A look back (and forward) as the Old North classic closes for extended renovations

On the morning of Saturday, March 8, 2008, I woke up to the craziest blizzard of my lifetime. Peering out the window of my rented house on East Maynard Avenue, I couldn't believe how much snow had fallen. Columbus wasn't just blanketed, it was bludgeoned: 10 inches by dawn, with more arriving well into the afternoon. Ultimately it totaled 20.5 inches — the most in Columbus history.

My roommates and I all had busy days on deck, but there was so much accumulation on the roads that driving was out of the question. Even High Street was reduced to a primitive arctic walkway. Our plans were shot. There was only one thing left to do.

We went to the Dube, of course. Walked straight down the middle of High Street. Breakfast burritos for everyone.

***

Seemingly everyone has a Blue Danube story — or a dozen. If you've spent any significant time in the campus-adjacent neighborhood known as the Old North, some of it was probably logged at the dingy neighborhood diner on the corner of Blake Avenue and North High Street.

“It's one of these places that has established itself over the years, and you either walk in and get that feeling of, ‘I'm really comfortable here,' or you don't,” said Lindsey Heyob, the Dube's assistant general manager. “And the people who walk in and get that feeling keep coming back, and they stay forever.”

Countless people spent stretches of their lives frequenting the Dube because it was an affordable bar and restaurant with personality to spare — one of the last such outposts on a corridor growing more sanitized by the year. As old haunts along North High began dropping one by one, replaced by luxury apartments and brand-name chain stores, this wood-paneled oasis persevered well into its eighth decade. It seemed both eternal and essential.

So when rumors began to swirl last month that the Dube would be closing, a sizable number of locals got a queasy feeling in their stomachs. (No, not the feeling you get after pounding multiple Dube Dogs on $1 Burger Night.) And when the management confirmed the impending closure with a Facebook post on May 7, it read like an old friend's terminal prognosis. There goes another campus classic, probably to be replaced by yet another gastropub.

Immediately, conflicting reports began to emerge. Actually, the Dube wasn't going away forever, just closing temporarily for renovations. The Margetis family, which owned the building at 2439 N. High St. and had run the restaurant up until 1995, was reclaiming it from current owner Bob Swaim. Rather than killing the Dube, they were trying to preserve it. But could it ever be the same?

Hoping to clear up the confusion, the week the news broke I called Steve Margetis, son of building owner George Margetis and property manager for Margetis Properties. I was surprised to find him as uncertain as the rest of us about the Dube's future.

Margetis, 55, spoke of developers who'd called him attempting to turn the Dube into an Applebee's or T.G.I. Fridays. He also admitted his fear that Campus Partners — the development nonprofit tasked with “revitalizing” the urban neighborhoods around Ohio State — would somehow seize control of the business he grew up in. He speculated about how to get the Dube protected as an historic landmark and worried aloud about going down as the guy who screwed up a Columbus treasure. Then he asked a stunning question: “What do you think I should do?”

***

On Tuesday, May 22, I was scheduled to meet Margetis at 3 p.m. to discuss his history with the Dube and his plans for renovating and reopening it. We were to rendezvous at the restaurant itself, but upon arrival a sign was posted on the door: “The Dube will be closing today @ 3:00 p.m. due to extreme staff shortages. Sorry for the inconvenience.”

Inside, Heyob was breaking the news to her staff: So many kitchen workers had found new jobs in the wake of the closure announcement that the Dube would have to close immediately rather than remaining open until Father's Day as planned. Afterwards, employees filed out, looking dazed and dispirited, feelings Heyob later articulated in a phone interview.

“I just wanted the Dube to go out with the proper going away sendoff,” she said, “and I don't feel like it's really getting that.”

With the Dube itself unavailable, Margetis and I sat down by the front window at Dick's Den, the long-standing bar and music venue down the block that also serves as a bulwark against creeping gentrification. Inside, Margetis explained that part of the reason he opted not to renew Swaim's lease was because he felt Swaim, 75, had let the building fall into a state of disrepair that left it vulnerable to a shutdown. (Swaim initially agreed to an interview with Alive but did not respond to several dozen calls and texts in the following weeks.)

“Bob hasn't made any improvements in there,” Margetis said. “Not that I'm cutting him down or anything like that, but I feel responsible. I look at the future and I see that to save it I have to start now upgrading it and make sure that we don't lose it. Because that's all we got left on High Street. Larry's is gone. Stache's used to be across the street — that's gone. There's not too many left, man. It's not going to be reality anymore. It's going to be fake campus.”

Margetis fears code violations under Swaim's administration could give Campus Partners or other developers the leverage they need to get the Dube shut down and take over the property, so he's taking matters into his own hands. He estimated the building needs close to $1 million in renovations, including new electric breaker boxes, handicap-accessible bathrooms, and converting the surface parking lot across West Blake Avenue into a garage. More work could be necessary depending on what Swaim leaves behind at the end of his lease. “I don't know if I'm going to walk in and find it gutted,” Margetis said.

In early June, Margetis and his cousin Jimmy Sicaris announced plans to lease the building to a new, as yet unnamed operator. The menu will be pared back, with a focus on home-cooked meals, including Greek dishes such as moussaka, spanakopita and pastitsio. The interior will be redone, new windows added, and the façade changed to brick or sandstone to match the original Dube design. Margetis wants to keep the Blue Danube name but isn't clear if he or Swaim has the legal right to it.

“My main concern is not to fail,” Margetis told me that afternoon at Dick's Den. “I'm scared to death. Because they make more money than some countries — OSU does, Campus Partners — and I don't want to lose this on my watch, or I'd have to leave the city. Because everyone will kill me if I lose the Dube.”

***

John Frak founded The Blue Danube in 1940, naming it after Johann Strauss II's famous classical piece and/or the river that runs through his native Hungary. The restaurant began as a fine dining establishment, serving filet mignon and caviar as well as traditional Hungarian fare such as goulash. Waitresses dressed in traditional Hungarian garb, and violinists roamed the tables playing gypsy music. According to local historian D.A. Kellough, performers included Freddie Drigo's Hungarian Ensemble and Jack Banby and His Gypsy Ensemble.

Frak sold the Dube to a Greek immigrant named Tass Sicaris in 1947. Sicaris turned the place into a casual neighborhood diner fit for the postwar era, adding Greek food to the menu and hiring organist Clara Bloomquist to play customer requests on a Hammond B3. In the '60s, he passed the Dube down to his three nephews, known in the family as “the three Georges” — George Spandithos, George Sicaris and George Margetis. In the '70s, Spandithos died, and Sicaris sold his share of the business to Margetis.

Steve Margetis was born in 1963 in a townhouse across Blake Avenue from the Dube, where his real estate office and Campus State Liquor Store now stand. He said he spent his childhood peeling potatoes in the kitchen and performing other tasks for his father, George, now 86 and retired back home in Greece.

Margetis remembers his dad as a bartender with phenomenal showmanship. “He was ‘Cocktail' before ‘Cocktail,'” he said. “People used to come from New York to see him bartend. He put a show on.” Margetis regaled me with stories, including one of the original bar burning down due to a stray cigarette, only to be rebuilt by visiting Wisconsin football fans who lost a bet on the Buckeyes-Badgers game. He listed “The Twilight Zone” creator Rod Serling and comedian Richard Lewis as one-time regulars.

Although Margetis grew up in the Dube, when the time came to take over the family business, he wanted out. So in 1995 — incidentally, the same year Campus Partners was founded — George Margetis sold the restaurant to Swaim, an acquaintance who also owned Lane Avenue Travel, but kept the building. According to Steve Margetis, his father leased Swaim the facility for five years, with options to renew for three more five-year stints up to 2015.

Swaim continued to run the Dube as a community hub with character, including some innovations that have become signature elements. For instance, he instituted the Dube Dinner Deluxe: two grilled cheese sandwiches plus a bottle of Dom Perignon.

As Swaim told The Lantern in 2005, one of his first actions as owner was to clean the ceiling tiles, which had yellowed due to years of cigarette smoke. The tiles remained shabby after cleaning, so he decided to let customers paint them for a small fee, as a fundraiser for someone's funeral. What began as an all-night contest turned into a tradition: Anyone who wanted could purchase a 2x2 ceiling tile, illustrate it, and submit it to be hung at the Dube.

Several employees who worked at the Dube under Swaim praised the place's quirky, casual, unpretentious vibe.

“Everyone gets to be themselves,” said Amanda Grace, a server and bartender at the Dube since 2004. “It's such a non-corporate environment, and you get to show your personality. And I think that that makes customers and other staff members so comfortable. It's a really laid back, almost family atmosphere. … I don't think it's easy to find places like that anymore.”

Emily Morgan, a server and bartender from 2014-2016, said she was inspired by watching her women coworkers' “won't-take-no-shit-from-nobody” attitude, exemplified by cutting off impolite customers or even throwing drunk men twice their size out of the bar.

“I was kind of a dumb kid,” Morgan said, “and this is going to sound kind of cheesy, but I wasn't really able to find myself until I started working at the Dube. I started working with all these amazing, strong, empowered women, and they had the biggest impact on me.”

If Swaim's staff has a rosy recollection of his tenure helming the Dube, his landlord's memories aren't nearly so fond. Margetis said a series of financial disputes spanning decades was the ultimate factor in the decision not to renew Swaim's lease.

According to Margetis, Swaim allegedly didn't pay the down payment when he purchased the business in 1995, eventually paying it off without interest using profits from the restaurant. Margetis also alleged Swaim often paid rent up to 10 days late without a late fee. And in 2011, Margetis and Swaim went to court over the rights to the building.

In December 2003, George Margetis created separate limited liability corporations for all his real estate holdings and transferred each property to its respective LLC. The newly formed Kollines 2439 LLC — named for a Greek village and the Dube's address at 2439 N. High St. — bought the Dube for $10. Effectively, the elder Margetis sold the building to himself.

Swaim's lease dictated that he had first rights to purchase the property. In 2011, at the beginning of the lease's final five-year option, he asserted his right to buy the building for the $10 price paid by Kollines 2439 LLC. The Margetis family fought Swaim in court and won.

“That was not a very nice thing to do,” Steve Margetis said. “Trying to get the place for $10 from us?”

Upon losing the case, Swaim allegedly could not pay for Margetis' $45,000 in legal fees, so Margetis raised his rent and added three extra years onto the end of the lease to allow Swaim time to make up the debt. For George Margetis, this was the last straw.

“He didn't think [Swaim] was worthy to have it anymore after all that,” Steve Margetis said. “We didn't want to have to watch our backs. We'll give somebody anything in the world, but if they try to stab you in the back — we hold grudges, you know? And so that was it.”

***

On Friday, June 1, dozens of regulars piled into the Dube for one last toast to the late, great neighborhood staple. Management had cobbled together enough staffers to open the bar for the night. The kitchen was closed, but blue plate specials remained scrawled behind the bar: Open Faced Meatloaf on Monday, Open Faced Roast Beef on Tuesday, and so on. At one point the jukebox blared Violent Femmes' “Please Do Not Go.”

As I wandered from group to group, people waxed sentimental about the diner's significance in Columbus and all the friends they'd made there who now feel more like family. More than one patron compared it to “Cheers.” Many identified it as a great place both to get a hangover and to cure it. One group at the large booth across from the bar invited me to join them for a round of Jameson shots chased by orange juice.

Perched at the bar, Andrew Johnson summed up the collective attitude that night: “If the Dube goes away, there's simply no place in town that offers this. There's simply not a replacement for this place.”

When the subject of a revamped Dube came up, Johnson was skeptical that it could maintain its charm, citing the transformation of old-fashioned Short North diner Phillip's Coney Island into the slicker, trendier Philco. Thinking back on my own experiences at the place — all those beers downed, brunches consumed, interviews conducted — sentimentality steered me into agreement with Johnson, who said, “Whatever happens when they reopen the doors, it won't be like this.”

No one will be shocked to learn that the recent-vintage employees are also sad to see this era of the Dube coming to an end. But, to my pleasant surprise, the employees I spoke with were also cautiously optimistic about the Margetis family's rehab plans.

“I don't know that it will ever be the same,” Heyob said, “but I think any of the older generation that comes in now, it was never the same to them. Everybody lives through their generation of what the Dube is. I have nothing but good hopes for them if they can make it happen.”

Grace, one of the Dube's veteran employees, expressed confidence in Margetis and said she wouldn't be opposed to taking some shifts whenever the Dube resurrects. “I know that the staff is a huge part of what makes that place fantastic,” she said, “and it sounds like Steve is really open to having anyone [return] that has been there and wants to come back.”

Morgan, one of the former staffers who returned to work a so-called “rock star” shift during the Dube's final weeks, said Margetis, who happens to be her landlord, has shown her some blueprints for the planned renovations. She, too, is crossing her fingers and hoping for the best.

“I think if they're able to pull it off, it will be better than what it was,” Morgan said. “But I think there's a lot of room in there to do it wrong.”