A longtime patron pays his final respects to the Dube, a 78-year-old Campus institution.
In the faded color photograph,two slender men clad in black bow ties and crisp white short-sleeved shirts tucked into pressed gray trousers stand behind an expansive bar, which runs end-to-end through the image. One of them smiles diffidently while across the bar, college-age guys with short haircuts and close shaves sip from beer bottles.
I don't recognize the labels on those beer bottles in the photo, which was snapped decades ago and handed to me recently by Spiros “Steve” Margetis. I was told that the barmen captured by the camera are Steve's father and uncle. But that stout wooden bar and the round mirrors behind it—I'd recognize those anywhere. I've been right where those frozen-in-time college students in the picture are sitting, and I'm just one of thousands—perhaps hundreds of thousands—who have settled in over the years against that wooden bar at the Blue Danube.
Occupying a choice spot just north of the Ohio State University campus since it opened in 1940, the Blue Danube, or “the Dube” as it's long been affectionately known, fostered and embraced a reputation as an unconventional hangout for generations of students, area denizens and excitable fans visiting Ohio Stadium. Originally a fine-dining destination serving lobster thermidor, filet mignon and caviar while strolling musicians provided entertainment, the landmark restaurant retained its vintage, wood-everywhere interior as it gradually morphed into a counterculture-friendly dive bar and diner renowned for meatloaf, turkey with mashed potatoes and French fries—all swamped in gravy (making the fries “Dube Wets”). Any primly dressed bartenders departed long ago.
Simply put, for countless people with OSU ties, eating inexpensive food and drinking cheap booze in the worn, blast-from-the-past confines of the quirky Dube—where the jukebox was as liable to play Sonic Youth as Frank Sinatra and Miles Davis—became a happy pastime, even a rite of passage.
It's a ritual that future generations likely won't experience. Last month the owners announced that this icon practically synonymous with the corner of High Street and Blake Avenue—this eccentric establishment rife with personality newer places can't fake—would soon close.
What's in a Name?
“I'll be sad to see it go,” Dube owner Bob Swaim tells me when we meet for a mid-May interview in the restaurant, which is packed with nostalgic, last-chance fans shortly after the news broke of its possible closing. A classical music lover who rarely drinks alcohol, Swaim is suitably dressed in funereal black as he fields multiple phone calls regarding the death of the Dube. Throughout our chat, Swaim—whose ringtone is Johann Strauss's soothing “Blue Danube Waltz”—remains courteous, but he doesn't seem happy.
Apparently, the termination of his lease with landlord Steve Margetis is a contentious issue. Swaim tells me that when he signed his original lease with Margetis Investments in 1995 and purchased what had been the Margetis family's restaurant,Swaim had an informal agreement to buy the property the Dube occupied sometime in the future. That never happened.
Lingering acrimony over the sale's failure to materialize seems to have played a role in the dissolution of Swaim's and Margetis' business relationship. This in turn has led to talk about “Dube-licate” new businesses opening soon—one possibly owned by Swaim in a different location and one possibly owned by Margetis on the original site, claiming to be the Dube, the Danube Kitchen + Bar or something else.
“I own the name and everything in here. The only thing I don't own is the walls,” says Swaim. Included in these possessions, Swaim maintains, are the Dube's remarkable ceiling tiles.
With a Jackson Pollock knockoff here, a color-saturated Tweedledee and Tweedledum there and “The Dube Rules” written above a blue guitar against a red field way back there, the tile squares form a gloriously mad mosaic of mismatched artworks painted by mostly talented patrons who once paid $3 to leave their mark on the place (Tom Sawyer had nothing on the Dube). The two tiles, Swaim proudly points out, that say, “Will you marry me?” were used in successful marriage proposals.
Swaim says that he's had offers to move the Dube into a building closer to Campus. He then pauses and turns philosophical.
“I wonder if the expense and effort are worth it at my age,” he says, declining to reveal the exact number, although he appears to be of a similar vintage to the Dube. “Besides, a name doesn't make a place. It took 78 years to get this Dube, and it'll take 78 more years to get another one like it.”
Remembrance of Things Past
As an Ohio State physics major who had most of my classes on north campus, I spent countless hours in the Dube. Like many others, I continued to frequent the cheeky establishment long after college exams were relegated to an uneasy part of my dreamlife.
One Dube visit for a nightcap or three after a Dinosaur Jr. concert resulted in the first unofficial date with the person who would later become my wife. Her father had been fond of the Dube back in his day, too, she'd tell me. We bought a house in the neighborhood several years ago; I've lived much of my life within a 20-minute walk of the Dube.
“When I heard the rumor that the Dube was closing, my first reaction was disbelief,” says my friend Dave Filipi, the director of film and video at OSU's Wexner Center for the Arts.
Like me, he frequently pops in before or after arts and sporting events, and meeting at the Dube on football Saturdays is our fall tradition. One of those meet-ups last year coincided with him taking his young daughter to her first Ohio State game. “When the great filmmaker Thom Anderson—who taught at OSU years earlier—visited the Wexner Center about 20 years ago, he insisted I take him to the Dube,” Filipi tells me. “I remember him saying it hadn't changed.”
No wonder Filipi calls the Dube an “irreplaceable part of neighborhood history.”
And there's a lot of history. Take the signature wooden bar, for example. The original succumbed mysteriously to an errant cigar; we have Wisconsin football fans who lost a bet on an OSU game to thank for building this one. As record-peddler and local punk-rock legend Ron House tells me, this bar would later double as a dance floor for high-spirited servers and visitors.
House also points out that the Dube, long known as a preferred watering hole for musicians (a prominence that peaked when the storied music club, Stache's, was still across the street), has hosted scores of performers in its time, from Donovan to Pearl Jam.
Too bad the music now associated with the Dube is its own swan song.
In late May, the Dube abruptly closed. A sign on the door cited staffing shortages. A week later, it reopened—with limited hours. The unpredictability only underscored the fact that, barring a miracle, the clock was winding down on this long-familiar iteration of the campus haunt.
“Time moves on and things do invariably change,” Filipi says. “But our neighborhoods and the city as a whole suffer when we lose places like the Dube. Development across the city seems pretty unchecked at the moment. What else are we losing?”
Filipi's sentiments are echoed by University Area Commissioner Rory Krupp. Via email, Krupp writes, “We're slowly draining any local flavor. It's Neighborhood 101: We're losing our authenticity at a time when that's supposed to be the most valuable commodity.”
It's possible, talking to Steve Margetis, to believe that the Dube (name change or not) will triumphantly rise again.
“People will hate me if I let the place go away. So the Dube isn't going away. This is about my heritage,” Margetis says. “I want the Dube to be renovated, but still be the same—at least as much as possible.”
Showing me a diagram from an architect he's consulted depicting a replacement for the Dube that preserves the distinct building's general exterior character, Margetis says he won't know what the new interior will be like until he sees what remains of the previous interior, if anything, when he reclaims the restaurant. From a kitchen standpoint, Margetis envisions the new eatery offering a similar, but smaller menu that will include the Greek dishes showcased when his family ran the place.
As the 54-year-old waxes nostalgic about days when his family operated the Dube, his passion seems as materially real as the classic black leather jacket draped over his desk chair on that warm afternoon. When Margetis imagines the restaurant's reboot, his words swell with the kind of promise written on the face of a young, defiantly self-assured Keith Richards glaring from an old poster that graces his office wall. I want to believe it all.
Margetis acknowledges, however, that the “hows” and “whens” and “how muches” of a new Dube are still unknown. The roof, kitchen, plumbing, interior and whimsical midnight-blue exterior mural of the Danube River all need to be repaired, he says.
Shaking his head, Margetis says he's had offers to buy the restaurant. A sale might ease a lot of his headaches, but could leave the legacy of the Dube in jeopardy. And he clearly appreciates the value of that legacy. “I'd love to reopen sometime during football season, but I wonder if that's realistic,” he muses. The only thing Margetis can guarantee, he confides, is that he'll be changing the locks on the building June 30.
Every Picture Tells a Story
In late May, I make the walk to visit the Dube for maybe the last time. Seated at the bar, I meet Rachel Frye, 32, the bar manager at City Tavern and a Dube regular since she moved to Columbus 10 years ago. She is enjoying the steak and eggs, her favorite Dube brunch, when I ask if she'll miss the place. Frye momentarily pauses, stops smiling and says: “I might cry into my eggs.”
I soak in the oddly spaced interior once more, trying to burn it to memory. There is that long, circuitous path diners are forced to traverse to get to the bathrooms because the host/servers station was positioned in the rear of the restaurant. And those unevenly sized, red-padded wooden booths—some huge but hard to scoot into, others cramped and wobbly. And all of it surrounded by those low-rent, wood-paneled walls that are such an endearing part of the Dube's fashionably unfashionable identity.
On my way out, I pause near the antique wooden phone booth and aim my 21st-century smartphone camera at the far end of the bar. When I check the resulting image, I am startled by how similar it is to the photo taken all those years ago that Steve Margetis showed me.
The prospect of all this vanishing conjures a quote from Eudora Welty: “A good snapshot keeps a moment from running away.” The words, which once seemed trite to me, are suddenly poignant and almost consoling. But if a last Dube brunch plate was in front of me, I might cry into my eggs, too.