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The Model for Every Bar I’ve Ever Loved

What does the bar by which we judge all other bars look like today? In “Deep Dive,” we send writers back to their college haunts to find out what treasures they still hold. Up now: Keith Pandolfi hits Tony's Tavern in Athens, Ohio.

Tonys Tavern Athens

It’s graduation weekend in Athens, Ohio. And as I sit on my stool watching Ohio University students in rain-soaked, wrinkled gowns arrive with proud parents for celebratory drinks at Tony’s Tavern, it’s not lost on me that it’s been 25 years to the week since I graduated. I came back a few times in my 20s—the last visit during a bachelor party when I was 26—but I seldom return. I feel like a ghost whenever I do.

The man sitting next to me orders a bourbon on the rocks and a long neck of Stroh’s. He’s older than I am, with a wrinkled button-down shirt, gray hair and kind eyes. He reminds me of photos of the singer Loudon Wainwright when he’s sad. “They started brewing Stroh’s again?” I ask him, and without looking at me, he mutters that they never stopped. Realizing my conversation starter is a dud, I scoot down to the end of the bar to get a better view of the baseball game on TV. The Indians are losing to the Yankees. I’ve lived in New York for 15 years now, but I’m rooting for Cleveland. I always root for Ohio.

Tony’s is more of a neighborhood bar than a college one—an affable mix of locals, alumni and low-key students that I always thought of as a refuge from the white-baseball-capped frat boy bars around the corner. It was, and still is, owned by Tony Sylvester, who came to Athens in 1979 to work at the local Ponderosa, and eventually ended up opening, in 1982, what he hoped would become the platonic ideal of a neighborhood bar. Today, there are battered wood-paneled walls, backroom dartboards and memorials to old customers and managers. Back in the early ’90s, the place reminded me of “The Brick” from Northern Exposure, a show I would sometimes watch over bong hits and beers at my friend Missy’s house, before heading to Tony’s for the night.

It’s the archetype of every bar I’ve fallen in love with since college. And the reason I appreciate “good bones” places like Old Town Bar in New York and Molly’s at the Market in New Orleans—bars that, like Tony’s, draw young and old, newcomers and hardcore regulars; where the music navigates the generations respectfully, with a Johnny Cash song here, a Van Halen song there. Tony’s isn’t a dive; it’s just a great, reliable bar, even if nobody knows your name.

It also reminds me of the suburban sports bar where my father drank when I was a kid, where he sometimes took me to watch Reds games over burgers, onion rings and red plastic cups of Coke. After he died suddenly at end of my sophomore year, Tony’s gave me a place to pull up a stool, assume his same terrible posture while hovering over a beer and commune with him.

I think about this as I wait for my friends, Adam and Carrie, to arrive from Cincinnati, about three hours west of the bar. We all ended up at Ohio University at different times in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Adam’s father died young, too, and we officially became friends when, during the school’s annual “Dad’s Weekend,” I drove him, as well as two other fatherless students, back to Cincinnati in my Camry, which we referred to as the Dead Dad Express. Sometimes, when Adam and I talked about our fathers over a few Newcastles at Tony’s, it felt like they were sitting right next to us.

At 5 p.m., the three of us grab a booth and order a couple pitchers of Jackie O’s. Adam says he wishes he’d slept with more women in college; I tell him I wish I’d slept with less. Carrie, tired of hearing us have the same exact conversation every time we see each other, takes on the role of an embarrassed senior hanging out with two freshmen. I have to convince Adam, for about the 50th time, that I never slept with his ex-girlfriend in college, but a man interrupts the conversation, offering us some sautéed morel mushrooms he picked in his backyard. Several older customers are wearing flowery hats in celebration of Derby Day. At one point, the three of us drunkenly cheer our chosen horses only to find that we’re watching a recap, and that a horse named Justify has already won.

Later in the evening, after we’ve filled our bellies with burgers and more beer at Jackie O’s Brewpub, we end up back at a packed Tony’s, where we order the house favorite called the Hot Nut—a simple combination of warm coffee and hazelnut liqueur. I swear I remember drinking them all the time when I was in college, but when Adam buys us a round we all wonder if we’ve ever had one before. We go out back where Carrie lights up a cigarette. She doesn’t really smoke, but she’s basking in the days when she could. When she asks if I want one, I decline. “You used to smoke with me,” she says. “I tell her I refrain these days since I’m now the exact same age my father was when he died. She pulls out a set of keys and starts carving our initials on the wall. All we can come up with is “K.A.C. Rock.”

The night starts to wind down, and our age catches up to us. I head over to the booth where our group used to sit in college and give it a long stare. It’s the last place I sat at Tony’s before leaving for Cincinnati after graduation. I was stoned and drunk, feeling disoriented and worried as to where—if anywhere—a BA in English might take me. I ended up spending two years living with my mother and stepfather on a golf course in rural Clermont County, Ohio, before moving to D.C. for a job on Capitol Hill; I quit within three months. After that I went back home and worked at a Starbucks until I was 28. I eventually moved to New Orleans and then New York, where I finally put my degree to use as a writer. While Adam and Carrie married and had kids in their 20s, I got married at 42 and had my first kid at 45. If I could do it all over again, I’d do it like they did.

Adam calls me back over to the bar for a round of Newcastles. I’d like to say that I am feeling nostalgic, but I’d be lying if I did. I’m just grateful that we’re still young enough to create new memories at a beloved old bar. And grateful to not feel like a ghost anymore.

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Keith Pandolfi is a James Beard Award-winning writer and editor. His work can be found in publications including the Wall Street Journal, Saveur, Cooking Light, and The New York Times Magazine. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and daughter.