Long-awaited Kensington Pub to open by March in Cleveland Heights

When partners Jeff King and Brad Poe open the Kensington Pub in Cleveland Heights this spring, they promise to have something for everyone at the bar that has been known for decades as Tavern Company.

Whether patrons want to bring the kids for an early dinner, come for date night, or stop in for a beer and a game of darts, King says he’ll have it covered. “We’re really going to go for a couple different crowds,” he says. “We want to go for the 5 o’clock happy hour crowd and family time, and we’re also going to stay open until 2 a.m. seven days a week and serve food until 2 a.m.”

While current Tavern Company owner Chris Armington took the name with him when he moved his bar and restaurant down the street, King says a passerby told him that the bar was known as the Kensington Pub back in the 1950s or 60s—marking the name of the side street it sits on. While the watering hole has gone by other names as well, it’s been Tavern Company for most of its recent life.

“It was TavCo through two or three owners,” explains King. “But it had never really been renovated through the changes. It was kind of, 'Hand the keys over,' and the next guy took over.”

When King and Poe took over the bar back in mid-September, they planned to open by Thanksgiving, but some structural issues and surprises set them back. King says they now have set a drop-dead opening date of St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, for the pub at 2260 Lee Road.

“Originally, we were thinking we’d be open way earlier, but when we got in here, there was stuff you could have never foreseen that had to be addressed,” King says. “We’ve tackled some of those problems and it’s just a new adventure.... Some of the stuff is taking longer than we thought, some of it is easier than we thought. We’re just taking things one step at a time.”

King and Poe are well on their way to unveiling the Kensington Pub’s new look. King says his goal was to preserve some of the nostalgia that drew customers to the location when it was TavCo, while at the same time freshening up the place. “The bones here are in really, really good shape,” he says.

The walls are now painted an inviting hue of purplish blue—coincidentally called "Kensington Blue" and chosen to model the St. James of Bermondsey pub in England. All of the tables have been refinished, and the dropped ceiling in the second dining room has been removed. New light fixtures and ceiling fans are being installed, which King says should help with the chilly drafts, and the bathrooms are undergoing a remodel. The floors will soon be replaced with a hardwood laminate.

But King decided to leave the iconic bar top the way most past patrons remember it—cigarette burns, stains, and all.

“I think people are going to appreciate what was TavCo about us, as far as leaving the bar in a condition that it’s still kind of cool and old, but cleaned up and new with a refreshed look,” he says.

The bar may show its battle wounds, but King did remove and clean the glass rods that create art deco fixtures at either end of the back bar. He then took chrome decorative radiator covers and cut them to fit over portions of the back bar that were damaged. “It gives it a cool, art deco kind of feel,” he explains. “It kind of accents all the chrome and glass. The bar is classic.”

In the 800-square-foot main dining room on the bar side, King has cleaned up the electric fireplace and plans to keep it lit in the colder months. “By the fireplace area, I have two wooden church pews, and I’m thinking about having them face each other [with] a coffee table between them,” he says. 

King has a new layout imagined for the dining area. “Before, it was cluttered in here,” he says. “Maybe we’ll have one row of tables and a couple of deuces spotted in between so you can spread your legs a little bit.”

The walls will be adorned with vintage photos of Cleveland Heights, taken from a book King found. “They’re really cool, from the 30s and 40s, with kids running across the street," says King. "We’re kind of excited about that.”

King discovered that the south (or Kensington-facing) wall originally had windows; in fact, the window frames are still in the walls. So he plans to eventually insulate that wall and install three bay windows, and he says the landlord has already had the plans approved by the Cleveland Heights Architectural Board.

In the second, 500-square-foot dining room, King plans on painting the duct work and the gridwork that used to hold the drop ceiling. He says he doesn’t want guests to feel as if they’ve been banished to a room that feels like an “afterthought.”

“I want that room to be as vibrant and welcoming and warm as [the bar] room,” he says. “Some people don’t want to be around the bar, but some people said they never wanted to be in [the second room] because they wanted to see the TV. So, I guess I’ll probably be putting a couple more TVs in there."

As a member of the Cleveland Darting Association, King also plans to install a few dart boards in the second room. He says people have complained to him that they never liked being seated in that room, so he’s ensuring that guests will feel just as welcome in the second dining room as they do in the bar dining room.

“A couple nights a week, you’re going to have 15 guys throwing darts in a dart league,” King predicts. “The reason you feel like you’re not in the cool room is because no one’s in there. If you have a little activity, a little action, that’s going to change everybody’s idea of what that is.”

King plans to keep the existing patio out front, converting the front windows into roll-top, garage door-like windows that he’ll open in the warmer months. He wants to raise the height of a window seat that currently sits in the front window to make it a bar—an easy-to-execute project that he hopes to complete this summer after the pub opens.

From King's point of view, the open-air front should have a big customer draw. “Maybe you don’t want to be around the bugs, but you still want some breeze blowing in, see the sunshine,” he says. “Lee Road has a really nice momentum coming back [and] being a vibrant neighborhood again, so it makes me feel good to think about people walking up and saying hi, and walking by with strollers by the sidewalk. Just being able to interact with people outside, I think that would be fun.”

King, who ran La Cav du Vin on Coventry for the past eight years, as well as Red the Steakhouse in Beachwood, Johnny’s, and Johnny’s Little Bar with Poe, has a wealth of experience in catering to customers’ needs.

Although King has not yet hired a chef or other staff, he says the menu will have a variety of food, catering to a diverse clientele. “We’re doing a pretty good-sized menu, it’s not just going to be bar food,” he says. “We’ll have a lot of salads, everything’s going to be a scratch kitchen—no boxes of mozzarella sticks or things like that.”

As a veteran of the bar industry, King promises that even the food at 2 a.m. will be satisfying.

“Even on this street, a lot of places close. We want to be the place where the bartender across the street gets off work and stops in, so that’s a niche we’re shooting for,” he explains.

But King says he’ll also accommodate those who want a more upscale meal, offering filet mignon, strip steak, and double-cut pork chops alongside burgers and sides like Brussels sprouts and sweet potato mash. Vegetarians will be able to order entrees like vegetable pot pie or wild mushroom mac-and-cheese, while kids will have their own menu specifically designed for their tastes.

Sunday brunch will also be in the offering. “We want to get people in and have some fun,” King says, adding that both families and sports fans are welcome for brunch. “If there’s a Browns game or something on, have a Bloody Mary or a beer. Have some eggs.”

The bar will serve a dozen beers on draft. “I don’t want to be a craft beer bar or craft cocktail bar,” King claims. “We’ll be able to make that for you, but I don’t want to accentuate it too much. I do like local...so I want to feature maybe five [beers] that are Cleveland-specific [along with] Labatt and maybe Coors Light or Bud Light, because there are a lot of people who don’t like craft beer. As big of a movement as it is, I still like to have a Rolling Rock or something like that every once in a while, too.”

No matter what the customer wants, King says he aims to please. “Ultimately, we’re a pub first," says King. "Walk in in your construction boots, have a beer, and sit at the bar and watch tv—or, if you want, sit down and have a steak. It’s family. I want to try to include everybody.”

Read more articles by Karin Connelly Rice.

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.