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.