Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Remember Neon's? It's coming back...unplugged!

Neon's in Over-the-Rhine – or at least a portion of it – could be open to the public in time for next year's Bockfest.

Neighborhood resident Michael Redmond is part of a group looking to revive the neighborhood staple as Neon's Unplugged, a low-key, acoustical bar.

"We want to restore not just the building, but we want to help restore the name of Neon's," Redmond says.

Not a nightclub, the new Neon's Unplugged is envisioned as an Over-the-Rhine hub – and a good neighbor.

"This is just a backyard for the people that are moving to the area," Redmond says. "And we're trying to take this back to a neighborhood bar, but really run by people from the neighborhood."

The team includes Dan McDonald, former project manager for 3CDC; and Dan Dell, founder of Rhino's and Buddakhan, among others.

"We have some real experts on how to run bars," Redmond says. "As far as the bar goes, I'm not a bar guy. I know much more about sitting on one side of the bar than standing and serving on the other side of the bar. And so we've reached out.
We're bringing in the experts from within the community that can make it happen."

Space speaks for itself

Neon's opened in 1982 in the three-story, 1880s-era building at 208 E 12th Street.

Through a series of owners, the bar and nightclub lasted through 2007, when a proposal to re-open the space as wine and tapas bar Jardin failed to pan out.

The property has since attracted few serious inquiries.

"All in all, the space really speaks for itself," Redmond says. "We actually think that the fewer things we can change, the better."

What visitors will not see is the overabundance of neon, much of which former Neon's owner Terry Carter purchased at auction for Terry's Turf Club in Linwood.

"We want someone to walk in here and say, 'I remember this, and I remember that," Redmond says. "Things might be a little different now than what they were, but there's just little points of familiarity. It's saying that this is Neon's, but it's just a stripped down version of Neon's," Redmond says.

By making too many changes, Redmond says that they'd do the restoration more injustice than justice.

"We want to pay homage to some of the things that were here, but if we go overboard and we put too much of what used to be here, then people are going to...not say what is here, but what isn't here," he says. "We're never going to duplicate it. But you can walk in here and say, 'It's different, but I remember this,' or, 'It's different, but I remember that.'"


Upon entering Neon's Unplugged's outdoor courtyard, one's attention is immediately drawn to the outdoor bar.

"This is a true, purpose-built outdoor bar," Redmond says.

Redmond envisions 20 stools lining the bar.

The space also features an open greenhouse, where ten four-top tables will be placed.

"We're really trying to push groups to come in here," Redmond says. "And to have this place as a place where everybody kind of knows one another."

Hanging ferns, wisteria, high palms, and an abundance of other plants will help soften the concrete and brick; "Italian wedding" styled strings of lights will provide enough lighting to create a relaxing mood.

"It'll just be a nice, soft, garden-type feel, right here in the middle of the City," Redmond says.

To Redmond, the space that his team envisions is perfect for the Over-the-Rhine lifestyle, especially for many of the new developments taking place along Main and Vine streets.

"You have all of these residential units literally right here," he says. "But if you look over at Duveneck, Trideca, anything in the [Gateway] Quarter that sells, they have individual decks. But none of them have a community deck. And so this, we're saying, is your community deck."

Drink specials

"I want to have a place here that has a very strong happy hour," Redmond says. "A place where you can drop in as often as you want to grab a drink, and it's not going to break the bank."

While he says that Neon's Unplugged will offer high-quality stuff, it won't come at a high price.

"I don't think that the margins have to be so big that I have to hit a home run every single time that you walk through the door," Redmond says. "If I can just keep you coming back, that's where I make my margin."

The bar will offer a "scratch bar" mixology, meaning that all of its juices and mixers will be freshly made.

"If you think everything summertime – light, real cool, refreshing drinks," Redmond says. "Not strong, harsh, heavy drinks.

On Sundays, we're thinking of having 'Hangover Sundays' where we open a little earlier. We'll have fresh mimosas with freshly squeezed orange juice – including the pulp. We're also looking for a good Bloody Mary mixer."

The taps have not been formally sold, and Redmond says that they'll have total flexibility on bottled beer.

He adds that there will be a large selection of white and red wines, as well.

Food available

Neon's Unplugged has no kitchen, but Redmond and his group still want to secure a food service provider to pair food with drink.

Redmond recalls many nights that he and his wife Holly have gone out to a local spot, only to leave in search of a bite.

"And then we never head back," he says. "But the bars that have the food...you can hang on to your customers."

Although a formal deal for food service has not been signed, one may be forthcoming.

"If we can contract out with people from within OTR, then once again it's just leading back to that we are a neighborhood bar," Redmond says. "We support other places and other people here within the neighborhood."

One no-frills option that the group is exploring is the placement of a massive grill at the 12th Street end of the courtyard.

A huge vent that was placed there for greenhouse purposes could carry away the smoke, filling the street with the aroma of cooking meat.

However, manning a grill and a bar at the same time could prove difficult, Redmond says, especially on nights when traffic is slow and the bar is not at full staff.

"So, instead of doing that, we could copy off of Vinoklet and some of those other places," he says. "We'll actually sell you the steak or hamburger meat or whatever it is that you want. Do it yourself!"

They're still toying with that idea, he says, due to the liability issues that such an arrangement could cause.


"The conversation will never come up before you come to a place like this, 'Am I dressed well enough to go in there?'" Redmond says.

An unpretentious neighborhood spot, Redmond says that acoustic musical acts will provide a more relaxing experience where patrons can actually have a conversation.

"This isn't the type of place we expect to just pack out," Redmond says. "I hope it does. But we really don't expect it to be a club-type atmosphere, to where it's just wall-to-wall people in here."

Better yet, there will never be a cover charge.

"Collecting money at the door, to me, you're not a neighborhood bar anymore," Redmond says. "If we do small acoustical acts on a fairly regular basis, then that's going to drive you in – if that's your thing. So I'm still going to make my money at the bar, so I still have that much more that I made off of that. I don't have to worry about the door. But there has to be a consistency to be able to do that."

Fun and games

One of the most intriguing features of the courtyard will be the 60-foot bocce ball run.

Redmond says that they're already trying to line up teams for next spring, with leagues likely playing Monday through Thursday. Weekends would be held open.

He would like to see local bloggers, residents, and neighborhood businesses make up the league's 16 teams.

"We were talking about whoever wins getting naming rights to the court at the end of that season," Redmond says. "So the whole next season, there's a sign up there that says 'Building Cincinnati', or whoever happens to win at the end of that season."

Looks worse than it is

"All of our revenues are going to go toward the fixing of the inside," Redmond says.

Michael Spalding, one of the managing partners who had been working to open Jardin, had ripped out the birch bar, and building materials are scattered throughout the space.

"I really think it looks worse than what it even is," Redmond says.

But Spalding was responsible for pressure-washing years of cigar soot from the brick and wood, adding an expensive array of electric lighting, and building a "community bar", which allows patrons to sit on both sides.

"So if you want to sit and talk to somebody, especially if you show up with a group of five, six or more, you're not having to talk down the line," Redmond says.

Wine storage will remain on a back wall behind the bar, and the men's, women's, and ADA-compliant restrooms are fully intact.

Redmond estimates that restoration of the first-floor bar may have to wait until fall or winter of 2010.

The outdoor bar could even close during the winter months of 2010 so that they can focus on readying the first-floor bar, he says.

The Bourbon Room

"We're not even really thinking about up here just yet," Redmond says, standing on the building's second floor.

Although it may be a couple of years before they even touch the space, he says that the group has considered calling the room "The Bourbon Room at Neon's".

"We're going to push this more during maybe football season," Redmond says. "We're going to mount a flat-screen television up there and just put some couches up here. So if any of the guys wanted to come down here – or girls – just to watch football games, we could do like an NFL Season Pass. That way, it's really just driving our Sunday and Monday traffic, which would have been dead anyway."

Off of the main room, a small parlor built for smoking cigars sits empty and windowless.

"We'll probably just turn this into an office," Redmond says.

Redmond also says that, when the second floor is completed, the men's restroom will be moved up there.

Into the unknown

Little-known, rarely seen, and likely never photographed, the unfinished top floor shows signs of water damage, missing plaster, and holes in the exterior walls.

Bird's nests can be seen scattered along the rafters, and pieces of the old neon that weren't sold at auction line the walls.

Carter had originally planned to finish the space out to house the bands that passed through; Redmond sees an opportunity for a boutique hotel.

But he stresses that it's just an idea, not something that they're committed to.

"You have so many people that come into town, or even people who've decided they just want to stay down here, they don't have to go over to the Hilton or whatever, they can go to something really cool upstairs," he says.

For the time being, the space will remain the way it is – minus a neon sign reading "Meat Market", which Redmond plans to hang behind one of the bars.

A known presence

Online searches for Neon's reveal websites, addresses, and the old phone number – which the group has been able to keep.

And the building still receives mail from all of the mailing lists Neon's was on.

"We already have a web presence," Redmond says. "Our thought was that if you have to come in and change the name of the place and the concept of the place, you'd have to spend thousands of dollars to tell them where it is and what it is, and then there's the possibility that they might not appreciate it anyway. People appreciated Neon's. It's a proven thing."

Redmond hopes that this presence will help some of his neighbors emerge with Neon's memorabilia that they may have lying around the house.

After all, he points out, Japp's got started with a wig shop sign that was found at – of all places – Neon's.

"I'm hoping that there's someone out there who has something from Neon's, even if it's information," Redmond says. "Because one of the things that we want to do is to build that history. Even though Neon's was 1982, it still is a big part of Over-the-Rhine history. It's just modern history, and we don't want to change that. We just want to take the old concept, restore it, and renew it a little bit as well."

He's doing his own kind of informal focus groups as well.

"There's a couple of things that I'm asking," Redmond says. "One, the people who did come down here to Neon's, 'What do you remember about Neon's?' Two, going forward, what do you want to see Neon's as?"

Michael O'Bryant, an Over-the-Rhine resident, is currently researching all of the bars located in the neighborhood since the 1870s.

Ads and other memorabilia found during O'Bryant's pursuit will be used to decorate Neon's Unplugged's walls.

"We want to treat this more like a museum of bars, entertainment, and breweries that were here in Over-the-Rhine," Redmond says.

'It's only one bar'

Redmond says that they already have all of the equipment they need in storage, and may even hold a lease-signing party when the deal's done.

Then, following a brief Bockfest opening, they'll shut down until their official grand opening on Reds' Opening Day.

After all, it's being done on a very tight budget, so the group is treading carefully.

"If we can actually do this without a lot of startup money, it changes your thinking," Redmond says. "When you have all sorts of cash at your disposal, all of a sudden you start making decisions on huge amounts of cash. Right now we're making decisions on how to streamline this thing enough and make some of these outside deals where it doesn't take any cash. So why burn through it if we don't have to?"

Redmond tells everyone who asks that Neon's Unplugged is not an attempt to "bring Main Street back".

It's only one bar.

"Whether or not Main Street ever takes off again [as an entertainment destination] is irrelevant to this place," Redmond says. "Neon's was down here first, in 1982. That was before J Hall, that was before Japp's, any of those. And they were able to make it. Now all of those bars are gone again. We think we can make it again."

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