There was a bar called Bristol. On the corner of 4th and Summit, all brick with a couple window walls, a former speakeasy back in the Prohibition days, when the women of Westerville just ten miles north backboned a national movement. Bristol had nothing on tap back then, but this was before the microbrew craze made that matter. Besides, what they had in bottles more than made up for it: all the good Unibroue stuff, La Fin du Monde, Maudite, served in a tulip glass, the first place I tried Delirium Tremens, the first spot in Columbus I saw carrying Framboise Lambic, things now commonplace to me, but they seemed exotic then, especially just ten blocks from the near-beer epicenter of the world—OSU’s campus, with its dollar draft nights, neon plastic mugs, cornhole and beer pong Olympics, silver kegs rolled across front yards, and red cups, everywhere.
Brisol was slick but understated, exposed brick walls and a black granite bar, lounge chairs and sofas, all black, a wood-paneled patio with horizontal, clean lines to contrast the trash of a block surrounding it. My friend Frank lived on that block back in the day, and when we’d rides bikes around there, we’d see tags left by the Short North Posse—a ridiculously dangerous gang with a ridiculous name, still operating in the neighborhood back then. By the time Bristol came along, the SNP was long gone, but the area hadn’t bounced back the way High Street did just north of downtown, in what is now the officially demarcated “Short North.” At Bristol, my man Garnet had a following with his careful but quick-handed, well-crafted martinis. The music was laid-back, not too loud, so you didn’t have to yell, the trip hop and drum-n-bass often coming from actual turntables, the low-key Björk remixes, some tasteful house, things you liked in the background but would likely never hear again.
Places like Bristol are no longer possible in Columbus. Garnet left, and was replaced by bartenders hired, apparently, for their looks, for they damn sure didn’t have a clue about what was in the cooler, not when I asked for a Trois Pistoles and she asked me if it was one of the wines. In the good ole days, my request would have been met with an almost imperceptible yet sufficient nod of the head, a quick but controlled spin to the lowboy containing what I wanted, one hand grabbing the bottle while the other no-look snagged the appropriate glass. The kind of near-silent, respectful service you get in France, in Lyon, when you order a Stella at any of the bar-cafés on the Place des Terreaux. It is straight-faced service, knowledgeable service, expert in its supplies and purposes, respecting the fact that you did not come and overpay for beer in order to converse with your server.
Many Americans consider this style of service rude, and would prefer a bubbly, smiling, forgetful waiter who doesn’t know anything. I don’t care if my server smiles, for the most egregious rudeness is not knowing everything about what your establishment serves, and to not serve it as efficiently as possible—that is, essentially, all a server is supposed to do. In a place that charges as much as Bristol did, the service should be yet another facet of the general artistry of the experience, from the way the food is prepared and plated, to the architecture, the furniture, the apparel of the waitstaff, the paintings hanging behind diners in the booths, the way the back-lit fantasia of color that is the bar’s wall of bottles break up all the muted stone and unfinished wood tones in the rest of the scene. At Bristol, no one ever said they’d be “taking care of me tonight.” They just asked what I wanted, and then served it, the way it was intended to be served.
Bristol is not possible anymore because the bars being born now in the Short North all know exactly what they are supposed to do. The chrome-tapped row of at least ten or twelve microbrews, the polished concrete bar, the artisanal cocktails with Angostura bitters, or freshly picked local mint, the house-made simple syrups and sodas and shrubs. Some bars don’t try as hard, but they still lack in uniqueness, for all their efforts to stand out—they are all so new, so scraped clean of residue, of any past they once had. These are one step up from a basic sports bar, with the same TVs but with higher prices on everything.
My best friend and I walked through the recently, and again, face-lifted Short North a few months back. There is a grilled cheese restaurant: huge, neon-glown, occupying what seems like a half a block, especially compared to what used to be there. What used to be there? Was it Brian Borus? The Coffee Bean? Some shop, a boutique I never went to? The Mahan Gallery? Was there ever a cooler place than Mouton when Yusef still owned it? Was there ever anyone else who made you feel that special as he handed you a free glass of wine, even when he moonlighted at gallery openings in Bexley, after a long day at The Refectory? Are there such characters there today, in this parade of new?
It’s as if all the new places went shopping for their stools and fixtures at precisely the same restaurant decor supply store. In 2004, several of my friends moved to Brooklyn. Since then, it seems the look of Brooklyn has transfused and informed one renovation after another in the town where I was born, a town that is, in so many ways, nothing like Brooklyn, except perhaps in that it finds itself, more and more these days, imitating a dream of Brooklyn, an image representing a reality that perhaps never actually existed, the same way Paris performs an imagined version of itself for the tourists who want to see it conjured, displayed, painted with terse strokes on a span of canvas, stamped out in the shape of fridge magnets.
Perhaps this is what it is to age, to find that the traces of your days all built up inside your own mind and mirrored in your body, with less and less of your surroundings reflecting the third side of the story. Perhaps it is this incongruity which we mistakenly give the name the past; rather than a time or a place, the past is an experiential condition lived within the unending present. The force of capital disjoints our sense of time and place by harnessing the elements our culture associates with a specific era within the endless procession of by-gone aesthetics. Development is at odds with the need of our consciousness to nest in material details. They say Franklinton, with its abandoned factories, rows of thrice-flooded wooden homes, its fledgling microbreweries and abandoned water fountain factory converted into artists studios, its closeness to downtown and the newly strollable Scioto River, is next.