CINCINNATI -- Allyn Raifstanger was a 33-year-old rookie restaurateur when Allyn's Cafe opened its doors 25 years ago in Columbia-Tusculum.
Sure, he had learned about serving the public at a Friendly's during the mid-1970s while a high school student in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. He added to that a degree in hospitality and tourism from the University of Massachusetts. He got hands-on experience at a Red Lion Inn and other hotels. And, ultimately, he served in several capacities, including banquet manager at the Omni Netherland Plaza Hotel, the job that brought him to Cincinnati in 1983.
But this time, Raifstanger’s business carried his name and required the untrained cook to get down and dirty in the kitchen. Suddenly, Allyn's owned his heart, his soul and his every day.
That he would succeed for two-and-a-half decades at the corner of Hoge Street and Columbia Parkway -- a stone's throw from Jeff Ruby's venerable steakhouse The Precinct -- is an accomplishment few restaurants founded in 1991 and faced with ever-increasing competition achieved.
He had no crystal ball to tell him that Allyn's would become an East Side mecca known for its beer selection, Cajun food, live music and beer stein collection. He never imagined that 25 years later, Allyn's menu would include 11 vegetarian and eight vegan dishes, that he would have expanded and remodeled the restaurant several times and that he would spend part of his days on social media diplomatically responding to comments made by his customers.
As the restaurant changed, so did Allyn.
He married Karen the same year Allyn's opened, and they had three children together.
He made friends again with the trumpet he had played in school bands and helped form the Blue Birds Big Band with, among others, singer/drummer Bam Powell and guitarist Marcos Sastre. They set up inside Allyn's window along Columbia Parkway every Sunday and played well past midnight throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s. Other popular regular acts included Pigmeat Jarrett, Sweet Alice Hoskins, H-Bomb Ferguson, Brian Lovely and the Secret, Ricky Nye and Bailando Desnudo.
And all the while, the neighborhood he calls home -- the Raifstangers live a block from the restaurant -- changed a great deal, all for the good in Allyn's opinion. He falls just short of bragging about Columbia-Tusculum when he points out that the website onlyinyourstate.com ranked it the third-best neighborhood in Ohio.
That ranking, he said, "is based on it being bike-friendly, its painted ladies, the type of people here, the diversity and the closeness to restaurants," Raifstanger said.
A newish neighborhood shopping center, Columbia Square, and the development of restaurants and condominiums nearby might bother purists, but Raifstanger welcomes them. The shopping center spurred competition among neighborhood restaurants, of which Raifstanger said there were just four when he launched Allyn's: The Precinct, Funky's Blackstone Grille, East End Cafe and Delta Cafe.
"Columbia Square has been a blessing to everyone down here. It helps bring people in town to this area," he said. Latecomers such as Buzz, Pearl's, Blank Slate Brewing Co. and Green Dog Cafe give Raifstanger, who has been a vegan for more than three years, more eating and drinking options.
He said it was his father who encouraged him to get into the restaurant business. The push came at a time when Raifstanger's skill set had matured and seemed right for running a restaurant.
Netherland Plaza's ownership sent him to the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, to revive one of their struggling properties. He started hanging out around the corner from it at the Brickskeller bar, which had an inventory of about 600 beers. That's where he got the beer bug he brought to Allyn’s.
He learned about real estate through the purchase of several properties, including a Columbia-Tusculum house for $14,000 that needed restoration. That project connected him with radio show host Gary Schroeder, who became a close friend and taught Raifstanger the ins and outs of installing heating and cooling systems.
He left his job at Netherland Plaza and heard that Baske's Sports Bar at Hoge and Columbia Parkway had closed and might be for sale. Using land-contract financing, he bought the place without breaking the bank and set out to create Allyn's Cafe using a combination of his retirement savings and sweat equity.
"People started coming in as we developed the menu," Raifstanger said. "There was nothing like it Downtown. This was before Rookwood Commons, before Newport on the Levee, before The Banks. We were kind of shocked to see tens of thousands of receipts go in every year."
Allyn's live music shows were taking off, too, and the place started drawing standing-room-only crowds.
"On music night, there were people hanging from the ceiling, and they'd stay here until 1 or 2 o'clock in the morning," he said. "Then laws started getting tougher and tougher."
After a good run, the day the music died dawned on Allyn’s, so Raifstanger changed gears.
“I decided that after some 20 years of live music for it not to be part of our business plan, that we would go with music, good music, but not live,” he said.
He kept the little wine shop he had in the back, but changed the décor, giving it a clean, New Orleans feel with black and white photography and Cajun colors. And he concentrated more on building a strong staff that would allow him to take a step back from the day-to-day issues.
He shifted the menu a little away from Mexican, adding vegetarian and vegan dishes to offer alongside what have been standbys at Allyn’s: Mardi Gras pasta, gumbo, etouffee, red beans and rice, quesadillas (any style), turkey chili and more. Four months ago, Allyn’s started serving in-house desserts such as creme brulee, chocolate mousse cake and New Orleans bread pudding with “bourbonaise” sauce.
Raifstanger said he sees himself being Alllyn’s restaurateur the rest of his life, but he hedged on that thought a bit when he said, “I’m not going to die behind the fryer at 75.
“I own the property, I have good management day to day, and I feel great for my age.”