In Worthington, a gourmet pizza restaurant serves up singer-songwriters after dark. In the Short North, a locally sourced meadery pairs its fancy drinks with funk, jazz and folk-rock. In the Brewery District, an Asian-themed hipster haunt is known for culinary delights as much as aggressive underground sounds.
In form, function and feel, these popular new hangouts along the spine of Columbus aren’t that similar. They serve wildly different products to populations with minimal overlap. But Natalie’s Coal-Fired Pizza & Live Music, Brothers Drake Meadery and Double Happiness do have one thing in common: They’re all hybrids, half-music venue and half-something else.
The trend is catching on all over town. Some of the city’s best small music venues — Carabar in Olde Towne East, Woodlands Tavern in Grandview, Ace of Cups on the fringe between Campus and Clintonville — are as much neighborhood bars as concert destinations. All three of those businesses serve food and attract a healthy happy hour crowd. Skully’s Music Diner has been that way for more than a decade, one of the many reasons it outlasted neighboring Little Brother’s and other competitors from back then. In a sense, the Campus punk dive Bernie’s, which has been serving lunch for decades, could be considered a trailblazer.
The synergy works both ways: In Grandview, music hotspot The Tree Bar, which has always been parceled between a performance space and a Cheers-style watering hole, added designer cocktails to ramp up the hangout appeal. Across the street, the sports bar King Avenue Five introduced a live music room.
The reasons for all this branching out are myriad. For one thing, with rents going up, new businesses need to get customers in the door more than just a few hours a day. That’s part of the reason the father-daughter team of Charlie and Natalie Jackson devised Natalie’s as equal parts restaurant and concert hall. The Jacksons planned Natalie’s so that almost every seat in the house has a view of the stage, but they also positioned the coal-fired oven front and center to present both dimensions to the public.
“Someone that already has paid some of their debt, they don’t have to face the astronomical rents. Then they can say, ‘We’re not going to open until 6 o’clock or 8 o’clock and still make a decent living,’” Charlie Jackson said. “For us, starting from scratch, if we’re paying this rent, we can’t just afford to let this place sit forever.”
The dual purpose helped Natalie’s establish a unique identity, even if it results in some awkward interactions when customers have to clear out at show time to make room for ticketholders.
“The toughest challenge for us was striking a balance,” Natalie Jackson said. “We had to accept that the people that don’t get it really aren’t our customers.”
Bars also have to cope with the reality that demand for live music has decreased since the internet made bands widely accessible.
“You’re drawing from a small group of people who are willing to come out multiple times in a week to see bands,” Tree Bar co-owner Ryan Haye said. “Whereas that might have been the norm 15 years ago, it’s not the norm anymore. You need good food, good draft beer, good bourbon — you have to be good at something else.”
In Brothers Drake’s case, the “something else” came first. When the honey wine specialists opened their slick Short North storefront in 2010, there was no consistent music schedule, just spontaneous, low-key performances.
“It was literally almost a guy would show up with a guitar,” co-owner and general manager Eric Allen said.
But as the musical side of Brothers Drake picked up steam, the owners took it seriously. First they hired Grammy-winning mastering engineer Brian Lucey as a music supervisor last October. In December, around the time they added Japanese food via the Tokyo Go-Go truck, Brothers Drake brought in April Kulcsar as manager of music and entertainment after the band she manages, Evan Oberla Project, filled the room with people and positive vibes. Now the music and the mead feed off each other
“One thing that we always talk about when we’re booking shows is you’re using the band half to draw people there to try mead, and then the other half of the people that are there to try mead are going to be turned on to the music,” Kulcsar said.
That mixing of cultures has been key to the survival of Double Happiness. When Yalan Papillons moved home to Columbus two summers ago to open the Brewery District bar after stints booking D.C.’s Black Cat and New York’s Knitting Factory, she imagined the new space as a “mini mall” with a little bit of everything. She recalled a night when she brought a group from the National Association of Asian American Professionals to the bar to try special Japanese drinks; that crowd mingled with the audience for an early hip-hop show, which in turn mixed with the shoegaze goths that turned up for the late show.
The biggest coup, though, was adding Freshstreet Yakitori, a Japanese cuisine pop-up shop that quickly gained national renown. The buzzworthy food helped generate foot traffic to a location off the main drag, and it broadened Double Happiness’ clientele in an era when, as Papillons pointed out, chefs are rock stars and the public is more interested in posting meal photos on Instagram than seeing live music.
So it was a blow when the owners of Freshstreet decided to close it down last month to go on extended vacation. But Papillons isn’t giving up on food; starting in August, Double Happiness will host monthly pop-up restaurants, beginning with The Lobster Shack.
Keeping the kitchen going could help keep bands on stage. Adding food — first the barbecue truck Ray Ray’s Hog Pit, then Ray Ray’s Chicken Wings inside the bar — freed up Ace of Cups to book touring acts that might only draw a couple dozen people on a Monday.
“We are able to take more risks with booking if we have a second strategy for making money,” owner Marcy Mays said.
The hybrid model seems to be the new paradigm for small venues, which begs the question: Can a bar stay afloat in Columbus focusing exclusively on live music?
Jacob Wooten hopes so. His freshly renovated Kobo, situated across North High Street from Ace of Cups, reopens this weekend as an all-ages concert venue. After this weekend’s soft opening, shows will end promptly at 11 p.m.
“We were getting ready to change into being just a bar,” Wooten said. I was really committed to it. I even bought an ad. It was like, ‘We’re going to be a bar Monday through Friday and live music on Friday and Saturday night, that’s it. And I was kind of just getting depressed over it. We had a couple good all-ages shows that week, and I realized right then, ‘Oh yeah, I didn’t grow up wanting to own a bar. I grew up wanting to do music and give the youth somewhere good to go.’”
In keeping with the trend of diversification, Wooten is adding high-end local beer and liquor to attract service industry patrons after the music turns off. But because he’s largely gunning for an under-21 audience, Kobo’s survival will depend on tapping into a voracious hunger for live music.
In part, that means shifting focus from overexposed, under-ambitious local bands to in-demand touring acts, which is how the North Campus hole-in-the-wall Rumba Cafe has stayed in business as a music-only venture. Rumba built up repute as a destination for traveling Americana performers; last month, only two nights there featured all-local lineups.
Zeroing in on live music involved more than just booking the right bands. Rumba’s ownership specifically left out pool tables, video games and other elements that distract from the music.
“We haven’t had our TVs turned on for three years. In fact, they don’t even work,” Rumba co-owner Todd Dugan said. “If we don’t have a band playing, nobody’s in there. Literally.”
Putting all his chips on music was a big gamble for Duga, and for a while it cost him.
“The only reason we were able to do it at Rumba is I personally was able to strip my living expenses down to a bare minimum, and I was able to take losses for a couple years,” Dugan said.
In the long run, though, Rumba has established enough goodwill with booking agents and music fans to stay viable. Dugan has been able to attract that elusive demographic that shows up with the express intention of seeing a show — no small feat in this multitasking He’s not sure if someone could start from scratch in the current environment, without the benefit of a longstanding built-in audience like the jazz and bluegrass fiends that flock to Dick’s Den.
So it may be possible to get by doing one thing extremely well, but the way forward for concert venues seems to involve becoming many things to many people. This is an art, though, not a science. As Ace of Cups’ Mays put it: “For a lot of the people who are like me, small business owners, we’re all trying to see, ‘Hey, what works?’”