Though the Rowley Inn technically resides in Tremont, folks who come here have and always will call this area "the South Side." The bar sits just a mile south of Lincoln Park, but it might as well be clear across town. For at least 60 years, the Rowley has been buried deep in a working-class neighborhood, just up the hill from the Cuyahoga River valley, the steel mills and the legion of workers who literally built this city. The lights still come on every day at 5:30 a.m. to welcome thirsty third-shifters, but admittedly their numbers are dwindling. It's a different era, and to usher it in is Matt Petersen, the bar's first new owner in 40 years.
Petersen had never stepped foot inside the bar – an old feed and seed shop in a former life – before he was fixing to buy it. He was visiting the nearby Christmas Story House with family when he noticed the "For Sale" sign. It had always been Petersen's dream to own a bar and, well, you know how this story ends.
"These are the types of places that our fathers and grandfathers hung out at," says Petersen with genuine fondness. "And they are also the kind of places that get bought, gutted and rebuilt from scratch to appeal to the masses."
Fear not, bar fans. The Rowley Inn is in zero danger of getting an extreme makeover. The bar has managed to stay relatively intact for more than 60 years, and Petersen intends to employ a very gentle hand when it comes to improvements.
"I'm not looking to change a whole lot," he says. "I don't want to mess with that cool, old, corner-dive-bar-that's-been-there-for-60-years vibe. I just want to tweak it, add some beers and up the food in hopes that a whole new generation will rediscover it."
We're seated at the long wooden bar, its shellac more gone than there. The entire place has the hard-earned patina of a venue that's only been closed three hours a day for the last 22,000 days. There's the requisite bowling machine, a longtime fixture that wasn't purchased on the Internet second – or third, or fourth – hand. Keno still rolls here, and it still does brisk business according to the owner. It's Trivia Night, but we're the loudest thing happening in the bar, just four people on an adventure, catching up over cold beers. Admittedly, we're a little rowdy, but not assholes. If we were, Petersen would throw our butts out, he assures us.
"My one rule is anybody is welcome unless they're an asshole," he says from behind the rail. "I'm 35, so I'm past the whole West Sixth Street scene – and I'm quickly getting over the West 25th Street scene too. I want my place to be somewhere people can sit and have a beer with friends and not get bumped around."
The beers are good and they're cheap. A 22-ounce Arrogant Bastard is just $7.50 instead of the 10-spot they'd be everywhere else. Great Lakes and Fat Head's bottles come in at the very humane price of $3.50, and chilly PBR tallboys are a cool $2.50.
Come to the Rowley hungry, just don't come expecting to find gastropub fare. Most of the appetizers are frozen and fried, which is not to say they don't go down easy like Sunday morning. There's the trio of long, soft pretzels ($4) with "cheese" sauce for dipping, five fried mozzarella sticks ($3.50) with marinara, and a basket of something called Rowley Bites ($2.50), tater tot-like nuggets that are better eaten than evaluated.
Only one item on the menu comes in higher than $6.50 and that's the Sizzling Sulzer ($12.50), named for Keith Sulzer, the former police commander of the Second District. It's the Rowley's version of the Roman Burger, with four quarter-pound beef patties topped with salami, Swiss and Italian dressing on a hoagie bun. The Ohio burger ($5.50) here is more than you'd expect from the corner dive. It's a half-pound of local beef with all the fixings. Cheese – American or Swiss – is 50 cents extra. For a bit of a thrill, order the Funky Cowboy ($6.50), a bacon-wrapped all-beef hotdog with hot sauce and creamy coleslaw. Come wintertime, Petersen will add comfort food specials like stuffed cabbage and the like.
In addition to pulling out the drop ceiling, Petersen says he plans to reintroduce glass to the front façade. Like many bars its age, the Rowley at some point had its glassy storefront bricked up, leaving just a postage stamp-size glass block window. When Petersen does that, he'll reestablish a view that had been enjoyed by generations of fathers and grandfathers – the very people who built this city.
The Rowley Inn: 1104 Rowley Ave., Tremont, 216-795-5345, Rowleyinn.com