At one time, the fortress-like brick building at 2527 W. 25th Street held one of Cleveland's most popular clubs. Called, simply, 2527, the cocktail lounge and live music venue pulled in 30-, 40- and 50-somethings from every posh suburb in town, which is a feat considering its location on the "wrong end" of Ohio City.
The years since that club closed have not been kind to the space; it's been vacant for the last two and half of them. But for the past six months, Ohio City resident Stefan Was has been quietly rehabilitating the interior in preparation of the opening of Porco Lounge and Tiki Room, which takes its place in the neighborhood in early September.
"We are an island over here," Was admits of his location a half-mile south of the West Side Market. "People aren't going to walk down here from the main drag."
Knowing full well that his bar needs to be a destination place, Was made damn sure he'd give people a reason to come. He settled on a tiki-themed bar serving authentic Polynesian cocktails, a passion that he and his wife Anne-Marie have shared and nurtured for years.
"In terms of getting a properly made tiki drink in the city, there's nothing like it," he says. "It truly is a unique concept."
Banish notions of sticky-sweet beverages made with hazardous artificial ingredients dished up at the neighborhood Chinese restaurant, says Was. "These are extremely complex cocktails, and the people who created them took a lot of pride in what they put into them. It's a shame how they've been bastardized over the years."
Using great quality light, dark and coconut rums, fresh fruit juices, and hard-to-find ingredients like falernum and real grenadine, drinks like Mai Tais, Zombies, Painkillers, Jet Pilots and Navy Grog are strong, spicy, unique and compelling. But more than anything, they're just plain fun.
"The thing that draws me most to the cocktails and culture is the fun and kitsch associated with it," says Was. "It doesn't take itself too seriously, and is strictly about having a good time."
That alone sets Porco Lounge apart from the pack. Folks on the prowl for some fun these days are pretty much resigned to dressing up to visit the swank cocktail lounge, dressing down to hit the neighborhood dive, or filling up at the local beer bar or brewpub. Porco is a come-as-you-are bar. But it's no dive – it's special.
For years, Was has been collecting authentic tiki relics from shuttered bars all over the country, including some from Cleveland's famed Kon-Tiki at Stouffer's downtown and Detroit's long-defunct Chin Tiki. Oversize lamps from the Kon-Tiki now hang in the bar, while a portion of his impressive tiki mug collection is displayed on new bamboo shelving. His colorful array of 1,000 swizzle sticks is now eternally entombed in clear epoxy along the bartop.
While there are a few distinct Polynesian design elements throughout the bar, it doesn't hit you over the head like a longboard.
"I don't want people to walk in the door and be like Holy crap, this is a Polynesian paradise," notes Was. "I want to maintain the old school vibe of the place. Nothing would make me feel better than to have somebody walk in and say, how long has this place been here?"
In addition to restoring much of the interior, Was is replacing the gloomy glass-block front windows with real see-through glass. He's built an architectural feature in the main room out of lengthy bamboo poles. And he's constructing booths on a raised section that will be partly concealed behind thick red drapery.
The main draw of the bar, very likely, will be the small tiki lounge just off the main room. Booths and banquettes sit beneath faux thatched awnings, and the carpet is awash in colorful jungle themes. It is in this odd and wonderful room that guests will feel as though they've left Cleveland on a rum-fueled mini vacation.
Along with the deftly crafted Polynesian cocktails, Porco will offer a few draft beers, including those from Hawaii's Kona Brewing Co. A small but good quality wine list also will be available. As for the food, Porco will dish up porky charcuterie plates and hot-pressed panini sandwiches out of a small kitchen.
"I don't want to be cranking out Polynesian fare from the kitchen," he says. "I want something more sustainable throughout the week. Nobody really ever says, 'Oh my god, I can really go for some crab Rangoon,'"