While most of us were too busy getting buzzed on Zimas, Cosmos, White Russians and Chocolate Martinis to notice, Paulius Nasvytis was quietly launching a cocktail revolution in a gritty corner of Cleveland. Next month will mark the 20th anniversary of the Velvet Tango Room
(2095 Columbus Rd., 216-241-8869), Cleveland’s first real cocktail lounge that continues to set the bar for quality and style to this day.
“In some ways it feels like two years and in some ways it feels like 50,” Nasvytis says. “When I opened, this was a bar that was held to a different standard and it was a bar that held its customers to a different standard as well, which a lot of people couldn’t fathom. We’ve kept to those roots but through the years I’ve always tried to keep upping the game.”
A lot has changed over those two decades, both in terms of the local cocktail culture and the neighborhood VTR calls home. Years before Ohio City became the food and drink hub it is today, Nasvytis purchased a falling-down building on a dog-eared block and had the balls to start selling the city’s most expensive cocktails when he finally opened his doors in 1996.
“The neighborhood was really, really rough,” he recalls. “It was like the no man’s land between the few sparkles that Ohio City had back then and Tremont, which was still in the infancy of its transformation.”
That he managed to maintain the same level of quality and consistency for 20 years is both astonishing and admirable. While many other operators dumb down their product to chase profits and maintain the bottom line, Nasvytis continued to improve his bar and business year in and year out. His was one of the first bars to go non-smoking by choice, and his bartenders were employing fresh fruit juices and housemade mixers long before the rest. VTR still offers its guests live entertainment, either in the form of a three-piece jazz band or pianist, every day of the week.
To usher in the next decade, Velvet Tango Room will unveil a new cocktail book that is smaller and more modern in both design and character. It contains all the classics plus a few new selections, but it also has stripped away a lot of the now-superfluous verbiage that helped to educate customers. Thanks to people like Nasvytis, that need has all but vanished.
“The cocktail game in Cleveland is on a very different level now,” he says.
Of course, there are still those customers who prefer to sip their White Russians and Chocolate Martinis, wholly oblivious to modern cocktail forces.
“To this day, not everybody gets it,” Nasvytis says. “But I’m good with that; not everybody has to.”