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A Lion in Spring

A son follows his lost father into the family business

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Jason Wagner had vague designs on owning a bar one day, but not this way. He was content for the moment, working on the business side of Ryan Homes, flexing his marketing skills and saving for a rainy day.

"That rainy day came sooner than I could have expected," he says now.

For 25 years, Jason's father, Harry "Sonny" Wagner, had owned and operated the Lion's Pub, a biker joint at the corner of West 127th and Lorain.

"It was like in the movies," says Jason. "The leather jackets, the atmosphere — all real traditional."

And Sonny was a cherished figure, the kind of guy who'd give you a beer on the house during rough times or fork over some cash when the wallet was empty. The Lion's Pub was a neighborhood institution and one of the biggest biker bars in the city.

After last call in the early morning hours of January 27, 2008, Sonny had come in for his usual routine — restocking supplies and cleaning up the bar alone until the sun came up. He was engaged to be married in the summer, with a cross-country Harley ride with his fiancée on the docket.

Investigators said the fire that tore through the place that morning started in the basement. Sonny grabbed a hose in a last-gasp effort to save his bar. The flames didn't get him, but the smoke did. Amid the ruins of the blaze, Sonny Wagner was found at the bottom of the basement stairs, dead at 57.

"It didn't hit me until I walked in and saw the place," says Jason. "The fire was put out by the time I got there, but the heat damage was incredible. The place was just torched. And then reality set it — he was gone."

The Lion's Pub had been a part of Jason's life insomuch as it was his dad's workplace and they both loved bikes; the boy's first ride was on a '62 Panhead. He would tend bar there during breaks from college at Akron, but it wasn't his scene.

"I was more likely to be down in the Flats with my fake ID," he laughs.

Which is why after his father's death, Jason had no intention of resurrecting the Lion. But a couple of years later, with no family of his own and a decent savings built up, he found himself ready for something new. And that took him back to something old — the empty, burned-out building on Lorain.

The reincarnated Lion would be no biker bar. "I wanted to honor my dad," he says, "But I wanted to put my own spin on the place."

He set off on a safari through Cleveland nightlife, from Coventry to Tremont to Gordon Square, probing why the successful bars thrive. He studied menus, prices, interior design, and location.

Over two painstaking years, Wagner and a group of friends who chipped in their free time and labor gutted and revitalized the old space. The second coming of the Lion — redubbed the Lion on Lorain — was christened last July.

"I knew I would only be able to keep about 3 percent of my dad's old clientele," he says. "But I wanted something different. Something for everyone, while still welcoming bikers."

He was right. The old-timers stopped in, happy but shocked: The new place was clean, well-lit, and smoke-free; still some Harley memorabilia, but hardly a biker's den.

What Jason settled on could easily have found a home in any of those trendier areas instead of this mostly barren stretch between Kamms Corners and West 117th Street. Delivering something new was the point.

"The area needed it so badly," he says. "It needed a catalyst, a spark, something to bring that vibe."

He nailed the vibe. The Lion offers a long, rotating list of craft beers and domestics, but the real showcase is the menu, which aspires to gastropub status with corner-bar prices. Here, you're likely to find specials like a Caribbean lettuce wrap burger or a blue-cheese-stuffed burger made with cajun-spiced lamb. There are also sweet potato tots, fried ice cream sandwiches, and a seemingly endless list of creative sandwiches.

And folks are responding. If it's not exactly Saturday night on West 25th, the Lion is nevertheless pulling folks to a pocket of Lorain that would normally fall well off their nightlife radar. The draw is nice, but Jason is also focused on being a good neighbor — a voice to rally the community forward, no matter how slow the progress. Every neighborhood needs a catalyst, after all.

"My dad taught me this job can burn you out, that it can get consuming," he says. "But if something fails, I'll have no one to blame but myself."

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