I first met Mike Beder a dozen years ago, while reviewing the Italian restaurant that he owned in the Twin Lakes community of Kent. Mangiamo, as the place was called, burned to the ground just two years later, but Beder was just getting started.
Over the ensuing years, Kent has evolved from a beer-soaked college town to the sort of place that student and parent alike could appreciate. The continuing revitalization of downtown Kent has been the handiwork of many people, not the least of whom is Beder, a savvy businessman who enriches the community with well-run spots like Water Street Tavern, Venice Cafe and Tree City Coffee. Don't take my word for it, take that of the Kent Chamber of Commerce, who bestowed upon him their most prestigious award for public service.
Beder's latest act is Franklin Hotel Bar, an establishment that single-handedly has elevated the town's nightlife scene. Step inside the well-appointed lounge and you would be forgiven for assuming that the bar has been here since 1919, when the building around it was constructed. Faded brick walls provide an authentic backdrop to the handsome wood bar. Plump, deeply tufted, high-backed booths cushion the blow after a long, hard day. Dimly lit nooks and soft seating areas provide quiet comfort for couples, while larger communal spots accommodate groups of up to 8. And although the university is just two short blocks away, the tipsy masses, loud bands and blaring TVs all are blessedly absent. In their place are the soothing sounds of rhythmic cocktail shakers, jazz and easy conversation.
"This is an older demographic than what we're used to here in Kent," Beder explains. "I put this bar together because I believed we were finally ready for a bar for adults."
Those adults are coming not just from Kent, but also Streetsboro, Stow, Ravenna and Hudson, attracted by the snazzy environment, classic cocktails and appealing small plates. Kent Stage sits directly across the street, making the Franklin a natural gathering spot before and after shows. Hosts promptly seat guests, set down water glasses and offer menus that cover wine, beer, booze and food.
Summer in a glass, the fizzy, faintly sweet Tom Collins ($9) is a whip of dry gin, lemon and frothy egg whites. On the opposite end of the flavor spectrum is the house Manhattan ($8), aged for 30 days in a bartop oak barrel to squeeze out every last drop of smoky complexity from the rye. The Banana Bread Old Fashioned ($8), made with banana-washed bourbon, is a love-it-or-leave- it proposition. I left it.
You won't find any PBR Tallboys here, but you will find two dozen wines by the glass, almost all of which are priced between $7 and $9. From Italian prosecco and French rose to Oregon pinot and California cabernet, all bases are tastefully covered. There is no draft beer, but enough canned and bottled macro and micro to appease hopheads.
After being bit by the fire bug at his Italian restaurant, Beder has been skittish about going back into the full-service food business. He's gone so far as to farm out the kitchen duties at his oh-so-hip Venice Cafe, but not here, where the goal is to keep folks in their booths and stools as long as possible. To do that takes food, and Franklin Hotel Bar more than capably rises to the occasion.
While technically a small-plates collection, there's nothing petite about the smoked pork nachos ($13), a mountain of chips and toppings that stars real smoked meat from neighbor Burnside Barbecue. In the frutti di mare flatbread ($14), a crispy base supports just-baked mussels and scallops along with artichoke hearts, spinach and tomato. The tacos ($8) here are better than most thanks to warm, soft corn tortillas, low-and-slow smoked pork and salty cotija cheese.
Date lovers will doubtless enjoy the pancetta-wrapped, chorizo-stuffed version served here, which manages to stop shy of cloyingly sweet. What the kitchen calls "risotto" is more like cheesy rice ($12), given the less-than-creamy consistency, but it's a tasty medley of chicken, crispy pancetta and wide shingles of shaved parm. For guests who still can't get behind the idea of small plates, Franklin offers a three-course prix fixe for just $23 that includes dessert. If you like smoke and mirrors, order the cherrywood-smoked cheesecake ($9), which arrives under a smoke-filled cloche.
Back when the Franklin Hotel was alive and kicking, this lower-level space was home to a pool hall, a barbershop and, naturally, a speakeasy. Some say it was the preferred watering hole of lawman Eliot Ness because it was far from prying eyes. These days, the clientele is a more agreeable lot, who make their way to the snug saloon for a taste of the big city.
"We're a little tucked away down here, but once people find us, they're hooked," says Beder.