Columbus, Ohio
Return to Homepage
July 2003

The Bar with No Name - an aging legend
Mike's Grill gets a nod in "Lonesome Ash," works by photograper Harry Williams Jr showing at Studio 16
by Jeff Link

Return to Features Index

Willard McCoy Photo Harry Williams Jr.

Mike's Grill hides stories in the seams of its flannel shirts. It buries bar fights in the smoldering ashes of its cigarettes and uncovers truths in the mischievous half-smiles of arthritic seniors who have held bar stools since the Kennedy days. It keeps hope locked in beer bottles, lotto numbers, and old friends.

The jukebox sings hard-luck songs from Merle Haggard and Hank Williams, and patrons buy Black Label, Milwaukee's Best, and Budweiser from across a long black counter. Mike's Grill shares stories and keeps secrets. It buries its dead.

To a stranger, the bar may seem intimidating. Facing the corner of Buttles Avenue at 724 N. High Street, the blue-faced bar, which no longer does any grilling, has no visible sign, only an alligator that snaps its teeth in the window and an open door illuminating a gauntlet of grizzled patrons lining the stools.

In fact, one Saturday afternoon when photographer Harry Williams Jr. and his friend approached the bar thinking about stepping inside for a drink, his friend scoffed at the idea. "Are you crazy? We're not going in there." Nixed.

Still, a few ominous signs and a squeamish friend did not dissuade the intrepid photographer. He probed further, finding his way inside the bar and the hearts and lives of those within.

Williams, a well-traveled former Short North resident and self-described photographer of indigenous people, has done prolific work documenting hill tribes from Vietnam and Burma. Now focusing more locally, his visits to Mike's Grill will form the material for an exhibit entitled "Lonesome Ash" featuring 15-20 photographs of the hands, faces, cigarettes, and spirits of the patrons of Mike's Grill. It will appear July 11 to August 4 at Studio 16, 431 W. Third Avenue in Harrison West.

Working at close range with a Nikon camera, high speed film, and a 50 millimeter lens, Williams work assumes a grainy composition in capturing short vignettes of what he describes as an "other" counterculture existing in the Short North – an indigenous people composed of the Vietnam veterans, blue-collar workers, Alzheimer's sufferers, retirees, and pan-handlers that populate the bar.

Williams said he doesn't typically like doing "down and out" photography, but while drinking at the bar on weekends and befriending regulars like Rosy, Johnny, and Virginia, he discovered something warm, generous, and spirited in his subjects which transcended simple notions of loneliness and despondency.

A montage of weathered, ringed hands, smiling and scowling faces, and burning ashes tell mixed stories of pride, joy, aging, and vulnerability: the bar's patrons, an anachronism in today's hiply suburban Short North.

"I did it for the neighborhood, for myself," Williams said. "I was really concentrating on people's hands – the way they were holding their cigarettes and beers. I was trying to identify with them. I didn't want people to think they were white trash, because they're not."

On the contrary, Williams described the people in the bar as "gracious and giving," willing to share stories, buy each other drinks and enjoy funny, surreal moments - like the time a man, who looked like Santa Claus, sipped a 40-ounce beer while mumbling "looks like overtime," during an Ohio State University game. "The team was ahead by three or four touchdowns," Williams laughed.

Another time, a man claimed he put Merle Haggard on stage in the 1970s. "I could go in there any time and have a conversation that was pretty interesting. Whether it was real or not didn't really matter," Williams said. "Everybody's got a story."

One such storyteller is the burly, bearded Jimmy Podvin, who proudly told of a 28-year tenure as a roofer with Union Local #86. Known simply as Jimbo by regulars, Podvin likes to drink and talk with friends after work. "I work eight hours then I drink eight hours," he said.

He knows Mike's Grill about as well as anybody. When he was just 5 years old, he used to walk up and down High Street shining shoes to earn pocket money to buy glass animals and trinkets from the Yankee Trader and food from Mike's Grill. In those days, the bar sold hot dogs and burgers out of its windows and was a regular pit stop for Podvin.

Podvin said that Mike's Grill, in addition to being cheap and offering "good drinks and good service," stands as a piece of Columbus history. "It's the last bar left from the bars when I was a kid - the oldest bar from 23 on down."

He laughed as he said the regulars at Mike's Grill share a close bond. "It's like Cheers where everybody knows your name. We got some Norms, we got some Woodies, we got some Johnnies." When asked to share some of these stories, Podvin joked, "to print?"

Another regular at Mike's Grill is the fabled Rosie, a 67-year-old landmark of Mike's, who has been warming a stool there for years and who is quick to flip you the bird if she sees it so fit. Rosie wears a warm smile and fashionable mesh caps with such witty gems as, "I'm Not Easy, But We Can Discuss It," and "49% Nasty 51% Nice Don't Push It."

While there recently, a tattooed bartender named George with greased-back hair and a shirt that said Boner (depicting skeletons engaged in varied acts of copulation) warned against putting too much faith in Rosie's tales. "You'll be cut-off when she starts making sense."

Rosie didn't talk much, except to say she's been coming to the bar for years, raised her kids in the Short North, and has an acute case of arthritis. Mike's Grill certainly has it's share of elixirs.

Williams said many of the people in the bar don't have families to go home to and come to the bar to find solace in storytelling, drinking, music, and dancing. But the camaraderie and good-natured spirit wasn't always what Mike's Grill was best known for.

Bartenders and nearby business owners said Mike's Grill was once infamous for its steely looks, brawling ways, and collection of tough guys. Maria Galloway, who owns the neighboring pm gallery, said back in the 1970s, the streets were lined with junk shops, bars, boarded-up storefronts, and stores like Lincoln TV that advertised "TV's Dead or Alive."

In those days, Mike's Grill had a bad reputation that, Galloway insists, was well-earned due to over-serving and frequent belligerence. She said the bar stirred-up raucous noise well into the night and saw its share of fights as well as public urination and vomiting. "We could always tell when flu season hit," she joked.

Galloway said there was even a campaign in the early 1980s by the Italian Village Society to revoke the bar's liquor license and shut it down. Mike's Grill responded to the newsletter written against them with a plea of pathos.

They wrote a letter saying they were like family, cashing checks for their patrons and even burying their dead, Galloway said. "How many bars do you know that will pay for the funerals of their patrons?"

But Galloway quickly pointed out that lately the bar has cleaned up its act and is a comfortable place for people in the area who wouldn't feel right at Mac's Cafe or the Short North Tavern.

Choosing to have only his first name printed, "Frank," a stodgy, pony-tailed, veteran bartender of ten years, works the tough first two weekends of the month when paychecks come in and Gallery Hop packs the bar to the rafters. He claimed much of the credit for the bar's turnaround.

"It's mellowed out big time. Ninety percent of straightening this place out was me. I don't take no (expletive). They have a choice. They're either out the door, or if they don't go, I'll come over the bar and get em'," Frank boasted.

He said he has earned the respect of patrons by taking this firm, hard line, refusing service to those who appear too drunk or ornery, and carding those underage.

Despite being tough, Frank said, he welcomes all types and classes of people including homeless people off the street. This is not necessarily the case elsewhere. "When they (homeless) sit down beside those suits and the young kids in the other bars, it just doesn't work."

Mike's Grill has its idiosyncrasies. They sell cheese curls and aspirin right at the bar. They have video poker in the back and a jukebox that has everything from Ralph Stanley's bluegrass music to Marvin Gaye's Motown hits. They were even selected by Citysearch as the Best Dive Bar in Columbus in 2000 as the bartenders will show you.

But its diversity and tolerance might be the bars true claim to fame. As Williams said, blue collar workers and veterans, "typically aren't the most liberal people, but lesbians and gays drink there and they don't get bothered."

Sitting at a bar stool at 8:30 a.m. Friday, July 20, a typical scene occurred in a not-too-typical place. There was talk of the prospects of a robust 180 million dollar lottery jackpot, while Peggy the bartender poured beer to graveyard shifters and coffee to early risers.

"If I win I'm taking it in cash. I'm not letting them get their hands on it," Peggy said with defiance.

The man across from her, sporting a well-manicured beard, a beer, and a look of confidence chimed in, adding that there is an additional benefit to making a wager: the prize winnings are inherited by your children should you pass on.

Moments later, a dancing dog appeared on a television advertisement for Kibbles and Bits and the two shared a smile and a laugh comparing the dog's dance to one they'd seen inside. "It reminds me of Danny," the bartender grinned.

The words of William describing his photographs suddenly became poignant. "A couple dancing is at the end of the bar. The way the lights hit them is really beautiful."

©2003 - 2009 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.