Politics and prizefighting define the 120-year-old Pearl Alley bar
Like any Downtown establishment, Ringside Cafe attracts a diverse clientele, from developers and utility workers to Dispatch employees and people waiting for the COTA bus. Perhaps most prominent among the group are people in politics, who can walk from the Statehouse to the bar, located in Pearl Alley, in minutes for lunch. The current owners, brothers Dan and Adrian Rosu, have encountered entry-level staff to established politicians like former Mayor Michael Coleman and former Governor Ted Strickland, who used to come in for lunch.
“Governor [John] Kasich had his media party here when he got elected,” Adrian said.
Despite its current boxing theme, Ringside Cafe has been a hub for politicians since opening as the Board of Trade Saloon in 1897. After the saloon was destroyed in a fire in 1909, a new building, designed by Columbus native Carl Howell, was constructed and the bar reopened in 1910 as the Chamber of Commerce Cafe & Rathskellar (German for “council's cellar”).
“But … there was an issue with the name,” Dan said. “[The Chamber] didn't want to be in association with a bar.”
So the bar became Cafe & Rathskellar, and that name is still carved in the stone entryway above the awning (“Chamber of Commerce” was covered with an intricate grapevine design).
Much of Howell's original work is still on display in the cozy, brick establishment with the angled entrance. If you look closely, you can spot symbolic drawings, including a tiny mermaid figure on the tile floor and rams' heads carved into the wood bar. And downstairs in the basement is evidence of a door that once lead to a rumored underground tunnel to the Statehouse.
The most eye-catching features are the colorful, stained-glass windows imported from Belgium and depicting myriad characters, including the Democratic donkey and Republican elephant logos. Legend has it that the owner would shine a light on the symbol of whichever party was in power at the time.
By the Prohibition era, the bar was renamed the Jolly Gargoyle and operated as a full-service restaurant with a kitchen downstairs. The wheel of an old dumbwaiter still hangs from the ceiling upstairs.
The bar officially became Ringside Cafe in the 1930s under the ownership of wrestler-turned-promoter Al Haft, but the most well-known Ringside owner was Clem Amorose, who took over in 1960. Customers still mention Amorose to the Rosu brothers.
“They'd say that he used to sit at the first booth … and smoke cigars,” Dan said.
The boxing theme is reflected by the current decor, which includes a punching bag hanging from the ceiling, a framed picture of Muhammad Ali and a replica of George Bellows' famous painting of fighter Luis Angel Firpo knocking Jack Dempsey out of the ring. Additionally, Ringside's popular burgers are all named for boxing legends. It's a practice that was already in place when the Rosus purchased the bar in 2008.
The brothers felt it was important to maintain the bar's traditions and historic charm, though the latter was somewhat hidden by the time they took over.
“It kinda looked like a TGI Fridays,” Adrian said, and mentioned the decor included red walls, “random Sports Illustrated covers” and a Corona sign. Mounted on the wall was a moose with a head full of limes that customers had thrown inside.
In addition to admiring the historic aesthetic, current patrons can read about the bar's history on the back of an old menu or in an old Dispatch article in a frame on the wall. Or, they can ask the ghosts.
For instance, a server has spotted a figure sitting in the booth where Amorose used to sit, and mediums got a strong feeling that burlesque dancing and poker-playing once took place in the basement.
One late night, Adrian noticed his employee had the door of the women's bathroom propped open with a chair.
“He's like, ‘Sometimes when I'm by myself, the door just cracks open and I decided that if it's gonna be open, it's gonna be open on my terms,'” Adrian said.
Despite all the supernatural happenings, including mysterious orbs caught on the security cameras, the mediums insisted the “presence” in the bar is positive, Adrian said.
Perhaps it was that presence that drew the Rosu brothers to the bar; they just happened to see it listed on Craigslist. So far, they've proven trustworthy stewards of, arguably, the longest-running bar under one name in Columbus.
“It was meant to be,” Adrian said.
“We're both very nostalgic people,” Dan added.