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Vic's Turns Ten!
The Real Lives and Wild Times of a Local Watering Hole
By Jennifer Hambrick
© Photos by Rick Borgia
Ten years after its opening in June 1997, Victorians' Midnight Cafe has morphed
from a humble coffee shop to a full-service restaurant and bar.
If it isn’t the always-open front door that welcomes you, it’s probably the overstuffed sofa and chairs on the platform just inside the door. The painted maroon walls, the murals of aliens and spaceships and city skylines, the random assortment of curios gracing every nook and cranny and the thrift-store piano on the cozy elevated stage then take you to another place: Greenwich Village, 1953, a beatnik coffee house, a club house for the artistic, the politically charged, and the eccentric.
Ten years after its opening in June 1997, Victorians’ Midnight Cafe has morphed from a humble coffee shop to a full-service restaurant and bar and boasts a strong regular clientele of all types. More so even than Victorians’ owner Greg Rowe, these people have charted the course of the hangout they call home. In a very real way, Victorians’ Midnight Cafe wouldn’t be the funky, artsy, unusual place it is today were it not for them. For this group of ragtag rapscallions, a theater of the absurd in its own right, has over the course of a decade created a local institution, an institution that this month will celebrate ten years as a neighborhood cafe where good food, good times, and good friends are found.
A Place for All People
A laundromat once stood in the Fifth Avenue shop front Victorians’ Midnight Cafe now occupies. When Rowe, a Hilliard native, took over the space in 1995, he had already put in 15 years running a janitorial sales and service company. He dreamed of owning a restaurant.
“It’s something that I’ve always wanted to do, get into the food industry,” Rowe said. “The way I figured it, the cheapest route would be to open a coffee house and then go from there.”
It took Rowe a year and a half to convert the space into a coffee shop. Though Victorians’ Midnight Cafe opened for business June 20, 1997, customers – including many who would become regulars – started coming to the coffee shop before then.
Vic's Chief Executive Guru, Greg Rowe,
performing the coffee ritual at 8 am.
“I’m in the pool of people who might have been the first paying customer,” said former Victorian Village resident Steave Scott, now a Victorians’ regular. “I was walking past and I saw that somebody was putting a coffee shop into the old laundromat. I walked in and met Greg and he wasn’t open, but he did have a pot of coffee going, so I bought a cup of coffee from him for a buck.”
Many from all walks of life have similar stories. Since at least the time of the coffee shop’s opening in 1997, Victorians’ Midnight Cafe has attracted a regular clientele of artists, grassroots activists, students and Short North area residents.
Now Victorians’ – which the regulars affectionately call Vic’s – is a hangout for many who cherish the unpredictable atmosphere of a bohemian clubhouse and the sense of community that have evolved at the cafe over the last decade.
“When Greg opened this coffee shop he had a mission,” said longtime Victorians’ employee Connie Harris. “He wanted a place for all types of people to come, and he’s totally succeeded. People over the years have come to just love the place.”
“It definitely was like a neighborhood bar-restaurant feel. All walks of life were in there,” said former Victorians’ regular John Nagy, who now lives in Birmingham, Alabama. “You might see a college professor there, you might see an attorney from downtown, or even a homeless person might be in there. So it was an interesting cross-section of Columbus that met there and hung out.”
Lunatics Running the Asylum
Almost from the beginning the regular customers did more than just hang out at Vic’s. They influenced virtually every aspect of the cafe’s operations and inspired virtually all of the changes the place has seen over the years, from creating permanent – and freewheeling – open mic nights, to expanding the menu, to the enhancing cafe’s decor.
It wasn’t part of Rowe’s original concept for his coffee shop to offer performers a stage on which to present their acts, but this is what happened.
“You see ‘coffee house’ in the window and the guitars come rollin’ in,” Rowe said. “It’s just an open forum for artists of any kind. Poets, comedians, you name it. If it’s something you do on stage, they do it.”
Columbus blues singer and guitarist Jack Via,
one of the first to perform on Victorians' stage.
© Photo by Darren Carlson
Rowe says early on some musicians approached him and asked him if they could play on the elevated platform just inside the cafe’s front door. Sure, he said, ushering in a gig that attracts local musicians and performance artists of all stripes.
Legend has it that Columbus blues singer and guitarist Jack Via was the first musician ever to perform on Victorians’ stage. But even Via himself says this rumor isn’t true.
“I was walking around and heard music coming out of this place, and so I stopped in,” Via said.
Nevertheless, since shortly after the cafe’s opening in 1997 Via has performed regularly on Vic’s open stage nights, where he holds a place of honor.
“(Via) is the longest lasting musician I’ve got,” Rowe said. “His name is always on our open stage night. I always schedule him at 10:45 whether he shows up or not. We just slot him in anyway.”
Though other local acts, like Tom Harker – “The Ukulele Man” – and blues guitarist Bob Sauls routinely perform at Victorians’, Harris says other acts of regional or national fame come through regularly. Political satirist Dave Lippman has performed at Victorians’ at least three times over the last three years. Foley, a Columbus native and former Miles Davis sideman, plays the cafe once in a while when he comes through town.
The open stage at Vic’s showcases more than music. It’s home to all manner of creative expression that even some longstanding regulars call weird.
Some of the sideshows performing at Vic's Open Mic May 2007. Center photo: 22 year-old singer and guitarist Leslie Winchester.
“What I like about it is that it really inspires creativity,” said poet Rick Klaus Theis, who read at Victorians’ poetry nights before relocating to New York City a few years ago. “(Victorians’) was very conducive to creativity because it was so big, there were a lot of people there all the time and people would interact. And there was always someone on stage and sometime what they’d be doing would be pretty strange.”
Take, for instance, the troupe of belly dancers that showed up one night.
“It was mainly women and some were older, middle aged, down to children even,” recalled Nagy. “The whole crowd got into it. The belly dancers were having fun and the people in the audience were having fun and it just kind of spread through the whole place. You could see almost anything there.”
Poetry readings at Vic’s often extended well beyond the stage.
“Sometimes when I would read (poetry) there, to try to get people more interested, I’d walk round while I would reading, and sometimes walk into the restroom and keep reading,” Theis said. “One time I drove up and parked in front of the place, walked in, walked up on stage, asked the person who was up there doing something if I could read a poem, recited the poem off the top of my head, walked off the stage, got into my car and drove away.”
And sometimes acts formed on the spot.
“They had a piano,” Theis said, “and sometimes fellow poets and I would play the piano, even though we didn’t know how.”
That piano, which still occupies the stage at Vic’s, is a functional hinge between the open stage and the cafe’s decor of donated paintings from local artists and a hodge-podge of objects from yard sales and flea markets. The piano, an upright mottled with large bright-colored painted dots, is Rowe’s contribution to live entertainment at Vic’s.
“The piano I got at a thrift store for fifty bucks and refurbished it and painted it and it’s been here ever since,” Rowe said.
Rowe also donated the heavy punching bag that hangs in the women’s restroom. An inveterate pack rat, Rowe says he had the bag lying around among his yard sale finds and thought it might go well in the ladies’ room.
“I figured that if women have frustrations on guys – which I don’t blame them – they could go in there and just knock that thing around a little bit,” Rowe said.
The customers, including Nagy and his wife, Janelle, also have donated decorative pieces over the years.
“We would have a garage sale and if something didn’t sell, we’d bring it to Vic’s and we’d just stick it in there. We didn’t even tell Greg,” John Nagy said.
Among the donations the cafe has received are a bird cage, an angel that now stands in the small garden on Victorians’ back patio and a planter in the shape of an alien head, which a customer donated when Rowe opened Vic’s UFO Side Bar in the space adjoining the cafe in 2005. The planter now sits atop the bar.
“It’s our incense holder,” Rowe said.
Mark Stoll, Poetic Lic# COa241, holding an unlit cigarette
at Vic's Open Mic night May 23.
Then there’s the artwork. Victorians’ now houses countless paintings and murals, all donated by artists who have called Vic’s home. A hand-painted panorama of the New York City skyline graces the full length of the food counter. The UFO Side Bar boasts several canvases, including one featuring a green, oversized clenched hand thrusting across a deep purple background. John Nagy donated his own reinterpretation of Van Gogh’s The Night Cafe, a painting of a bar room with small groups of customers around a pool table. In Nagy’s painting, the pool table that was once a fixture at Vic’s stands under the watchful eye of a white-aproned Rowe.
“It’s all from artists who have come in and donated their time and energy,” Rowe said. “I’ve bought very little of it. They just did it because they like the place and they express themselves with it.”
The More Things Change
Along with the changes in the cafe’s appearance have come changes in its menu. Gone are the days of the slim list of coffee and pastries that made up Victorians’ original bill of fare. The customers wanted more, so Rowe gave it to them.
“Donuts and pastries and bagels we did pretty much from the very beginning, but I kept hearing people say, ‘Hey, do you guys have lunch?’ And then I’m thinking, okay, maybe I oughta start doing some sandwiches or something.
So Rowe introduced an Italian sub on the menu, a festival of Italian meats and cheeses stuffed into a nine-inch Auddino’s sub bun. A sandwich board placed in front of the cafe advertising “big-ass subs” generated no small amount of controversy among parents of students at nearby Fifth Avenue School.
“I got complaints about ‘ass’ being in the name,” Rowe said, “so then I called it ‘big fat subs,’ but that’s not the same. So then finally I just scrapped the whole idea. I didn’t want to have the people in the area mad at me because the kids walk down the sidewalk and see that sign.”
The sandwich board now lies hidden underneath Vic’s food counter, but Harris says customers still ask for the big-ass sub, one of the most popular items on Vic’s menu.
“Eat enough of those, and that’s what you’ll become: big-assed,” said Janelle Nagy. “It’s a wonderful sub.”
Despite the big-ass sub controversy, the menu kept expanding, all to satisfy customer demand.
Six String Savior
Listen to a mean guitar.
Listen while you drive your car.
Listen while you shop the mall.
Listen while you’re playing ball.
Six string saviors make my day.
Six string saviors really play.
Six string saviors play it all.
Six string saviors have a ball.
Carlos plays a Paul Reed Smith.
You know who he’s playing with.
Well, Santana, as they’re known.
California, that’s their home.
Perry plays a six string lead.
Fingers move at lightning speed.
They are known as Aerosmith.
Count the women they’ve been with.
Crosby, Stills and Nash and Young.
Every song that they have sung
They have done acoustic style.
Sit and listen for a while.
Springsteen had his Glory Days.
Hendrix had his Purple Haze.
Hank has lots of rowdy friends.
Hope the party never ends.
Nugent has a Stranglehold.
Heavy metal rock and roll.
Working hard and playing hard.
Heavy metal superstars.
Six string savior in my face.
Six string savior don’t play bass.
Six string savior, mighty loud.
Six string savior, mighty proud.
- Mark Stoll
“I kept hearing people say, ‘Do you have humus?’ So I got humus in here,” Rowe said. “Then with live entertainment, you have to have a cold beer to drink. So (I thought), now I gotta figure out a way to get some beer in here. So I did that, and then I applied for my wine license and got that.”
In addition to a breakfast menu boasting the standbys like eggs, bacon, sausage and toast, Vic’s now serves lunch and dinner platters of sandwiches and wraps, burgers, lasagna, and macaroni and cheese. Some of the dishes on the current menu also bear the personal stamp of Victorians’ employees. “Connie’s Grilled Cheese Sandwich” is Connie Harris’ creation of cheddar, Swiss and cream cheeses grilled up with jalapeno peppers. The “Original Klondisky” Reuben Sandwich is the nicknamesake of a former Victorians’ employee. On observing the employee in a klutzy moment at the cafe, Rowe called him – onomatopoeically – a “klondisky.” The name stuck, and came to grace the cafe’s Reuben sandwich.
“He thought he made the best Reuben,” Rowe said of “Klondisky.”
It wasn’t long before beer came to Victorians’, and with it, more revelry. After Rowe added beer to the menu in 2002, some of the regulars started a beer club, still in existence today. Members work their way through a menu of nearly 100 different kinds of beer. Only beers consumed on Sundays count toward beer club credit. Those who make their way through the entire list graduate from the club, receiving a free T-shirt and one free beer at Sunday beer club “meetings.” Rowe says 24 people have graduated from the Sunday Beer Club.
Janelle Nagy, the club’s eighth graduate, says some played fast and loose with club rules.
“There were some people who would go (to Victorians’ on) Saturday evening and Vic’s would be open late, and after midnight they would start drinking their beer club beers claiming it was Sunday,” Janelle Nagy said.
A Community Hub
But all events at Victorians’ are not solely for laughs. The place has a long history as a meeting point for community service and activism.
In the fall of 2005 and 2006, Victorians’ was host to two Adult Spelling Bees, both fundraisers for the Grandview Heights Public Library. Jill Moorhead, formerly marketing coordinator with the Grandview Heights Public Library, hired the Blue Forms Theatre Group to design the event and act as schtickmeisters at the event itself.
Moorhead says the spelling bees raised several hundred dollars each year for the library. But the stories from the events themselves are the stuff of legend among Vic’s regulars.
Vic's resident photographer and regular patron, Steave Scott, takes a break from analyzing angles.
In the 2005 spelling bee, contestants could choose words from certain categories like “Tolkien,” “Foreign Words That Sound Like Diseases,” and “Academic Bullshit.” Thomas R. Scott and Steave Scott, a father-son duo of self-proclaimed Tolkien experts and exotic word collectors, placed one-two in that bee, even though midway through the contest the judges, perceiving an unfair advantage, flagrantly did away with the Tolkien category.
“Steave and I got to the end with our knowledge of Tolkien. They abolished the category, but somehow I miraculously held on to the very end,” Thomas Scott said.
Thomas won the bee with “floccinocinihilipilification” (“pretentious sounding drivel”), which he calls a “famous rare word.”
At least once a year Victorians’ also becomes a classroom. Catherine Dison, a Wellington School English teacher and former Victorian Village resident, used to go to Victorians’ to grade papers. She thought the beatnik coffee house feel of Vic’s would add a dimension to her students’ understanding of poetry, and in 2002 started bringing her classes there on annual field trips. Dison teaches her students about the beat poets, but she sees reading poetry at Victorians’ not so much as an opportunity to teach literary history but as an example of a living tradition.
“It’s what real poets do today,” Dison said. “There are poetry readings that happen all the time. I show them videos of (Allen) Ginsburg and other poets reading their poetry, I play recordings of various poets reading their work, and we discuss how they read them.”
Dison requires her students to prepare one poem to read before the class at Vic’s and encourages them to do a little something extra. One of her students this year did interpretive dance while another student read a poem. Yet another student accompanied himself and other students on bongo drums.
“The students have responded well to going there,” Dison said.
Victorians’ also has been the site of many rallies and planning meetings for political activists. In 2003, Connie Harris organized a meet-up at Vic’s in protest to the invasion of Iraq, an event that Harris says drew over 350 people to the cafe in a single day. Vic’s also has hosted a number of events to raise awareness about election integrity.
In keeping with the tradition of grassroots political activism that goes hand-in-hand with the cafe’s clientele, a live streaming radio show hosted by Columbus Free Press publisher and political activist Bob Fitrakis will be broadcast June 17 from Victorians’ as part of the coffee house’s official tenth anniversary celebration. Fitrakis says plans are still being finalized for the broadcast, which will stream on radio.freepress.org. However, he hopes to conduct live on-air interviews of Victorians’ customers about their experiences at the cafe, and to have well-known political activists call in to the show and answer people’s questions.
“Essentially people would be asking about real world politics right from the audience,” Fitrakis said. “A real free flow of information. We figured if anyone could pull it off, it would be Vic’s.”
Emily Noble (right) enjoys the outdoor courtyard bar
with a special drink provided by Connie Harris.
Where Everybody Knows Your Name
Though many say the food, spirits and entertainment at Vic’s are good, they alone don’t keep the regulars coming back. The regulars become regulars because in this mixed bag of creative, unique individuals, they feel accepted and cared for.
“The best memory that I have from Vic’s was that Saturday mornings we would go in and a lot of times we would show up early. And we would sit there and drink coffee and talk to everybody there. You just show up and the people who were there would talk to you. They were just like family. That feel was why we kept going back to Vic’s,” Janelle Nagy said.
Rowe says even he doesn’t really understand how Vic’s came to have the comfortable feel it has.
“A lot of people really count on this place to come in and relax and just enjoy themselves,” Rowe said. “I can go to a bar in Columbus and I can sit there for two hours and never talk to anybody. In this place (Victorians’), if you sit here for two hours and don’t talk to somebody, there’s something wrong. For some reason it interacts. I don’t know why it’s like that. I can’t explain it.”
It may be that Rowe has a gift for bringing people together, and a gift for turning acquaintances into friends. Christening his regulars with nicknames like Klondisky, Neon Ron (who created the neon peace sign that hangs in Victorians’ front window) and Strongbow Dave, and introducing customers to each other are just a couple of ways Rowe brings his patrons into the fold.
“Greg stays out of it, but I think he instigates a lot of it,” John Nagy said. “He’ll introduce people to each other. I think he likes to see how people’s lives cross through the years.”
The Beginning of the End?
Though it seems Victorians’ Midnight Cafe is thriving, its days may be numbered. The cafe’s lease expires in 2010, and Rowe is noncommittal about what he hopes will happen then. He loves his customers but says keeping Vic’s afloat has been a challenge from the start.
“The more you expand, the more bills you have,” Rowe said. “The restaurant industry is tough. I probably wouldn’t do it again.”
Rowe says that if and when he does leave – or close? – Victorians’, he’d like to occupy a different role in the food industry.
“I like cookin’ breakfast,” Rowe said. “So I’d like to find a small town outside of Columbus, someplace rural, and just do breakfast for the farmers. Sounds kinda crazy, but that’s exactly what I want to do.”
But for some of Rowe’s customers a world without Vic’s is scarcely worth imagining. And for others, like those who have left Columbus, life without Victorians’ is a grim reality. The restaurant’s community spirit is evidently as rare in hangouts outside of Columbus as it is inexplicable, and it’s what has made Vic’s what it is today.
“It took me my whole life to find Vic’s,” said John Nagy. “We’ve found some nice places, but nothing like Vic’s. I think those kinds of places come along maybe once or twice in your lifetime.”
Victorians' Midnight Cafe, located at 251 W. 5th Avenue, is open 9 a.m. to 1 a.m. daily. A weekend celebration is planned June 15-17, 2007.
Call 614-299-2295. or visit www.victoriansmidnightcafe.com