CINCINNATI -- "It was going to be a neighborhood bar, and I just was excited to not work for somebody."
That simple desire was all Ed Rush had in mind in March 2002 when he took every penny he had and poured them into opening the Northside Tavern on Hamilton Avenue.
The beloved bar is celebrating its 15th anniversary with a party on March 25, but to hear Rush tell it, he's not really planning anything special. It'll probably just be another loud, joyful night in the place that has become the front porch, living room and musical refuge for Northside, which has undergone a radical transformation around Rush since the day he set down roots in a make-or-break life gamble.
"This was it," he said, his laugh accented by a throaty cough stained by decades of working in smoky bars. "I mortgaged everything. I mortgaged my house. I took every credit card I could get. I maxed everything out completely. If this didn't work I would be working for someone else the rest of my life paying off this debt. But it worked."
Not only is Northside Tavern still standing, it's one of the anchors of a stretch of real estate that has seen plenty of other bars, restaurants and shops come and go over the years.
'All I wanted was a neighborhood bar'
When his current lease is up in 14 years, Rush, 57, will have logged nearly half a century behind a bar.
That journey has taken him from working as a 19-year-old barback at the Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza to years behind the bar at Arnold's Bar & Grill, where he learned everything he needed to know about the business to create the space he had always wanted.
"All I wanted was a neighborhood bar," he said, his blue eyes bright in the early morning hours when the Tavern's beloved front room is quiet. "I planned on working a whole lot of hours and, honestly, I just didn't want to work for anybody anymore. People would call me in the morning and say, 'You didn't roll your quarters, you didn't count your 50 singles.' That was my goal with this place, just make it so my bartenders can make some money."
The space was raw when Rush first laid eyes on it 15 years ago. After blasting all the plaster off the walls to expose the red brick and peeling back layers of paint to expose the tin roof, he had a friend build the oak and bamboo bar with wood from Hyde Park Lumber.
"The original place was the Schmidt Bakery. Then Grote Bakery had this space, and it smelled like a bakery," he said, recalling the yeasty aroma that lingered in those first few weeks.
He wishes he could take more credit for sensing that Northside would be a great place to plant a flag, but Rush said he "just wanted a space."
'A beautiful summer'
The Tavern opened March 21, 2002, with no air-conditioning inside and no lights on the sign out front. At the time, its only other notable neighbors were Shake It Records, Park Chili and the Blue Jay Restaurant.
Before the Tavern's doors opened, Rush already had his original (and still loyal) crew of bartenders in place -- Tim McMichael, Billy Leta, Scot Stocker and, later, Kate Schmidt. They helped clear out the vacant lot next door that would become the Tavern's beloved outdoor patio the next summer.
"That summer of 2003 was a beautiful summer. … It was awesome. So all of a sudden I had all these people coming in for that courtyard," he recalled.
Another almost-immediate staple was live music. With no booking experience, Rush -- who grew up in Madeira, attended Moeller and vividly recalls seeing shows as a teen at the old Riverfront Coliseum and legendary Jockey Club in Newport -- took a runner on hiring beloved locals The Tigerlilies to play a show that first summer. That got a lot of other musicians to drop by and see their friends playing, and before long Rush was booking as many nights as he could and drawing decent crowds.
Along with the 20-plus-year-old Comet and the more recent Northside Yacht Club, the Tavern has created a unique artistic community that Bill Donabedian, founder of the MidPoint and Bunbury music festivals, said made a kind of cozy living room for the city's musicians.
"I remember when I first started playing with Messerly & Ewing again around 2010-11, we played our first gig again and it was a great spring night. And it was so fun to be in an intimate setting (in the front room)," Donabedian said. "Some people might complain, 'Oh, it's not a huge stage or huge PA,' but a great band can play a room like that and not overpower the audience, and that's a great feeling."
'A neighborhood landmark'
The Tavern has been a huge boon to the neighborhood, according to Shake It Records co-owner Jim Blase, whose shop has been an anchor on the commercial stretch of Hamilton Avenue for 18 years.
"We described ourselves as kind of being across from The Northside for years, and it's a key part in the development and renaissance of the neighborhood," Blase said.
Blase said the opening of the Tavern's back room in 2009 was an example of taking a great space and making it exponentially better for both the bar and for the neighborhood.
"It's become a neighborhood landmark in a not terribly long time … now you come down here and you can't find a place to park," he said.
In addition to nationally known groups who've played the Tavern over the years, like the Greenhornes, Blase pointed to up-and-coming band Leggy as an act that cut its teeth in the Tavern's back room and is now touring all over Europe.
Rush decided to remake the back end of the building -- formerly part of the bakery, then a T-shirt shop and a church -- into a proper venue space after years of rocking the front room to the rafters.
"Some nights, depending on how the bands were, you had to write down your drink choice on a piece of paper because it was so loud," he said.
That changed when the 150-person back space essentially doubled the Tavern's capacity to 250 (not including the 49-person capacity outside in the courtyard). Now it hosts weekly karaoke and Monday trivia nights, private parties and louder bands, such as hometown heroes the Heartless Bastards, who played a show in the back in 2012.
Over the years a who's who of local and national bands have come through, including Chuck Cleaver's Ass Ponys and Wussy, as well as Camp Washington native Dana Hamblen's various bands, from Culture Queer to Fairmount Girls and Ditchweed.
Hamblen is pretty sure she was there the first night the Tavern opened, after hearing the buzz about the new bar while rehearsing in her band's Northside practice space.
"We've played a lot of really good Culture Queer shows there, and I'm sure I've had CD releases there. And Ed's let me do five to six fashion shows there for my vintage store, Chicken Lays an Egg," she said of the 50-plus gigs she's had there. "He just hands me the keys, and he even bought a runway with lights that goes down the middle of the back room that he sets up and then tears down before the bands play."
'Fifty years in bars'
The Tavern was a location for a VH1 episode of "Behind the Music" about the city's Lachey brothers from boy band 98 Degrees, and, two years ago, a stand-in for the iconic New York nightclub Village Vanguard during filming of the Miles Davis biopic "Miles Ahead."
"Now it's just business as usual for many, many years," Rush said, his ruddy cheeks brightening at the idea that he's possibly in the wind-down to a life outside of the tall windows and scuffed wood floors of his little piece of heaven.
"I built the bar, ran up a lot of debt, built the back and run up a lot of debt and promised my wife I'd fix our house."
When his lease is up, he'll be 70 years old, with 30 of those years spent as his own boss.
"Fifty years in bars … It's nothing what I expected," he said. "I just wanted a neighborhood bar and then we started having music. … I just planned on serving some beers."
It turned into much more, and Rush couldn't be happier about that.
4163 Hamilton Ave., Northside
Starts at 5 p.m. Saturday, March 25