Behind Bars: India Oak Grill

Erica Thompson
Sarah Williams and Jen Lattanzio at India Oak Grill

Operating a bar or restaurant without liquor is a risky endeavor, but it's one Clintonville business owners have faced over the years in the area's dry and partially dry precincts. India Oak Grill was no exception. When Karen Gill purchased the restaurant with her husband and his brothers in 2005, they were only permitted to sell beer.

“The first year was pretty much a struggle,” Gill said. “You lose out on a lot of people.”

Eventually, Gill obtained the precinct votes needed to serve spirits and made other changes to the bar. She extended the patio and menu, which includes an Italian sub proclaimed to be the “best sub in Clintonville.” She also kept the Wednesday night euchre tournaments going for as long as she could.

“You know when that stopped? As soon as the [Ohio] smoking ban went in,” she said.

Gill also hired Assistant Manager Jen Lattanzio and bartender Sarah Williams, who grew up on the same street where the bar is located, Oakland Park Avenue. “This bar looks exactly the same as it looked when I came here when I was like 5 [years old],” said Williams, now 40.

The history of India Oak Grill in its present location goes back approximately 40 years. You can't immediately tell the building once housed an automated car wash until the setup is explained. The old pay window by the entrance now looks into the kitchen, and cars would enter through the present-day stage area and exit through what is now the walk-in cooler.

Like many old bars, India Oak has longtime patrons who can rattle off more details than the current owners. According to Mike, who called himself one of the “originals,” the bar had four owners prior to Gill. And it was, at one time, a general store called Hollies, and located across the street.

Although Gill considers India Oak Clintonville's “best kept secret,” as it's somewhat hidden behind the UDF, new development in the area has brought in more traffic. So it's not unusual to see 20-year-olds and families among the older regulars.

People also come in religiously to watch football on “Buckeye Saturdays.” And there's always a large turnout for the St. Patrick's Day celebration, which includes bagpipe players, Irish step dancers and special menu items like corned beef and cabbage soup.

Live music shows at the bar — free except on St. Patrick's Day — are also popular, especially when the Moonbats are playing.

“[The] first Saturday night I ever worked here … it was a Moonbats night,” Lattanzio said. “It was exciting for me because it made me say, ‘Wow, people love this place and this band is awesome. I might stick around.'”