In search of Cleveland's oldest bars

Whether they've been lauded in the pages of Esquire or had some of their best days before World War I, the classic Cleveland bar is an undeniable treasure. Back in the day, patrons may have been turn-of-the-century fisherman or gangsters who were shooed out - perhaps reluctantly - by American Prohibition agents.

Whipped cream Jello shots notwithstanding, the prized pubs and taverns with true historical value are often the ones that have been around the longest.

From the near East Side to the underbelly of the Flats, Fresh Water has sought them out and invites you into three of the city’s oldest pubs.

Hotz Cafe
est. 1919
2529 West 10th Street

Every morning Sheila Hotz walks into her bar on the corner of Starkweather and West 10th Street and blows a salutary kiss to a trio of portraits. It’s a ritual she’s been doing for about 40 years, which marks the time she and her husband John have ran the historic Tremont watering hole. The men in question?

Hotz Cafe

“That’s my father-in-law and my grandfather,” says Hotz, referring to John and Andy Hotz. “I like to let them know I’m doing the best I can. I mean, in their time, they’d have a heart attack if they knew a woman was running the place.”

And Hotz is right. Today, the Cafe draws a much different crowd than it did even just decades ago - it was once men-only - but it’s still fundamentally the same joint. Though they’re open on Sundays now - that’s definitely new.

Founded by a family of Russian immigrants the same year of the Suffrage Act, Andy Hotz (AKA "Grandpa Hotz") ran the Hotz Cafe originally as a quiet refuge for neighborhood mill workers. Judges and lawyers quaffed sloe gin next to reps from the old League Park. During Prohibition the venerable Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig are said to have called Hotz their favorite speakeasy. It’s also rumored that when Grandpa Hotz caught wind of Eliot Ness’ arrival, he rushed to dump all his liquor in a nearby neighbor’s flowerbed to escape punishment.

“And he probably drank some, as well,” Sheila says. “I mean, how could anyone not? Even during Prohibition.”
Despite the Cafe losing its all-men’s club vibe, save for its FDR portrait (the president-elect was reportedly a fan) and candid black-and-white “cowboy” shots on the walls, Hotz asserts the family bar—now run by the whole Hotz crew—has hardly needed redecorating. Sure, the original bar table and the circa-1930s shuffleboard are oiled a few times a year; and the stools were replaced in the 1990s, but that’s about it.

“We survived all of a hundred years,” Hotz says, just before holding up a Bud by way of a toast. “I’m hoping we’ll survive at least three more.”

The Harbor Inn
est. 1895
1219 Main Avenue

When Ken Kamola bought the 108-year-old Harbor Inn in August 2015, he hadn’t even heard of Wally Pisorn, the self-dubbed King of the Flats. Donning a Brown’s T-shirt and short spiky hair, Kamola admits his initial exposure to the area was slim to say the least.

“What’s funny is that I never stepped foot in this place before I bought it,” he says. “Not going to lie to you! I was completely blind. I had no idea what I was getting involved in.”

Enter Vlado “Wally” Pisorn. Before Pisorn was the Flats' king, he was King of Slovenia – at least according to a poster that hangs by the north door – and the eccentric owner of Cleveland’s "oldest bar" for about 47 years. Pisorn took the reigns some five decades ago from a Russian named Mike Brajov, who made the Harbor a city staple. He rocked the joint with frenetic block parties. Sportswriters and dwarfs reportedly streaked across its tables. It’s rumored that during the shooting of The Deer Hunter, Robert de Niro would stop in to nab a pint between takes. “Wally really made this a destination spot,” notes Kamola, “not only for Clevelanders, but for people [from] out of town, as well. He is the bar.”

This year, after a deal with Jacob Investments, Kamola had his work cut out for him amid Cleveland's busy year. Hosting hoards of Cuyahoga County Prosecutors to staff from the New York Times, the entrepreneur finds comfort not having to refurbish much besides slight touch-ups here and there: buffing up the draft beer list, adding crafty cocktails (one recently dubbed “A Christmas Story,” with Great Lakes beer and Fireball whisky) and adding an electronic Square card reader to accompany the ancient metal register.

Has it come time for Last Call? Of course, Kamola or one of his bartenders still ring the 1895 Zenith City ship bell that hangs in the dead center of the bar, a sure way to push out lingering drunks with sensitive ears. “We get a lot of neighbor complaints,” Kamola says of the nightly ritual with a grin, “but we still do it anyway.”

Pisorn still offers occasional tips to Harbor’s latest owner – such as antidotes aimed at how to deal with longtime regulars - but that doesn’t mean Kamola fully comprehends the rites and customs of the four-decade Wally era.
“What happened back in 1969 doesn’t happen anymore,” he says, thinking of customer habits long ago. “I’ll tell you, people still walk back to the kitchen to place their food order - like Wally had it set up.” Kamola erupts with laughter and shakes his head. “People are just so engrained with the the way things were. Still, it’s a dive bar with a great history. Why try and reinvent the wheel?”

Mitzi Jerman's CafeMitzi Jerman’s Cafe
est. 1908
3840 St. Claire Avenue

For 105 years that saw two World Wars, a New Deal and (ahem) one Indians Series win, the Myers family ran a quaint, one-room tavern on St. Clair Avenue amid Cleveland’s near east side. Peeking in the windows, one sees an interior representative of its age, with a Victorian tin ceiling, a bar mirror speckled with age, and that faint golden aura establishments that have survived this long tend to give off.

But is it the oldest? Surely, it’s close.

“I can’t answer that,” then-owner Susan Myers told Cleveland Scene in 2013. “There's quite a few bars in the city of Cleveland. I wouldn't even think of claiming something like that.”

Just a year later, in late 2013, Myers passed away from cancer. Her husband George joined her a few months later, leaving Jerman’s in an unfortunate state of limbo. Twenty-five years before that, it was Susan's mother Mitzi who ran the pub. She later lived upstairs in retirement while her kids took over the business. The so-called “living room with a liquor license” became a St. Clair hipster haven for the PBR and Straub set, while the piano in the corner remained forever out-of-tune.

Though Jerman’s sits on the sidelines for now, Myers’ cousin Charlene, who helps run Chuck’s Place next door, is tossing around the idea of re-opening Jerman’s with her sister Michelle, though bartending time constraints have been a setback. As far as when it will finally come to fruition and Jerman's will once again be that-perfect-old-time-spot, who knows? But the Cleveland faithful are holding onto hope that the east side’s oldest pub, after surviving more than a century, will soon again attract neighborhood janes and joes in search of an ice-cold Carling's Black Label.

“There’s definitely a demand for it,” says Charlene, serving drinks behind the bar at Chuck’s. “I have people ask me all the time, ‘When are you going to reopen?’ We’re definitely trying to.”

Read more articles by Mark Oprea.

Mark Oprea is a regular contributor to FreshWater Cleveland. He’s written for the Pacific Standard, OZY, and Cleveland Magazine, and was a correspondent in Mexico in 2018. He lives in Ohio City. More of his work can be found on his personal website.