For roughly 35 years, the corner of Lee and Kensington roads in Cleveland Heights had been home to the Tavern Company, an iconic neighborhood pub that seemed to weather every storm. Like the Colony across the street, the business was woven so firmly into the fabric of the community that the idea of losing it would have upended the delicate balance of the universe.
But that's precisely what happened two and half years ago, when Chris Armington, owner of TavCo since 2009, purchased the Colony and vacated the premises, taking the name with him. Fortunately, partners Jeff King and Brad Poe stepped in with a plan to reanimate the beloved saloon and bring it up to modern standards. A year and a half later, they're finally ready to unveil Kensington Pub.
"We were happy to get this spot, but you can never prepare for when you go into a space that you know nothing about," says King, referring to the lengthy construction process. "Hopefully people will forgive us."
The once-handsome pub was in desperate need of a top-to-bottom renovation — and that's just what it received. Chief among the improvements is the installation of windows along the southern side of the building, which hasn't seen the light of day for at least four decades. Now diners have a panoramic view of the outdoors, and passersby can take in the Ed Hopper-style glow of nightlife within.
In the adjoining dining room, thick and spongy carpet was ripped out and replaced with a new subfloor and floating wood floors. A drop ceiling above was also scrapped in favor of an exposed grid system that adds volume to the space. Nearly every surface in the main barroom, from the tabletops to the backbar, has been sanded, buffed and polished to a warm, woodsy tone. Rigid and uncomfortable church pews have been replaced by standard tables, chairs and high-tops. Men's and women's restrooms, best described as prison-chic, have been completely remade. New accent lighting and wall decor are the jewelry that completes the composition.
Between the two of them, King and Poe have decades of hospitality experience, including long stints at Johnny's Bar, Johnny's Little Bar and La Cave Du Vin. Their objective at Kensington Pub is to operate as a classic American tavern that borrows elements from each past employer.
"We're not trying to reinvent the wheel, just do it from scratch and do it right," King explains. "I want stuff that's fun and recognizable but done with a certain homemade quality. You have to put some effort into it; people notice."
King says that what he enjoyed most about Little Bar, which he helped open when Johnny's took it over, was the democratic makeup of the clientele. From utility workers in mud-caked boots to lawyers in chalk-striped suits, all feel equally at ease. Kensington, he assures us, will be the type of place where you can watch the game with your mates over a couple beers or treat that special someone to a grilled steak dinner with a nice bottle of red wine.
Meals might start with beer-steamed mussels with fennel, fried meatballs with marinara, sausage-stuffed banana peppers or hand-battered chicken tenders with a choice of sauce. Soups, salads and sandwiches like grilled cheese, grilled chicken breast and crispy pork schnitzel split the difference between starters and mains.Burgers can be paired with fresh-cut fries, housemade chips, or beer-battered onion rings. On Fridays, Guinness-battered cod will make an appearance. A concise roster of steaks, chops and pan-seared fish, along with a selection of a la carte sides, is on hand for those looking for a little more heft.
All new draft lines and faucets will dispense a dozen local, regional and macro beers. About a dozen wines will be available by the glass with more by the bottle. A pair of bristle boards in the second room gives dart throwers a new place to hang. And an attractive new blade sign out front will show them the way.
For too long, tavern operators in these parts have taken local diners for granted, rightly assuming that inertia alone would keep them walking through the doors. Lipstick-on-a-pig facelifts, frozen food from a bag, crappy beer lines that never get cleaned and zero decent wines by the glass have become the rule rather than the exception. As a local himself, King says folks are entitled to better.
"Cleveland Heights is starving for a great hangout place," he asserts. "I get jealous every time I hear about another cool place opening up in Hingetown or Detroit Shoreway or wherever. There is so much more we can bring to the neighborhood, and this neighborhood deserves a place where you can walk to and have a good meal."