Columbus, Ohio
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Hello Surly Girls!
October 2005
By Doug Maag

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As Carmen Owens and Marcy Mays finished their business meeting, they were prepared to discuss the planning process and vision for their new Short North restaurant/bar and small music venue. They had their notebooks, business cards, a press release and a directed sense of business decorum all in place as they sat down for their first press interview as new business owners.

That was, of course, before the large ring of keys to their new property was dropped on the table.

The two women both eyed and touched the key ring, smiling wide and becoming a bit giddy as the prospect of becoming new business owners sank in. The third partner in the business had a different reaction however.

“Eh….,” sighed Elizabeth Lessner, waving away their sporadic excitement with a dismissive hand gesture. After all, the four-year veteran owner of Betty’s Food and Spirits had promotion of a new business to attend to.

Marcy Mays, Elizabeth Lessner and Carmen Owens
in front to the Surly Girl Saloon Photo/ Doug Fordyce

“Essentially we want to be that little gem everybody knows and loves,” said Lessner, of the new Surly Girl Saloon to be located at 1126 N. High St. in the space previously occupied by Downtown Connection, near Little Brothers and Skully’s Music-Diner. “It’s going to be what made the Short North cool. There’s plenty of homogenized restaurants … do we want a Starbucks at every corner in our neighborhood?”

And Starbucks it isn’t.

The restaurant and bar will pay homage to the Garden District’s red light district history with a décor resembling an Old West bordello and saloon. The owners are adding rustic-looking wood and swinging saloon doors. A kitchen billed as “the little kitchen that could” is being created to serve a menu largely inspired by the rural Southwest and Elvis. A small dance floor and stage are being added for a variety of entertainment, including, but not limited to, live music.

“It’s easier for us to say what we are not,” said Mays, who will be in charge booking talent that will include art school bands, DJs, comedians and something called hot punk aerobics. She said it would be a place to go for a beer and a shot of whisky rather than the upper-end priced drinks which are now a staple of the Short North.

Owens envisions her new place as reminiscent of the old Ohio State University “dive bars” or “little holes” which used to line High Street from the 1970s to the 1990s. She said serving food until 2 a.m. will cater to customers with alternative working hours and ensure an eclectic clientele.

“We are looking for that laid-back vibe,” said Owens, adding that the music in the backroom would be kept low enough so customers in the front can carry a conversation. “It’s going to be what made the Short North cool,” added Lessner.

While the concept of the new facility seems to be nearly as eclectic and varied as its three owners, before skeptics assume the concept isn’t right for the Short North, they must remember who is in charge.

Lessner, now 31, sold her first property while in her early twenties in a lucrative deal she calls her “own little dot com bubble.” She ran a small real estate company for a few years and opened a restaurant based on the retro style of Betty Paige and the like. Though Lessner started in the restaurant industry at age 15, Betty’s Food and Spirits, located at 680 N. High St. in the Short North, was her first attempt as an owner. She quickly built a waiting-list-only clientele and was profitable within a year.

The 28-year-old Owens will be responsible for the daily operation of the Surly Girl Saloon, an idea she conceived several years ago with Lessner. Having been a manager at Betty’s since its inception and witnessing the daily comings and goings of both employees and their Short North customer base, she seems to bring a sense of calm to her more demonstrative partners.

Marcy Mays, Elizabeth Lessner, and Carmen Owens

When Marcy Mays was her partner’s age she was touring the world in her band Scrawl. This matriarch of Columbus-based grunge rock has pledged that the backroom will have “more black, skulls and flames” than the front of the restaurant, and it will become a space to develop talent that doesn’t draw large crowds.

“I was looking for a place where you could have music, not just having it all about the money-making thing … someplace to take chances,” said Mays. “If a band can’t draw 150 people, there are no options [for bigger clubs to make a profit].”

Each night, all live music will be finished by midnight, followed by a DJ who will play until 2 a.m. Customers must remain “open minded” when it comes to their definition of dance music. The only guidelines for the music are “good music without trendiness,” said Lessner.

Calling Betty’s “very much the place I wanted to own,” Lessner, who will return to Betty’s after her new place is up and running this month, concedes the Surly Girl will be the kind of place she would like to hang out in after work. While Betty’s attracts a broad spectrum of customers including tourists visiting the Short North, Lessner wants local residents, those living in her neighborhood, to frequent the Surly Girl.

The Surly Girl has already established its first official sponsorship with the Ohio Roller Derby Girls, naming it as their official party headquarters after their bouts.

The trio feels strongly about presenting women with an alternative to the “testosterone-driven” sports bars that cater to men. The Surly Girl will occasionally sponsor an information table for local women-oriented groups and will have information from Planned Parenthood in the bathroom.

They don’t want it to be a place for singles to meet, but rather a place for women to be free of the “leering guy” syndrome.

“We want to be like everyone’s surly big sisters,” said Mays.

Surly Girl Saloon, 1126 N. High Street. Open 11am to 2am every day of the week. 614-294-4900.

©2005 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.