The 'third place': Covington's changing pub scene reflects citywide growth

“I’ll just have water for now,” Covington mayor Joe Meyer tells the bartender. He pinches his mid-section and rolls his eyes sheepishly. “I guess my days of being slim and sexy are over.”

It’s happy hour at Covington’s newest watering hole, The Hannaford at Pike and Madison. The namesake bar resides in the Mutual Building, created by late-19th century architect Samuel Hannaford, who also designed Cincinnati’s City Hall and Music Hall, among others. The building was renovated and reopened to tenants in 2015, with help from Covington’s Catalytic Fund.

The Hannaford is just the latest in a spate of upscale Covington bars that feature the type of innovative, spirit-forward concoctions that often take as much time to prepare as imbibe.

(Full disclosure: This author works a weekly happy hour shift at The Hannaford, but the style and frequency of regulars’ drink orders is strictly an off-the-record matter.)

“It’s good to see classic cocktails coming back into fashion,” Meyer muses, now that we’re settled in. “They went away for a long time, but now people can’t get enough of them.”

If the notion of city leaders holding impromptu press meetings in bars seems unlikely, then you haven’t hung around much in Covington. On any given evening, a visit to the growing number of taverns along Pike, Mainstrasse and Madison offers an interesting mix of legislators, construction workers, dog lovers, entrepreneurs, roustabouts, regulars and weary young professionals kicking back after a long workday.

Maybe it’s the city’s German brewing lineage and those hardworking folks who found respite in a frosty beer after a long day — after all, Covington was once home to no fewer than 400 pubs. Or maybe it’s the casual quaintness of neighborhoods like Mainstrasse Village, with its string of storefront saloons that make folks want to belly up for good booze and conversation.

Whatever the reason, for many longtime residents, Covington is synonymous with pub culture.

The region’s 30- and 40-somethings have pleasantly hazy memories of Saturday nights spent traipsing the length of Mainstrasse, sucking down kamikaze shots and Miller Lite in volumes that would likely befuddle their more mature selves. Similarly, club-goers of that era will recall Covington Landing on the riverfront, with its faux neon palm trees and sweaty dancefloors presided over by bands like the Snowshoe Crabs.

Meyer remembers a pub scene of the late 1970s and early '80s, when as a young state representative, he’d perch one or another of his newborn children, asleep in their pumpkin seats, atop the bar at Strasse Haus or Chez Nora (now Lisse Steakhuis), and sit back with a glass of bourbon to talk politics with his contemporaries.

“It was a different time then, but Covington has a long tradition of people gathering for civic engagement,” says Meyer. “There used to be social clubs like the Elks, the Rotarians, the League of Women Voters — those outlets have all but disappeared. You of course have coffee shops, but that’s not really the same. Maybe in a decade or two we’ll get back to that, but in the meantime, people gather to talk in bars.”

“It’s the third place,” adds Katie Meyer, executive director for Renaissance Covington and a public figure in her own right. She orders a drink and puts it on her dad’s tab, prompting another good-natured eye roll from the mayor.

“Most people have home, they have work and then they have that third place,” she explains. “Whether it’s church or the gym — or for many people, their local bar — it’s where they go to connect with people about what’s going on in the city.”

Up the hill at Covington staple Herb & Thelma’s, current owners Suzanne and Joe Fessler welcome visitors for a similar purpose — to chat about the news of the day — but many of their regulars come from points beyond Covington.

“We get people from Mason, West Chester, Bellevue, Newport — all over, really,” says Fessler, a Ft. Wright native who purchased the bar two and a half years ago. “We don’t normally get a lot of people from the neighborhood, but we’re starting to get a few here and there.”

Covington’s Lewisburg neighborhood, where Herb & Thelma’s has been in business since 1939, was once a thriving neighborhood filled with families who enjoyed local parks and shops and sent their children to Prince of Peace and John G. Carlisle elementary schools.

“Things sort of died off in the '80s and '90s when the slum lords came through,” Fessler says. “The area has started to turn around, but there is still a lot of work to do. We’re trying to clean it up.”

The Fesslers credit Covington’s Center for Great Neighborhoods with identifying Lewisburg as a target for improvements. The Center awarded Fessler with a small grant earlier this year to commission a mural on the side of the historic building.

“I think people like coming to my bar because it’s your classic roadside tavern,” he says. “Plus, I make the best burger in the city.”

Amid the sweeping changes, Covington has lost neither its thirst for beer nor its penchant for political debate — not by a long shot. But in recent years, the city’s pubs have seen an ever-so-gradual shift in clientele and, subsequently, a wider array of places to choose from.

In the Madison/Pike district alone, longtimer Old Town Tavern has been joined in recent years by the meteorically popular Braxton Brewing Company — which recently added a second Bellevue location — as well as craft cocktail bars like The Hannaford and The Globe. Then there’s sake and karaoke at Riverside Korean Restaurant, jazz at Octave and just up the street, the brand-new boutique Hotel Covington now serves a bevy of cask wines via its ground-floor Coppin’s Bar.

Meanwhile, over on Mainstrasse, new is colliding with old in an even more visible way.

Celebrity Cincinnati mixologist Molly Wellmann opened Old Kentucky Bourbon Bar at 629 Main St. in 2012 and began serving rare bourbons and craft cocktails — a significant departure from what had long been a beer-and-shot kind of scene.

Though her brand remains distinctive, Wellmann is hardly alone these days in providing modern fare in Mainstrasse. The historic avenue is now home to spots like Wiseguy Lounge (atop Goodfellas Pizza at 603) and Craft & Vines at 642, among several others.

“Covington has a vibe that’s all its own,” says Wellmann, whose other pubs are located in the Cincinnati neighborhoods of Over-the-Rhine, Walnut Hills and Northside.

“We were shocked — totally in a good way — by the response we got when we moved in — everyone in the neighborhood has been so amazing,” says Wellmann. “We get people in from CVG because they searched ‘Kentucky bourbon’ on Yelp. They just fall in love with the bar and the neighborhood and the vibe. Covington, and maybe Mainstrasse especially, is a place that makes people feel right at home.”

For those tuned into Covington politics and development, the expanding nightlife scene is just another reflection of the tidal wave of development that’s been attracting diverse new residents and business owners for more than a decade.

Amy Kummler — who owns Up Over Bar and is locally known as the “fairy godmother” of the Covington bar scene — acts as something of a go-between, linking young pups with old dogs who all share a desire to lose themselves for a few hours amidst the muddled drinks, jukebox tunes, twinkly lights and conversations that range from whispers to roars.

Kummler started working at Strasse Haus in 1984 and has since gone on to own two Covington pubs, plus some rental property, on Greer Street. Kummler used to serve the mayor his bourbon, and she remembers a time when Covington seemed smaller and closer knit. But she sees common ground between her longtime regulars and the newly arriving influx.

“I know that I have a role here in blending both groups,” she says. As a self-proclaimed “dive chick,” she is fiercely committed to the grittier, New Orleans-esque vibe that has made both her and her establishments a household name in Covington.

“I could have spruced up this place years ago and made it more like some of the fancy places moving into Covington,” Kummler says. “But I won’t do that because people here need places to hang out that are as different as they are. Everything from dive bars to breweries all the way up to swanky hotel bars. Covington needs them all.”

Other groups might not bridge the gap with bourbon and a great jukebox, but they're working in their own concerted ways to help Covington manage the continuing changes.

“In our work, the question is always, ‘Which comes first, the residents or the businesses?’” says Katie. “My answer is, it’s actually the culture that comes first because both of those things will follow culture. Bar culture is real, perhaps especially in Covington. But whether it’s a farmers’ market or an arts event at The Carnegie — all of these things build culture and give Covington an identity. Bars are certainly a part of that. Once that story gets out about unique culture, that’s when people start paying attention and want to come be a part of it.”

The Northern Kentucky Fund of the Greater Cincinnati Foundation is proud to underwrite Soapbox’s On the Ground: Covington series. The Northern Kentucky Fund believes that highlighting the successes and challenges in our community fosters effective dialog and action, creating communities where everyone can thrive. Other On the Ground partners include The Center for Great Neighborhoods, which is working collaboratively toward community transformation with series sponsor Place Matters partners LISC and United Way of Greater Cincinnati. Data and analysis is provided by The Economics Center.
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