Nightlife Guide 2011: A day in the night

LEO scours the city to find our friendliest, friskiest and funkiest bars

Freddie’s — leave your plastic (and your high-horse) at home

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Under a moonlight-blue lamp and situated above and to the left of the register (cash-only, please) hangs a black-and-white photograph of Fred Scarlott, owner of Freddie’s 220 Bar & Lounge, clad in his U.S. Navy uniform: Youthful, spry and handsome, the 20-something Fred smiles at you in the hopeful way young people in photos so often do.

“He’s an amazing man,” Brenda, the second-shift bartender, tells me. “He’s 90 years old and he still comes in here to work Wednesdays and Saturdays. A real hands-on kind of guy. Amazing man.”

In the span of 49 years, Freddie’s — located at 220 W. Broadway and flanked by a Subway and a florist — has achieved the amazing: Amid the turmoil of urban renewal, the doomed Galleria Mall and the insurgent corporate bar-bloc of Fourth Street Live (a five-minute stagger away), the place has not only survived but exists virtually unchanged perhaps in spite of the developmental flux that for decades has laid waste to most businesses in the area; those familiar with its history insist Freddie’s hasn’t changed at all with the exception of an ever-growing assortment of boxing memorabilia that occupies nearly every available square inch of the walls. Posters of Ernie Terrell, Ken Buchanan and (of course) The Greatest watch over you while you get your drink on.

“Fred was a boxer in the Navy,” Brenda continues, topping off my next bourbon and Coke with a splash administered from a two-liter. “He’ll be in here tonight if you want to meet him.”

The prospect of meeting the man himself is intimidating, yet there’s nothing off-putting about his establishment. Freddie’s is as unpretentious as you can get, from the ambiance (as much dimly lit sanctuary as seedy dive) to the clientele (a mix of transients, multifarious city dwellers and hipsters) to the drinks (stiff and cheap, including their wine selection, which consists of $3.50 Sutter Home poured into a plastic cup) and, finally, to the bar wisdom: “When life won’t,” one man tells me, “Hennessy will.”

Indeed, the low-key, modest atmosphere cannot be over-emphasized. In addition to the payphone in the back and the absence of any credit- or debit-card reading machine, I hear-tell of a cat that would roam the bar, interacting with patrons and licking from the ash trays in the city’s pre-smoking-ban era. (Perhaps because of its smoking habit, the cat was nowhere to be found.)

I am also informed that Freddie’s is open 364 days a year — more than any business I’ve ever encountered. The exception? Election Day, but even then they open at 6 p.m. to aid their fellow citizens in the hard task of participatory democracy.

As the evening wears on, young people flood into the bar, saddling up next to the older dudes nursing their beers. The hum of conversation rises as the jukebox cranks out some excellent (and some not so excellent tunes): Garth Brook’s “Friends in Low Places” is followed by Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana,” both of which can put a smile on your face, although perhaps for different reasons.

Around midnight, Fred shows up, hanging out at one end of the bar, separated from me by a throng of young people that begins to dissipate. By 3, it’s just me, my friend Dan and the closing bartender.

At one point, Fred passes my way, and I try to say something but just nod my head in a slow, drunken bow. He nods back … or at least I think he does, and in that moment, Freddie’s becomes something more than a bar, something kind of like a haven for the weary, but it’s something I could never hope to remember, because I was too drunk and forgot to write it down.


Songs and opinions are aplenty at T. Eddie’s

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“Your parking sucks, dude,” drawls the 50-something smoking outside T. Eddie’s Bar & Grill.

It’s late, but I have not yet begun to drink; my critic, however, appears to be midway through yet another Friday night at the tavern.

Germantown can be a great place if you’re looking for an unvarnished opinion from a local. The home of approximately one bar for every three households, the area is full of stiff drinks and impolite evenings out with interesting characters; one tends to lose excessive sensitivity pretty soon.

As we enter T. Eddie’s, we’re greeted by the owner, Tom Combs (the name being derived from his full name, Thomas Edward). I soon learn Combs has owned the bar for four years after working 30 years with the U.S. Postal Service. I learn this because, unlike most bars I’ve ever been to, the owner is actually standing there, drink in hand, greeting people. This is a guy who looks like he’s discovered the secret to a happy life.

He introduces me to his daughter, Angie, an equally happy woman who apparently acts as queen and CEO of the bar every Friday and Saturday night, after a week of working as a manager at UPS.

“Our drinks are the cheapest in the whole neighborhood,” brags Tom. “And the coldest, too!” blurts out Angie. She shares that she goes to a rival bar once a week for their “Thursgays” night, “With my gay boyfriend, Ray, and they always put it on ice for me. They know I’m coming!”

I recognize Ray from the local Kroger, where he works, making me feel even more at home.

Tom excuses himself to sing karaoke. His song, “Play That Funky Music, White Boy,” kicks in and Angie explains, “He sings that song all the time. He sang it at my fucking brother’s wedding with V-Groove!”

“We also have the best karaoke in town,” Angie says. “Mike has over 250,000 songs on there. He’s even got the Dead Kennedys, you name it.”

“‘Too Drunk to Fuck’?”

“Huh?” Angie replies.

“The Dead Kennedys song, ‘Too Drunk to Fuck’ — does he have that?” I can’t think of a better song to karaoke at this time.

“I don’t know, maybe,” she says as Ray grabs her. “C’mon, girl, we gotta go sing.” Her karaoke song, perhaps unsurprisingly, is the Rolling Stones’ “Angie.”

Later, as I stumble through my song, Ray is overheard saying, “I’ve been there, man!”

As Ray runs around behind the bar, lifting patient bartender Deena up by her buttocks for MySpace-style photos, I notice there are dozens of $1 bills hanging from the ceiling. The place is mostly decorated in classic dive-bar style — giant Corona parrot, inflatable NASCAR sign — but Tom points with pride to tiles in the floor spelling out the name of the bar. “I got a buddy who works at Louisville Stoneware, did that for me.”

“We’re the best-kept secret in town,” he says, a bit wistfully. Around 1 a.m., he tells me he’s going home for the night. As if on cue, a young woman filling out a white dress in all the right places walks past. He looks at me, winks and says, “I might stay for a minute.”


Hugh E. Bir’s Café is happily haunted

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Jessica Bir feels something warm on her leg as she tells a stranger about the mysterious hauntings at her father’s bar. She starts, and then steps back.

“Oh my god, that dog just pissed on my leg!” she says. Tank, a Jack Russell terrier belonging to bar patron Jim Sullivan, quickly scampers away in the shadows of the barstools — gone like a ghost. Tank is a regular who Sullivan says, “Likes to give kisses.”

Among other things, apparently.

Such is an ordinary evening at Hugh E. Bir’s Café in downtown New Albany. You may end up in a conversation about ghosts, discussing the health benefits of Bud Light, or being taken aback by the musings of bar regular “Psycho Cindy.”

“Psycho Cindy will get you every time,” says Cindy, who ended the interview when asked for her last name.

Owner Hugh E. Bir Jr. still frequents the place, although he now is semi-retired. That doesn’t stop him from playing music in the bar with his band. He is one of many regulars who come in to hang out, drink beer and play shuffleboard on the decades-old table that runs the length of one wall.

Bar regular Don Jennings moved to Louisville from Pennsylvania more than a decade ago and adopted Hugh E. Bir’s as his “second home.” He left his home state following a divorce.

“She got the goldmine, I got the shaft, and this is where I landed,” the diesel mechanic says. “I just like the place, and I like the people here.”

Bartender Jake Bir, son of Bir Jr., helps his father run the place along with his sister Jessica. The business was opened as a café and bar in 1966 by Hugh E. Bir Sr., and taken over by his son in 1988. The building that houses the watering hole was constructed in the late-19th century, and the regulars say it is a key stop on a New Albany hauntings tour.

Jake and Jessica both report having seen a white mist that floats across the bar, and often a cooler door will open and close by itself. Jessica says a wind chime upstairs has been known to move and make noise in spite of the absence of any wind. Meanwhile, Jake tells the story of a dark, translucent “shadow person” who frequents the place as well.

“I experienced things here as a kid that blew my freaking mind,” he says.

And of course, there are the other kinds of hauntings.

On this evening, there are 15 to 20 people hanging out, talking and laughing. A few play shuffleboard with the perpetually suspended drum kit just above the table, which becomes a stage when Bir’s band plays. The regulars are out in force on this rainy Southern Indiana night.

“I sleep upstairs four nights a week,” Adam Goodman says, sipping his beer. When Jake notes that in recent years Bud Light has taken over for Budweiser as the bar’s bestseller (at a paltry $1.50 per bottle), Goodman quips, “We’re health conscious around here.”

Psycho Cindy notes that she has haunted Bir’s since coming there with her parents as a kid. She insists the bar is “family orientated,” while also calling attention to the conspicuous pole at one end of the bar. “Sometimes dancing girls come in,” she says.

All in all, one might consider Hugh E. Bir’s to be New Albany’s version of Cheers — everyone seems to know everyone’s name, and everyone seems to get along.

“You can’t fake genuine,” says Matt Lynch.

Nevertheless, Jake Bir says the place is never dull. He looks around him, as Tank makes the rounds and Psycho Cindy plays shuffleboard. “This is just our weeknight crowd. Full moon crowds,” he says, “scare the hell out of me.”


Norm’s — new and improved

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When I step inside the tiny dive bar that sits just off the beaten path of Fern Valley Road, I don’t expect to find friendly strangers, cheap drinks and an atmosphere that is more inviting than some people’s living rooms. I’ve been to Norm’s a handful of times over the years, and although I’ve always liked it, I never felt compelled to visit when not on assignment … until now. Owners Holly McGinty and her husband, Andrew, bought the bar in September and have made some welcome improvements to the space’s overall dive-y feel. The cobwebs were cleared, the bathrooms remodeled and a less-is-more approach to neon beer signs was established. They’re debating a name-change, although they can’t quite settle on what that might be.

Norm’s is now a Morehead State bar, since Holly, Andrew and many of their friends went there. It was crazy during this year’s NCAA tournament, Holly says. People traveled in from all over the state to watch the game there.

But on this particular Friday night when my friend and I visit, there are no sports on the television screens, only a handful of regulars looking to shake off the work week, listen to a random assortment of tunes from the jukebox, and make these strangers feel comfortable on their home turf. What I’ve always loved about Norm’s was their inventory of 22-ounce domestic bottles … for a mere $3.25. There’s something noble about gripping an oversized bottle and hoisting it to your mouth — like you’re a giant who’s knocking back a few before you begin your search for that annoying Jack guy.

Holly, who is doing her time behind the bar for the fifth straight night, is quick to welcome us and give us the lay of the land. We sit at the bar and are approached by fellow stool-dwellers. One, who we will call Bob, repairs phones in elevators and is just stopping by on his way back home to Indianapolis. He is a jolly fellow and asks more questions of us than we do of him. Later in the night, he bequeaths to me some love advice after I tell him I am mending. “There are five types of lovers,” he says without hesitation. “The ones you’ve had just didn’t match who you are. Don’t worry, kid. They are out there. I remind myself this every day.”

As we sit and talk about the weather, Lady Gaga and the Royal Wedding, more strangers join the conversation, and soon we are on a first-name basis with just about everyone in the bar. Around 9 p.m., a few young men start lugging in sound equipment — the band 3rd Gear is scheduled to play at 10. “They’re great,” Holly says. “We try to have live music in here every weekend — it’s really picked the place up.”

It’s also around this time I first hear the term “Rocket Bomb,” which Holly’s sister ordered out of a dare. Soon, several glasses are filled with red, white and blue liquor, and you have to drop them into a bigger glass one at a time — the final concoction tastes similar to one of those Bomb Pop popsicles I loved as a kid.

We leave Norm’s with a slight buzz and a new stable of friends. Holly invited us back to try their cheeseburgers, which are the best in town, she assures us. That return trip will certainly be sooner than later.


Smyrna Inn — a Highview staple 

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It usually takes me a minute to explain the part of town where I grew up. When I mention the Jefferson Mall, people begin to understand, but that’s not an entirely accurate landmark — I’m from Highview, the small, mostly residential area kind of between Okolona (where the J-Mall is) and Fern Creek. For the most part, I hated it and abandoned it when I came of age, but I find myself defending the place once people start crinkling their noses at me. There’s nothing really wrong with it except that it’s boring out there. There isn’t much to do, and there aren’t many bars, except one I passed at least twice a day, every single day of my childhood — Smyrna Inn.

On Smyrna Road, perched up next to the Smyrna Bait & Tackle shop and Highview Fire Station #2, is a tiny neighborhood bar; it’s my first time, and I’m not quite sure what to expect.

I arrive around 10:30 on the night of Thunder, and as we enter, a live band is playing Poison’s “Every Rose Has Its Thorn,” and the 15 or so people in the bar are really into it. They all have their chairs turned to face the stage area and are tapping their feet, and a few are even singing along. I feel like I am interrupting something. The bartender, a white-haired man wearing a Smyrna Inn T-shirt, seems surprised to see us, but he’s friendly. Everyone is either drinking domestic bottles (they don’t have draft beer) or Long Island Iced Teas. I get a Miller High Life, and my companion tries a bourbon and Coke, and we scoot past the attentive crowd and go up the three steps to the upper level and find a cozy table in the corner where we can see everything.

The band is good, and even though the bar is small and they’re using a P.A., the music isn’t too loud. They pump out more classic rock and even a rockabilly version of Radiohead’s “Creep.” The place is clean and fairly well lit, with white Christmas lights lining the doorways and railings. I feel out of place but comfortable. Outside, there is an area set up for horseshoes and a nice covered patio. There is a dartboard in the corner, and the usual beer signs everywhere: “Budweiser proudly served at Smyrna Inn since 1936,” and some charming ones: “Drink ’til he’s cute.”

Another bartender, who’d been outside smoking and greeted us when we arrived, comes back in, and she quickly becomes my favorite. While the band is playing “House of the Rising Sun,” she sings loudly and beautifully along with them from her post. She is tan with perfect make-up and a head of huge, curly blonde hair and hot-pink feather earrings. She snaps and dances along to the music as she works. I overhear her say, “Kids just don’t know how to have imaginations,” but I have no idea what it’s in response to. As I start to leave, she and I have a moment — she is excited because I’m wearing feather earrings, too. With a smile, she tells us, “Be good.”

I’d definitely recommend the place if you find yourself in the neighborhood, or if you need a change of scenery. It’s a pleasant little spot to go and disappear, and it’s really not hard to get to — just go down Shepherdsville Road for a while, then either take the short cut up Applegate or take Outer Loop to Smyrna Road, and you’re there.