man bar that we never even thought about it."
Growing up in Fairview Park, the bar has always had a presence in the partners' lives — though never an extremely positive one. As a kid, McDonough would deliver newspapers to the place, which required popping inside to collect the subscription fees. Back then, as he recalls it, the place was dark, dreary and teeming with boilermakers — the living, breathing kind, not the shot-and-a-beer combo named after them. But soon after taking ownership, the owners happily fell down the rabbit hole of Gunselman's lore, which turned up references to the German mafia, Louis Armstrong, and yarns too blue to share.
"We knew from Day 1 that we weren't going to change the name after checking with surviving family members to make sure it was okay," McDonough notes, adding that family members who grew up in the apartment upstairs still recall with dread being woken up most mornings by the sound of coins rapping against the windows. Back then, a shot and a beer cost a quarter and folks showed up bright and early to claim them.
Gunselman's hadn't served food for years, and when it did, it was the type that was prepared in a crockpot, ladled into a bowl and passed unceremoniously through an opening in the kitchen door. Food was always part of the plan, says McDonough, but first they had to do a little maintenance, like build a kitchen, redo the bathrooms, rip up the floor and install new electric, gas and HVAC. Small stuff, which would take two years.
When the time came, it wasn't difficult to track down a chef. Nicholas Pejeau, who ran the Black Dog Kitchen downtown, lived right down the road and often bellied up to this very bar. He soon signed on and set to work crafting a menu that suited both bar and neighborhood. Diners in search of gastropub fare should walk on by, says management, as Gunselman's is all about comfort food.
You can still order a boilermaker at the sturdy wooden bar, a handsome holdover from Henry Gunselman's day. But you can now also order a craft beer from the likes of Jackie O's, Rhinegeist or Fat Head's, as well as a glass or bottle of wine from a workaday list that was practically heretical when it was unveiled. That was nothing compared to the panic that ensued when the bartender unboxed a set of four martini glasses, McDonough chuckles, adding that he's never witnessed all four in service at once.
We played Keno, knocked back cans of Truth ($5) and snacked on some seriously meaty chicken wings ($10 per pound). Go for something like the "garlic zing" or the sweet barbecue instead of the Buffalo, unless you don't mind the overpowering flavor of artificial butter. Kevin's Jailhouse chili ($7), made by a bona fide retired warden who works in the kitchen, hits all the right notes. It's meaty, aggressively seasoned and gilded with cheese. If you're in the habit of saying "fuck it," tack on an order of the Buffalo chicken dip ($10) and chips.
True to our server's word, both the meatloaf ($13) and the chicken paprikash ($13) are crowd-pleasing comfort foods, with the paprikash taking the prize thanks to the plump little dumplings swimming in creamy paprika-scented gravy. The meatloaf lost points on account of boxed – or something akin – mashers. Burgers are done properly here, made from fresh-ground chuck from Foster's Meats at the West Side Market. Nine different models are priced $9 to $11. Our fries could have — should have — been crisper.
Meanwhile, the owners are having a blast running a place they'd never be caught dead in just a few years prior.
"We've seen so many people that we've known since the '70s, people we went to grade school with, many who have moved all over and ended up right back here," says McDonough.
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.
June 15, 2017
Art: Charlee Ottersberg
Gunselman’s Tavern Has Every Meal Of The Day Covered
Don't miss brunch faves such as steak and eggs or the dinner-ready Mama Mia burger.
There’s a lot of history inside the walls of this 80-year-old bar and restaurant in Fairview Park. What was once a grocery store and then a speakeasy is now run by three childhood best friends who have overhauled the menu, added a brick patio and brought in a new set of customers to Lorain Road and West 215th Street. If you’re not stopping in for its stellar Sunday brunch of steak and eggs ($11.99) and creme brulee French toast ($8.29), be sure to add this spot to your after-work drinks rotation. Here you’ll find a list of comfort food dishes and bar snacks such as the jalapeno poppers ($6.29) and beer cheese fondue ($5.99) that pair well with its local craft beers and inventive cocktails. If you’re craving a juicy burger, go for the Mama Mia ($9.29) topped with a fried mozzarella plank, marinara sauce and fresh basil. Or opt for a heftier dose of nostalgia with the fried baloney sandwich ($8.29). Served with Texas toast, a thick-cut baloney steak layered with American cheese, tangy shaved dill pickle, spicy brown mustard and onion straws is the adult version of our lunchtime favorite.
When You Go
21490 Lorain Road, Fairview Park, 440-331-5719, gunselmans.com